Historically, women interested in science and mathematics have faced challenges that their male counterparts did not face. These challenges vary from generation to generation, but they are still with us to some degree. However, there are women throughout history who have overcome those challenges and can hopefully inspire us today. I hope this list will grow, but these are some of my favorites.
Laura Bassi (1711 – 1778) – Italian physicist and the first women professor of physics in Europe. She was the only woman appointed to an elite group of scholars by Pope Benedict XIV known as the Benedettini.
Maria Agnesi (1718 – 1799) – Italian mathematician, sometimes called “mathematician of God,” Maria was a genius who was put on display in her father’s salon regularly from a young age, where she astounded learned men with her poise and knowledge. But her only desire with to be of service to God, which she was only able to do after her father’s death.
Emilie du Chatelet (1705 – 1749) – French mathematician & Voltaire’s lover. Emilie was a brilliant mind and a coquette. She enjoyed social activities, but worked tirelessly when a problem captured her attention.
Caroline Herschel – 18th Century Astronomer (1750 – 1848) – Receiving very little education in her childhood, she worked for and learned under her brother Sir William Herschel until his death, and became an imminent astronomer in her own right.
Mary Somerville (1780 – 1872) – Scottish mathematician, overcame significant odds to attain her expertise in mathematics. Her parents opposed her and she resorted to reading math texts by candlelight after the household was a sleep. When her candles were taken away, she went over in her mind the texts she had memorized.
Ada Byron Lovelace (1815 – 1852) – English mathematician, was the daughter of Lord Byron, although he played no role in her life. Sometimes called the first computer programmer, her great accomplishments began when she began working with Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Analytical Engine.
Sonya Kovalevsky (1850 – 1891) – Russian mathematician who made a marriage of convenience in order to leave Russia and study abroad. She still faced obstacles, but worked with some of the most famous names in mathematics, Gauss was one, and eventually became one of the first women to attain a Ph. D. in Europe and through private funds was able to teach at a university.
Marie Curie (1867 – 1934) – Polish/French physicist/chemist as a two time Nobel Prize winner was probably the first woman in the modern era to be fully recognized for her contributions to science, but it didn’t come easily and it almost didn’t happen.
- Part 1 – early life and marriage to Pierre
- Part 2 – scientific discoveries and Nobel Prize
Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968) – Austrian physicist whose work on nuclear fission was not credited to her, rather to her German partner who necessarily took credit at first, but later didn’t acknowledge her considerable role in the discovery. He won a Nobel Prize for which she should have been included.
Emmy Noether (1882 – 1935) – German mathematician whose mathematical research provided the basis for much of Einstein’s work on relatively. She worked much of her life without pay, but gradually built a reputation which prompted many of her colleagues to work diligently to find her a position when it became necessary for her to leave Germany in 1934 because she was Jewish. Alas, there is no Nobel Prize for mathematics!
Gerty Radnitz Cori (1896 – 1957) – First American woman to receive a Nobel Prize, which was awarded in Physiology and Medicine to in 1945. She and her husband were ideally suited partners who persisted in collaborating even when Gerty wasn’t given the recognition she deserved simply because she was a woman.
Irène Joliet-Curie (1897 – 1956) – The daughter of Pierre and Marie Curie. Working with her husband she discovered artificial radioactivity and won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935.
Gertrude Belle Elion (1918 – 1999) – Won a Nobel Prize in 1988 in Physiology and Medicine. She was the first woman inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for her discovery of drugs to treat cancer, viruses, and auto-immune diseases.