How Historical Women in STEM Shaped Our Past, Present, and Future

How Historical Women in STEM Shaped Our Past, Present, and Future

Happy March!

March, we’re very proud to say, is Women’s History Month, and the past couple of weeks have given us a chance to reflect on some of our personal historical heroines, especially women in STEM. As a registered B Corporation, an LGBT Certified business, and a woman owned business, Women’s History Month is pretty close to our hearts. And as a digital marketing agency nestled snugly in Silicon Valley, we have a lot to say about the very real gender disparity in the STEM fields.

To that end, we wanted to share some of our heroines, in particular notable women who had an impact on the STEM fields, or who worked to break down some of the barriers that have historically prevented or invalidated female participation in scientific endeavors.

#1 Hypatia (ca.350 – 415 CE)

Born around the middle of the 4th century, Hypatia lived and worked at Alexandria, in Egypt, then a part of what we know as the Eastern Roman Empire. Though none of her own writings have survived (despite the fact that she wrote prolifically), we know of her work from other accounts and from her pervasive impact on academia.

Hypatia was a brilliant mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer, teaching the latter two at the Neoplatonic School (essentially the local university) becoming director of the school in about the year 400. According to the historian Damascius, writing about a century later, she was known to walk about the city in a Philosopher’s cloak, giving impromptu lectures.  She was murdered in March of 415 by a fanatical mob of Christian monks, but her death shocked the empire. She was recognized as a martyr for philosophy and enlightened conduct, and was very likely the inspiration for the Saint Catherine of Alexandria.

#2. Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace (1815 – 1852)

An English mathematician and writer often referred to more simply as Ada Lovelace, she is best known for her work in 1842-43. Her Notes following her translation of the work of military engineer Luigi Menabrea describing Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine include what is generally regarded as the very first computer program.

While Babbage had intended his Engine to be a simple calculation machine, Lovelace realized the computational utility of such a mechanism and devised a series of algorithms to produce results well beyond the rote number-crunching her peers had envisioned.

While it’s less frequently discussed, Lovelace had a mind for political science, and much of her work explored the nascent interplay between technology and society.

#3. Savitribai Phule (1831 – 1897)

Savitribai, along with her husband Jyotirao Phule, worked to eradicate unjust treatment and discrimination based on caste or gender during the late 19th Century, while India was still under British rule. Phule founded the first girls’ school in Pune (then called Poona) to be run by the indigenous population of India at Bhide Wada in 1848, and served as the school’s first teacher. In total, Phule opened 18 schools, and provided education to anyone regardless of caste.

In 2015, in her honor, the University of Pune was renamed to Savitribai Phule Pune University.

#4. Marie Curie (1867 – 1934)

Curie is the only woman in history to win two Nobel Prizes, first in Physics, in 1903 (the same year she was awarded her doctorate from the University of Paris), then again for Chemistry in 1911. Eventually the director of the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the University of Paris (founded 1914, largely spurred by Curie’s second Nobel Prize) Curie was tireless in her pursuit of science, and radiation in particular. Such was her dedication that even today, Curie’s papers and even a favorite cookbook are stored in lead-lined boxes, too radioactive to be handled safely.

#5. Elsie MacGill (1905- 1980)

Elsie MacGill, the “Queen of the Hurricanes” was the world’s first female aeronautical engineer, and designer of the Hawker Hurricane fighter plane during the Second World War. A celebrity of her age, MagGill used her clout to push for women’s rights and equal treatment post-war, eventually serving as one of the seven commissioners of the 1970 Canadian Royal Commission on the Status of Women.

This Commission pushed one hundred and sixty seven recommendations for the establishment of equal rights and opportunities regardless of gender, but MagGill went a step further, filing an extra report of her own, which advocated several more controversial recommendations, including free access to abortions in Canada.

#6. Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964)

A marine biologist by trade, Carson shifted gears in the 1950s and became a full-time writer. Her best-selling book, the award-winning The Sea Around Us was enormously well received, and its success pushed her toward the cause for which she is known: environmental conservation and activism. Her book Silent Spring led the charge against DDT, and is largely credited with setting in motion the eventual creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

#7. Chien-Shiung Wu (1912 – 1997)

A Chinese American experimental physicist and member of the Manhattan Project, Wu’s work helped to develop the process by which Uranium-235 isotopes were separated from Uranium-238 (or, put another way, the wheat was cut from the chaff). Her “Wu Experiment” was also the first to unambiguously solve the handedness problem at the level of particle physics (basically, demonstrating a mathematical proof for directionality in particles. It may not sound like much, but most modern physics couldn’t have been built without it.). Though Wu’s colleagues were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1957, largely on the heels of her own discoveries, Wu was eventually awarded the inaugural Wolf Prize in Physics in 1978.

Today, she is affectionately remembered as “the First Lady of Physics”, “Queen of Nuclear Research” and “the Chinese Madame Curie”.

#8. Rosalind Franklin (1920- 1958)

In 1952, Franklin had been recruited by the MRC Biophysics Unit to work on the problem of the structure of DNA. Though DNA as such was at least partially understood at this point, its physical structure had proven illusive. Franklin, an X-ray crystallographer, captured the now world famous Photo 51, which eventually proved the double-helical structure of DNA, a decade later. Unfortunately, Franklin didn’t live to see the results of her discovery. The only reason she wasn’t awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was a standing policy that the Nobel Prize not be awarded posthumously.

#9. Gertrude B Elion (1918 – 1999)

Another Nobel Prize winner on our list, Elion shared her 1988 award in Physiology with her partners George Hitchings and Sir James Black. Elion was brilliantly innovative, developing scores of new medicines with techniques largely of her own devising. Among her many accomplishments, Elion developed the first immunosuppressive drug, Azathioprine, to be used to facilitate organ transplants. Her techniques and prototypes ultimately led to the development of Zidovudine, more commonly known as AZT, Retrovir, or simply “the AIDS drug.”

Women in STEM, and Hope for the Future

So that’s our list of our favorite female scientists, innovators, pioneers, academics, and thinkers, but it’s certainly not an exhaustive one! There are hundreds more we could name, but why stop there?

Who else has inspired you, or shown you that gender barriers are man-made and not inherent to the sciences? Ask around — get a conversation going this month. Help us get the word out to anyone who might be listening, this Women’s History Month, that the STEM fields are open to anyone and everyone, and help us add a few more names to our list for 2019.

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