11 Women You Didn’t Know Revolutionized the World of Science
From a golden-age Hollywood actress to the first American Indian female physician.
August 9th is National Women’s Day.
Throughout history, women have proven time and time again that they can achieve just about anything they set their minds to, from charting off into space, like Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova to discovering radium and polonium, like Polish-French physicist Marie Curie. Women in space and STEM deserve to be honored for their intellect, character, and courage to change the world of science, especially when they’re often faced with discrimination in male-dominated industries.
Thankfully, history is littered with women who made noteworthy discoveries, but some of them have sadly been forgotten as time progressed—or have the credit of their discoveries be given to men. Each of the 11 women below paved the way for greater things in the areas of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). From a Hollywood leading lady to women who were the first of their kind in their field, check out these badass women who changed the course of science and technology forever.
Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)
Hedy Lamarr was the epitome of both beauty and brains, but unfortunately, the Austrian-born American movie star never truly got the recognition she deserved (sadly, you’ll find this to be a recurring theme for all the women). Per Women’s History’s website, Lamarr was born in Vienna, Austria, on November 9, 1914, and went into the film industry at the ripe age of 16, after fleeing a rather unpleasant marriage and the Nazis.
While there, she met inventor and renowned eccentric Howard Hughes, someone who would prove to be a catalyst for her passion to invent. However, after meeting a composer named George Antheil, investing the system that would form the basis for today’s WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth systems. It was called ” frequency hopping,” and permitted a radio guidance transmitter to simultaneously hop from frequency to frequency. Sadly, it wouldn’t be until 2007 that she would be nationally credited for her “frequency hopping” technology, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
Augusta Ada King, The Countess of Lovelace
Augusta Ada King is credited with being the first computer programmer (talk about major #girlpower). According to Britannica, her ladyship was born on December 10, 1815, in London to Annabella Milbanke Bryon and the well-known poet Lord Bryon (you know, the guy that wrote Don Juan).
Early on, King received private tutoring (as was the custom of the aristocracy at the time) but later on went into the study of advanced mathematics at the hands of mathematician-logician Augustus De Morgan. It wasn’t until she met Charles Babbage (known as the “father of the computer,” according to Cue Math) in 1833 that things really start changing for her. So what was it that she did that was so noteworthy? Per Cue Math, she is thought to be the first woman to write the world’s first computer program (aka computer algorithm). Feel free to thank her for indirectly creating your laptops, tablets, and phones.
Joan Clarke, MBE
Joan Clarke will probably be one of those women who history will never truly get to know due to the work that she did on the Enigma ciphers during WWII. Her important work saved so many countless lives that she was awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) appointment for helping Alan Turning and his squad crack the seemingly impenetrable secret communications of the Nazis, per Scientific Women’s website.
Clarke, who was an enigma herself as a female codebreaker, was the only woman to work on the team that cracked the German Enigma ciphers, per BBC. Why was decoding the ciphers so important? They were the messages that Germans would relay to the U-boats (aka submarines) that were sinking Allied ships crossing the Atlantic from the United States to Europe. Keira Knightly portrayed Clarke in the Academy Award-winning movie The Imitation Game, alongside Benedict Cumberbatch and Downton Abbey’s Matthew Goode and Allen Leech.
It’s safe to say that not many folks can claim what Ynes Mexia can, but when you’ve discovered as much as she has—and in the short amount of time that she did—there is no other place for you other than the Hall of Fame.
According to New York Botanical Garden, Mexia was a Mexican-Amerian botanist and explorer who was born on May 24, 1870, in Washington, D.C. While she is a renowned botanical collector in her field, she didn’t become it until she was in her 50s (a sign that it’s never too late to reinvent yourself). In 1925, Mexia set out on her first collecting trip and the rest was history, according to National Park Service. In only 13 years, she collected over 145,000 specimens of plants, discovered a new genus of plants (aka a new plant family), and categorized over 500 plants.
Helia Bravo Hollis, MS, Ph.D. (honorary)
Also known as “Maestra Bravo” (via JSTOR), Helia Bravo Hollis brought forth many bodies of scientific work—but the study that put her on the map was her study of cacti in Mexico. Early in her career, she was considered a pioneer within the study of protozoa (the study of single-celled organisms, per the Microbiology Society) alongside her former professor Isaac Ochonterena from 1921 to 1929.
Throughout the 1930s and beyond, she went on to publish 170 scientific articles, two books, define 60 taxa (aka organism classifications), conduct 59 taxonomic revisions, receive the Cactus d’Or from the International Succulents Organisation, an honorary doctorate, and have two genus, six species, and a subspecies named in her honor.
Carolyn Parker, MS
Carolyn Parker, MS, did a number of many things throughout her life, but the accolades that shine the brightest are her work on WWII’s Manhattan Project as well as becoming the first African American woman to receive a graduate degree in Physics, according to Forbes.
