10 Female Scientists From History You Probably Didn’t Learn About In School

Plus, the achievements they made that changed society.

by Lauren Sharkey and JR Thorpe
Originally Published: 
The historical and present-day female scientists you should know about
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From the COVID vaccines to cancer treatments, women have played a big role in many of the scientific advances that we rely on today. But while lots of people may be au fait with the likes of Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin, there are plenty more female scientists from history that are rarely given the spotlight.

A 2020 poll, commissioned by charity Teach First, found that only half of the British public can name a female scientist. And when asked the first scientist's name that pops into their mind, less than one in 10 named a woman. If that wasn't enough to enrage you, Teach First also found that not one woman is featured in the GCSE science national curriculum. (That's not surprising, considering several prolific scientists conveniently forgot to credit their female colleagues in their work.)

Sadly, women are still under-represented in science today. As CNN reported in 2020, less than 30% of scientific researchers are female, and there is still a dearth of women in fields such as engineering and computer science. Representation in STEM matters; a study published in Frontiers in Education in 2019 found that stereotypes around women and science negatively influenced high school students picking their majors at college. And a study in The Journal of Neuroscience in 2019 discovered that women in STEM fields in general receive less pay, recognition, grants, awards and publications than men, though some fields are exceptions. According to Pew Research data in 2018, the gender pay gap is more pronounced in STEM than it it is in other industries.

With the following names (and plenty more where they came from), there's no excuse for people not to reel off a list of accomplished female scientists.


Tu Youyou

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Born in 1930 in China, Tu Youyou went on to discover a treatment for a disease that has killed millions: malaria. While poring over traditional Chinese texts, Youyou and her team noticed that wormwood had been used to treat one of malaria's symptoms, reports CNN.

Youyou volunteered to be the first human to test the substance her team had extracted in the 1970s. Despite 240,000 compounds failing to treat the disease at that point, her theory worked. Now, her discovery has saved millions of lives, she is the recipient of a Nobel Prize, all without even doing a medical degree.


Shirley Ann Jackson

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Shirley Ann Jackson has achieved several firsts, per The New York Times. She was the first black woman to receive a doctorate from MIT, and one of the first two African-American women to achieve a physics doctorate in the U.S. Plus, she holds the title of first African-American woman to helm a national research university.

Once qualified as a physicist, Jackson branched out into teaching the next generation and has long encouraged women and minorities to consider a career in the STEM field.


Jennifer Doudna

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Jennifer Doudna, 55, is most well-known for being one of the biochemists to develop an innovative gene-editing method. CRISPR allows genetic material to be added and removed, and could fight a number of genetic diseases, per the Guardian.

Despite controversy over the technology being used to "design" babies, Doudna's work has already been used to treat people with cancer and blood diseases, reports the Financial Times. Trials are set to take place in 2020 for the treatment of rare liver and eye diseases.


Jocelyn Bell Burnell

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Astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell was overlooked by the 1974 Nobel Prize committee when her male co-researchers were awarded the prize for making a great discovery. Bell Burnell also discovered radio pulsars — "by-products of supernova explosions that make all life possible," per the BBC — but did not receive recognition until 2018.

That year, she was awarded the £2.3 million Breakthrough Prize, reports the Guardian. Instead of keeping the money, she donated it all to fund women, refugees, and other minorities who want to become physics researchers, reports the BBC.


Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

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Born in 1836, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson — sister of Suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett — soon decided she wanted to be a doctor. But women were barred from British medical schools at that time, per the BBC. So Garrett Anderson became a nursing student, eventually teaching herself French and gaining a medical degree in Paris.

Although Britain refused to recognize her new doctoral status, she founded a hospital entirely staffed by women. In 1876, women were finally allowed into the profession.


Lise Meitner

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Austrian physicist Lise Meitner explained how nuclear fission the process that paved the way for nuclear bombs and power plants — was possible in 1939, says The Conversation.

However, her male academic partner, Otto Hahn, was solely awarded the Nobel Prize in 1944; partly because Meitner was living as an exiled Jew at the time and wasn't included on Hanh's research paper. Her achievements weren't recognized until two decades later, The Conversation reports.


Alice Ball

Alice Ball was the first woman and first African-American to receive a Master's degree from the University of Hawaii, as CNN reports. The chemist, born in 1892, helped discover a treatment for leprosy at the age of 23. The treatment, which allowed people to easily inject an existing oil, was the most effective treatment for the disease until the 1940s.

However, Ball died before she could publicize her findings. Her university's president took credit for her work, and her efforts were only mentioned in a 1922 journal, per National Geographic. Thankfully, someone noticed. Now, Feb. 29 is known as Alice Ball Day in Hawaii.


Chien-Shiung Wu

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Chinese physicist Chien-Shiung Wu spent almost all of her working life in America. She disproved a major law of physics that "stated that all objects and their mirror images behaved in the same way, symmetrically," reports CNN.

Two physicists, Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, asked for Wu's expert help with the research, but she was left out of the joint Nobel Prize the pair received in 1957, notes the Atomic Heritage Foundation. She did receive several awards and honors until she died in 1997, and, in 1973, became the first woman to take charge of the American Physical Society.


Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Born in England in 1900, Payne-Gaposchkin made an astonishing discovery as a graduate physics student at the Harvard College Observatory in 1925: she found out what stars were made of. Her work proved that there was far more hydrogen in the universe than had been assumed, by a factor of millions.

Prominent scientists called her conclusions "impossible", but she was eventually vindicated. In the process, she saved her fiance from Nazi Germany, and became the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from Radcliffe College and the American Astronomical Society's "lifetime of eminence" award. And, in 1956, she was appointed as Professor of Astronomy at Harvard, the first woman to get a professorship there.


Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla Merian was a Dutch botanist and artist of the 17th century who managed what was, at the time, virtually impossible: she traveled to South America solo with her daughter, and produced some of the finest and most accurate illustrations of flora and fauna ever made.

Merian also disproved many old theories about insects, including the idea that they emerged from the mud, by observing their life cycles. Her resulting book, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, was republished in 2017, and is still used for classification today.

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