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While famous scientists like Marie Curie and Jane Goodall were eventually recognized for their contributions in their respective fields, a substantial number of female scientists throughout history have been overlooked simply due to their gender. Here are eight female scientists who never received credit for their discoveries in their lifetime.
Alice Ball, Chemist
Born in 1892 in Seattle, Washington, Alice Ball broke many barriers before she died at the age of 24. She studied chemistry at the University of Hawaii, where she became the first woman and Black American to obtain both her Master’s degree as well as a professorship at the university’s chemistry department.
While there, Ball studied the properties of chaulmoogra oil, which was a promising treatment for leprosy at the time but difficult to use due to its chemical makeup. Ball developed an injectable form that isolated the active ingredients, rendering a more effective treatment, but she died from an unknown illness before she could publish her findings.
Another scientist took credit for her work, and it would take close to 90 years after Ball’s death that the University of Hawaii would officially acknowledge her scientific contributions and declare February 29 as “Alice Ball Day.”
Maria Merian, Entomologist & Scientific Illustrator
Born in Germany in 1647, naturalist Maria Merian had an unusual interest in insects, specifically butterflies, which were considered an unworthy and repulsive subject to study at the time. Still, Merian observed and took copious notes on their life cycle by observing them directly. Despite her significant discoveries about insect metamorphosis, her findings were dismissed by scientists, largely due to the fact she wrote in German rather than Latin, which was the designated language of science.
Merian also surprised many in the scientific community when, in 1699, she traveled to South America to observe, record and illustrate insects and plants that had never been seen before. Years later, she would go on to publish Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, based on her unofficial expedition.
Merian’s scientific discoveries and paintings of the natural world would make her one of the leading entomologists and scientific illustrators of her lifetime. Her classifications are still used today.
Mary Anning, Fossil hunter & Paleontologist
Born in England in 1799, Mary Anning became a fossil hunter in her youth to help bring in income for her family. At the age of 12, Anning discovered several fossils off the cliffs of her native Dorset that would change the course of science: She unearthed a fossil of an ichthyosaur and two plesiosaur skeletons. Her observations on these prehistoric animals would change the way scientists approached the origins of natural history. In fact, her work would lay the foundation for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Many scientists throughout Europe and America would seek her consultation in matters of prehistoric anatomy and fossils, but because she was female, she was neither allowed to pursue a career in science nor eligible to join the Geological Society of London.
“The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone,” Anning wrote in a letter.
It would take many years after Anning’s passing in 1847 that she would be recognized for significant contributions to science.
Nettie Maria Stevens, Geneticist
Born in 1861, American geneticist Nettie Maria Stevens devoted her career to studying the life of beetles. In 1905 she observed that male beetles produced two types of sperm, one that carried a large chromosome, while the other, a small chromosome. When fertilized with a female egg, the large chromosome would produce female offspring and the small chromosome would produce male offspring.
Having noticed these chromosome differences applied to humans as well as other animals, Stevens developed the concept of the X-Y determination system, which stated that female offspring were determined by two large sex chromosomes (XX) and male offspring by a large and small sex chromosome (XY). Around this time, fellow geneticist Edmund Beecher Wilson also discovered the same findings in his independent research, but because Stevens was a female, she was discriminated against and thus, Wilson received all the credit.
Henrietta Leavitt, Astronomist
Born in 1868 in Massachusetts, astronomist and Radcliffe College student Henrietta Leavitt was hired as a “computer,” a term used to describe female astronomers employed to analyze data for Harvard College Observatory. Leavitt’s boss, Edward Charles Pickering, gave her the assignment to measure and record stars whose brightness would turn on and off at specific intervals.
After cataloging over 2,400 stars, Leavitt discovered the relationship between luminosity and the period of a specific kind of variable stars called the Cepheids. This discovery helped astronomers see the universe in an entirely different way — both by helping measure the distance to other galaxies and understanding the universe’s scale. In fact, many years after Leavitt’s death, astronomer Edwin Hubble used her discovery to help establish his observations — known as Hubble’s law — which states that the universe is continuously expanding.
Lise Meitner, Nuclear Physics
Born in 1878 in Vienna, Austrian physicist Lise Meitner was the first woman to acquire a professorial title in Germany, where she dedicated most of her professional career.
Working with fellow scientists Otto Hahn and Otto Robert Frisch, Meitner was part of a small group who discovered nuclear fission, which was a process that would later help develop nuclear weapons (the kind the U.S. used against Japan during World War II) and generate electricity.
In the 1930s Meitner not only had to endure gender discrimination in the workplace but also the larger threat of ethnic cleansing. She lost many prestigious academic positions due to anti-Jewish laws enforced by the Nazis and ultimately fled to Sweden for her safety, gaining dual citizenship status.
Although she received many distinguished awards later in her life, Meitner never partook in the Nobel Peace Prize in Chemistry in 1944, which was given exclusively to her fellow scientist Hahn, who was credited for having discovered nuclear fission. Many scientists would later cite Meitner’s exclusion by the Nobel Committee to be “unjust.”
Rosalind Franklin, Chemist & Molecular Biologist
Born in 1920 in London, Rosalind Franklin was a chemist, X-ray crystallographer and leading molecular biologist who discovered the structure of DNA.
In 1951 Franklin became a research associate at King’s College in London where she used X-ray crystallography techniques on DNA. A year later Franklin achieved her most critical work, capturing an image of the molecule’s structure, identifying it as Photo 51.
While doing her research, however, she grew into a contentious relationship with her colleague Maurice Wilkins, which inspired her to leave King’s College and continue her work at Birkbeck College.
Unbeknownst to Franklin, Wilkins took Photo 51 and shared it with Francis Crick and James Watson, who used her research to publish their double-helix theory of DNA. After publishing their work in 1953, Franklin would publish her own separate research on the same theory shortly thereafter. However, her manuscript was dismissed as merely confirming her male colleagues’ discovery.
In 1958 Franklin died from ovarian cancer at 37, never knowing her research was stolen. Four years later, Wilkins, Crick and Watson would go on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for their double-helix theory of DNA. Watson would later author the book, The Double Helix, in which he continued to credit himself and his male colleagues for their award-winning discovery and went on to describe Franklin as an antagonistic and overly emotional woman.
Esther Lederberg, Microbiologist
Born in 1922, Bronx-born scientist Esther Lederberg was never recognized for her contributions to the field of microbiology and genetics, including the discovery of lambda phage, replica plating and the bacterial fertility factor F.
For Lederberg, her lack of recognition was especially personal since her first husband, famed molecular biologist Joshua Lederberg, was receiving all the credit for discoveries the two made together. In fact, the couple’s research led to Joshua winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1958.
As a female scientist of the 1950s and 60s, Lederberg was unable to escape the rampant gender discrimination that permeated every facet of American society. Even in the realm of academia, she had to fight to obtain a research associate professor position at Stanford (which she was overqualified for) and many years later, was demoted from Senior Scientist to Adjunct Professor without tenure; in contrast, her husband rose up the university’s ranks, becoming chairman of the Department of Genetics.
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