Six Women Who Helped Shape the Modern World

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Aug 8, 2016, 12:22 PM EDT (Updated)

Have you ever held up a piece of technology and wondered how that device got its start? Who invented the device that led to something like your computer, or your cell phone? What about some of the founding science that has led to our biggest modern advances in astronomy, physics or chemistry? Now, in your mind, how many of those scientists or inventors are women?

Women have worked in scientific fields for centuries, but due to either rules keeping women from holding positions in scholarly fields, general dismissal of women for their work in male-dominated fields of study, or any number of other reasons that can usually be boiled down to the word “patriarchy,” it's proved difficult for women to receive due recognition for that work.

So perhaps it won’t surprise you to discover that female scientists have been integral to some of the biggest scientific and technological advancements of the 20th century. I’m only going to explore a few of them here, but believe me when I say we are barely scratching the glass ceiling. 

Nettie Stevens (1861-1912) (pictured above)

When you first learned about genetics, the bits of code in our DNA that tell your cells exactly what to do and how to do it when making you, one of the first things you probably learned was that girls have XX chromosomes, while boys have XY. But what you probably didn’t learn was that a woman, Nettie Stevens, was responsible for discovering how those Xs and Ys work. Before this discovery, we had no idea why girls become girls and boys become boys, when the process of making a baby is the same.

That seems pretty important, so why didn’t you know about her? That’s because a colleague of her’s, E.B. Wilson, was doing similar work around the same time, and he was a man. He had been published more, and was more highly regarded in the field, so while both Stevens and Wilson came to similar conclusions, and despite the fact that Stevens’ work is the model on which much of the future, and current, research into genetics has been based, Wilson is the scientist to whom the discovery generally gets credited (Stevens has ultimately been proved correct, while Wilson’s hypotheses have been largely proven incorrect, yet he still gets the credit).


Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921)

Henrietta Swan Leavitt

You know you’ve made it as an astronomer when Edwin Hubble looks up to you (no pun intended), but Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s work was actually the basis for some of the biggest work Hubble ever did in the field of astronomy. So it might surprise you, or maybe it won’t, to learn that she received very little recognition for her work during her lifetime.

Leavitt worked with another famous astronomer, Edward Charles Pickering, to assist in measuring and cataloguing the brightness of stars. Because women weren’t allowed to operate university telescopes at the time, she did this using a collection of photographic plates, and, because she came from a wealthy family, she was never paid for her work. Despite all that, and the fact that it’s doubtful anyone expected it, Leavitt noticed a pattern in the brightness of certain variable stars (stars whose brightness varies over time). After studying nearly 2,000 stars, and making a few educated leaps, Leavitt was able to create a mathematical formula that calculated the relationship between the luminosity and period of certain variable stars, a formula that would allow astronomers to later calculate the distance between Earth and far-flung galaxies and star clusters. 

Hubble would use Leavitt’s work, along with work done at the Lowell Observatory, to create his expanding universe theory. Hubble even suggested that Leavitt should have received a Nobel for her work, and while the Swedish Academy of Sciences attempted to start the paperwork, they discovered she had died three years previously (this is a common theme).


Lise Meitner (1878-1968)

Lise Meitner

World-changing scientific advancement is hard enough, but try doing it when you’re on the run from Nazis. Lise Meitner was a physicist working in Berlin during the Second World War. She was the first woman to become a full professor of physics in Germany, and was a department head at the Keiser Wilhelm Institute, but lost those positions in the 1930s because she was, you know, Jewish. Eventually, she fled Berlin to Sweden, narrowly escaping before the outbreak of the war, but that didn’t stop her from playing an integral part in helping to create the atomic bomb -- it just cost her the Nobel.

Before everything hit the fan, she and Otto Hahn, her longtime research partner, worked together on experiments involving radio-isotopes. It was these experiments that led to the accidental discovery of a process that would become known as nuclear fission — that accident occurred six months after Meitner was forced to flee Berlin. Oddly, while Hahn and his then partner were largely responsible for the actual act of nuclear fission (using a program developed by Hahn and Meitner), it was Meitner and another physicist named Otto Frisch who were finally able to explain what fission actually was, and the energy released at the moment of reaction.