Parker, who was born on November 18, 1917, came from a long line of intellectuals (her father was a doctor, her siblings were all scientists, and her aunt was the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in geology), according to the UNC School of Medicine. In addition to her graduate degree in Physics, she also had a Master’s degree in Mathematics—both degrees would later prove useful for her work on the creation of the atomic bomb that was used in WWII. Parker had been recruited to work on the Dayton Project (a subdivision of the Manhattan Project) and was tasked with studying polonium (which was discovered by another STEM queen Marie Curie). Unfortunately, the extent of her work on the Dayton and Manhattan Projects will not see the light of day as it is highly classified.
Evangelina Villegas, MS, Ph.D.
When Evangelina Villegas first walked through the doors of the National Polytechnic Institue of Mexico, chances are that she didn’t suspect just how far-reaching her work as a plant biochemist and breeder would go. According to ChemEurope, she first began her work as a chemist and researcher in 1950 at what would one day become the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and went on to create the Wheat Industrial Quality Chemical Laboratory in 1957.
Why is this important? While working at that lab, she made some of her biggest breakthroughs—the biggest being her work on QPM (aka quality protein maize, according to CIMMYT). Along with her colleague Dr. Surinder Vasel, they were able to increase the number of nutrients that were found in corn. The CIMMYT cites that because of this breakthrough, developing communities across the world that suffer from malnutrition would have a chance at combating it with food that increased the nutrients they consumed.
Mary G. Ross, MS
NASA refers to Mary G. Ross as another “hidden figure” in a long line of women who helped the United States Space Program progress. Ross, who was an American Indian and a member of the Cherokee Nation, was a mathematician and engineer who became known for many of her theoretical works that assisted with the advancement of things like “interplanetary space travel, manned space flight, ballistic missiles, and satellites in orbit above the earth,” according to the National Park Service.
In addition to this, she was also the first American Indian woman to receive a certification in engineering from the University of California Los Angeles after her bosses were impressed with her work during WWII at the aircraft company Lockheed Corporation. She was also one of the founding members of Lockheed’s classified advanced development program Skunk Works.
Rosalind Franklin, Ph.D.
Because of the British-born Rosalind Franklin, the groundwork for the crucial discovery of the composition of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal, and graphite was made possible. Much like Hedy Lamarr, her contributions were undermined and mostly forgotten, according to Nature Education.
Franklin, who was born on July 25, 1920, studied physics and chemistry at Cambridge University, where she was awarded a fellowship to conduct physical chemistry research. Unfortunately, this was cut short due to WWII and she transitioned to working for the British Coal Utilisation Research Association investigating the chemical composition of both carbon and coal, according to Britannica.
While at King’s College, she worked on determining the structure of DNA. Sadly, her unpublished work was seen by Francis Crick and James Watson (by way of her “rival” Maurice Wilkins) thus furthering their research on the topic and earning them the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. It wasn’t until after her untimely passing from ovarian cancer at the age of 37 that Crick credited her findings with being crucial to their discovery.
Alice Ball, MS
In a similar fashion to many of the women on this list, Alice Ball was another “hidden figure” that history tucked away. But, if it wasn’t for Ball’s “Ball Method,” folks suffering from Hansen’s disease (aka leprosy) wouldn’t have been able to reverse what was considered at the time a death sentence.
Ball, who was born on July 24, 1892, was the first woman and first African American to graduate with a Master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Hawaii as well as the first woman to teach chemistry in the university’s history. While there, she was able to develop the world’s first injectable leprosy treatment using the oil from the chaulmoogra tree (the oil was being used topically to treat the disease but would produce mixed results).
Sadly, Ball passed away at 24 and was unable to publish her work leading Dr. Arthur Dean to continue her research into the treatment and take full credit for her discovery. Thanks to Dr. Harry T. Hollmann, the person who had encouraged her to study chaulmoogra tree oil, she was able to receive proper credit.
Susan La Flesche, MDhttps://www.instagram.com/p/CMiBNOFH3WU/
Oftentimes, there is a singular moment in a person’s life that dictates the course of their life. For Susan La Flesche, it would be the moment she watched a fellow Ohama American Indian woman pass away because an Anglo doctor would not give her care. Whether she knew it or not, this moment would propel her life down a path of advocating for overall public health and respect for her people.
La Flesche attended the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1889 and became the first American Indian female physician working up to 75 hour weeks (day and night) in an effort to provide proper care for her tribe. Not only was she saving the lives of countless people who lived on the reservation, but she also organized campaigns that sought to teach tribe members about temperance, proper hygiene (communal drinking was a big thing back then which is bad for people and good for the spread of tuberculosis), and even built her own hospital.