A journey through the history of science in women’s shoes
The science world seems to be a world more for men than for women. In fact, if you look only at the Nobel Prize list, you can see that the number of women that have been awarded this prize in science fields from 1901 are just 16 on 876 Nobel laureates. However, there are only four people that have honoured twice and one of them is a woman, Marie Curie. So, it’s clear that this has always been a hard world for women. Despite that, their contribution in the research and development is massive. In fact, there is a very long term relationship between woman and science.
It was 400 AD when Hypatia, the daughter of the mathematician Theon Alexandricus was educated in Athens and becomes one of the earliest mothers of mathematics and she was also a philosopher and an astronomer. She was murdered by a Christian mob after being accused of exacerbating a conflict between two prominent figures in Alexandria: the governor Orestes and the Bishop of Alexandria. After the Hypatia murder, an American literary critic said that it “effectively marked the downfall of Alexandrian intellectual life”. For this reason, it is impossible to write about every clever pioneering female scientist and we can only try to give some examples of them to celebrate the work of everyone.
I like to begin with one of the most amazing scientists of the history of science Marie Curiee. Marie Skłodowska-Curie (1867-1934) was a Polish and naturalized-French and she was both a physicist and a chemist. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the only woman to win twice and the only person to win in multiple sciences. Her research about the radioactivity gave to science a theory of radioactivity, the techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and the discovery of two elements, polonium and radium. Marie Curie never lost her sense of Polish identity. In fact, she named the first chemical element: polonium recalls her native country. In additions, she directed the world’s first studies into the treatment of neoplasms, using radioactive isotopes. As this great woman said “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less”.
Elizabeth Blackwell (1821 – 1910), was born in Bristol (England) but she moved with her family to America in 1830. She was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. She was a pioneer in promoting the education of women in medicine in the United States and England, where with her contribution to the London School of Medicine for Women was opened in 1874. She said “if society will not admit of woman’s free development, then society must be remodelled”
Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1815 – 1852) is the name as now commonly known Augusta Ada Byron, the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron. She was an English mathematician and writer chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage’s early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine.
Her notes on the engine include what is recognised as the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine. Because of this, she is often described as the world’s first computer programmer. This is one of the most remarkable examples of a woman in science for the buffs. In fact, in her honour there is the yearly Ada Lovelac day that is an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).”
I am never really satisfied that I understand anything; because, understand it well as I may, my comprehension can only be an infinitesimal fraction of all I want to understand about the many connections and relations which occur to me, how the matter in question was first thought of or arrived at, etc., etc.” – Ada Lovelace.
Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920 – 1958) was a British biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer. She is one of the many examples of a major female scientist that is underestimated from the academic world. She gave critical contributions to the understanding of the fine molecular structures of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), RNA, viruses, coal, and graphite.
The DNA work is one of her most famous achievements and her work on the X-ray diffraction images of DNA, which led to the discovery of the DNA double helix. Despite her essential work for the DNA double helix identification, this discovery has been attributed only to Watson and Crick for which they were awarded the Nobel prize in 1961. After finishing her portion of the work on DNA, Franklin led pioneering work on the tobacco mosaic virus and the polio virus. She once said that “creativity is intelligence having fun”. Rosalind Franklin died in 1958 at the age of 37 from ovarian cancer.
Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909 – 2012) was an Italian Jewish neurologist who, together with colleague Stanley Cohen, received the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of nerve growth factor (NGF). In the late 1930s Mussolini imposed the racial laws which forced so many Jews, including Levi-Montalcini, to leave universities and go into hiding. She had to quit the university and conduct research in an improvised laboratory in her bedroom at home.
The food was so scarce, she said, that after experimenting on chicken embryos, she would cook and eat the remaining yolks. Yet being the clever woman as she was, she said “Above all, don’t fear difficult moments because the best always comes from them!! I should thank Mussolini for having declared me part of an inferior race. This led me to the joys of working, no longer at a university, but in a bedroom”.
In 1992, Rite Levi-Montalcini opened, with her sister, a foundation that is committed to the education of African girls and young women, based on the strong belief that women play a key role in the future of the African continent. She said “I tell young people: Do not think of yourself, think of others. Think of the future that awaits you, think about what you can do and do not fear anything”.
In conclusion, this article can only give some examples about the main contributions of women in science but there is much more that could be added. As I write this, thousands of women are working in their laboratory in every corner of the world. Irrespective of their religion, nationality and cultural background, they all work together for the next scientific steps forward. Isaac Asimov said:” There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere” and this light has no gender or race.
By Mirella Orsi