Despite her contributions to the discovery and understanding of nuclear fission, Otto Hahn alone was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his discovery of nuclear fission, a decision Meitner protested, and which has been a subject of contention since the award was announced.


Grace Hopper (1906-1992)

Grace Hopper

I didn’t know the name Grace Hopper before I started researching this piece, but she might be my new hero. Not only was she a pioneering computer scientist, but she was also one of the few people, let alone women, who ascended to the rank of rear admiral in the United States Navy. See? Hero. But wait, it gets better.

Admiral Hopper enlisted in the Navy in 1943, taking a leave from Vassar, where she was a professor of mathematics, to volunteer to serve in WAVES (the women’s branch of the Naval Reserves). Because she already had a Ph.D. in mathematics (and had graduated top of her class from the Midshipmen’s School at Smith), she was assigned to the Computation project, working on the Mark I computer programming staff. After the war, she stayed with the Navy and continued working in computer science, creating the first operational compiler in 1952.

In 1959, Hopper served on a committee at the Conference on Data Systems Languages, at which she expressed her belief that computer programs should be written in a language close to English, rather than in machine code. The resulting language was COBOL (COmmon Business Oriented Language), which is the primary coding language used in business computers/mainframes to this day.

Unlike many of the women on this list, Admiral Hopper was, at the very least, recognized by her peers for her accomplishments, both in the military (she retired multiple times and was recalled to active duty, staying long past required retirement thanks to a Congressional waiver) and in the field of computer science. She has been honored with both a Supercomputer (the Cray XE6 “Hopper”) at NERSC, and a ship (the destroyer class USS Hopper).


Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)

Hedy Lamarr

Proof that scientific advancement can be as much as hobby as a lifelong career, Hedy Lamarr was a Hollywood star-turned world changing inventor in the mid-20th century. Born in Austria-Hungary in 1914, Lamar was first introduced to the sciences, and the military, thanks to conversations between her first husband and a number of members of the regimes of both Hitler and Mussolini. 

Just before the outbreak of war in the late 1930s, Lamarr fled her husband’s home, was discovered by a Hollywood producer, and became a huge hit on the silver screen, making films with Clark Gable and Judy Garland. But that wasn’t enough for the young starlet. In the early 1940s, Lamarr met composer and inventor George Antheil. With the war effort now in full swing, Lamarr wanted to contribute, and was inspired to find a way to provide the Navy with jam-proof guidance systems for their torpedoes. (Isn't that what all actors do between takes?) Lamarr and Anthiel put together a frequency hopping design that would continually change the radio signals sent to the torpedoes. 

It ended up being too difficult to implement at the time, but in the 1950s, when companies were developing wireless technology, the patent for the frequency hopping technology was dusted off and finally put to use (it would make its way to Naval ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 60s). Today, you know the technology as the basis for CDMA cell phone networks, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.


Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

Rosalind Franklin

A picture is worth a thousand words, but Rosalind Franklin’s work was a whole new spin on the photograph, and changed the way we understood the formation of diseases, minerals, and even DNA. Franklin was a chemist and an x-ray crystallographer, which is a fancy way of saying she was able to use x-rays to actually see the structure of atoms. I’ll admit, the science she used is far above my pay grade, but the result is simple enough to understand. 

Franklin spent her early career working with coal, learning about its molecular structure. It actually became the basis for her more experimental work in x-ray crystallography. That penchant for experimentation was the jumping off point for her future work, which led to her working at King’s College on a project using x-ray crystallography on strands of DNA molecules, alongside Maurice Wilkins. 

Very, very long story short, Franklin was able to use her skills in x-ray crystallography, alongside a new technique the team developed, to create an image of the structure of DNA unlike anything scientists had previously been able to view. This new image allowed for the team to see, for the first time, the double helix we now understand as the basic structure of DNA. Those images, and the research done by Franklin and Wilkins at King’s College, allowed Wilkins and Francis Crick to go on to create their DNA double helix model in 1953; work for which they would later win the Nobel Prize in 1962. Franklin may have been nominated for the award herself (it was suggested that she should have been) but Nobels aren’t awarded posthumously. She had passed away 4 years previously, at the age of 37.

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