Throughout history, women have been some of the pioneers and most influential people within the Life Science sector. But just how many can you name, and do you really know what they’re known for?
We are going to give you a snapshot of some of the most famous, and some even lesser known, women in Life Sciences. Who they were, what they did, and how they influenced history!
So, sit back, grab a cuppa, and let’s go back in time!
Katherine Johnson (1918 – 2020)
Johnson was an American mathematician who derived and evaluated the flight paths of many spacecraft during her time with the U.S. space program. Johnson’s work had sent astronauts to space for more than three decades before retiring from NASA in 1986.
Johnson is best known for her role in the Apollo 11 mission, which put man on the moon. Her knowledge of mathematics was crucial for the safe return of astronauts from the moon.
In 1939, she was one of the first three African American women to participate in a graduate program at West Virginia University to study mathematics. Later, she became a member of a group of NASA employees called “computers,” a group of women who excelled in problem solving and mathematics. She was not accepted for the first time when she applied in the mid-1950s, but was successful the following year.
Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barak Obama in 2015. She was awarded this for her pioneering work in the fields of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). This medal is the highest honour that a civilian can receive.
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836 – 1917)
As the first British woman to qualify as a doctor and surgeon, Garrett founded a medical school purely for women and became the first woman in Britain to be elected to a school board.
Garrett’s early medical education was not as successful as she could have hoped. She applied for various medical schools, including Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow, Edinburgh, St Andrews and the Royal College of Surgeons. All of whom refused her admission. Garrett, however, was not put off by this and found a loophole to obtain her credentials. She found herself at the Worships Society of Apothecaries. She privately obtained a certificate in anatomy and physiology, Garrett was admitted by the society in 1862, which, as a condition of their charter, could not exclude her because of her sex. Garrett was the only woman who sat the exam that year and was among 51 male candidates who founded Hampstead General Hospital.
In 1865, she was finally able to take her exam and obtained a licence (LSA) to practice medicine, the first woman in Britain to do so openly. Garrett passed the exam with the highest marks of seven candidates who passed the exam. Given these results, the Society quickly changed its regulations to prevent other women from obtaining a license, which means that it disqualified privately educated women from being eligible for the exam. It took eleven years for a new medical law to be passed that allowed British medical authorities to license all qualified applicants regardless of gender.
Garrett was certainly a pioneer in equal opportunities for women in the medical industry.
Mary Anning (1799 – 1847)
Anning was an English fossil collector, dealer, and paleontologist.
Anning grew up on the south coast of England in Lyme Regis (now known as the Jurassic Coast, where discoveries are still being made today). During this time, women and girls had limited access to education, but Anning was able to read and taught herself geology, anatomy, paleontology and scientific illustration.
Anning made her first discovery at the age of twelve and was the first person to discover a full dinosaur fossil! She came across a strange looking fossilised skull, this heightened her curiosity, so she continued to search and dug out the outline of its 5.2-metre-long skeleton. Anning had discovered the Lchthyosaurus, or “fish-lizard”.
This first discovery for Anning ignited a passion and continued to search for new fossils. She was the first person to discover complete skeletons, including a Plesiosaurus and Dimorphodon. Anning’s discoveries sparked interest in the local paleontology and geology community.
Unfortunately, the collectors, who were mostly men, who came to own Anning’s discoveries did not credit her in their papers. Of the many samples she found, several were published in pretigious journals without even mentioning her name. However, Henry De La Beche and Gideon Mantell, famous scientists of the time, paid tribute to her in their work.
In 2010, Anning was recognised as one of the most influential women scientists in British history by the Royal Society.
Chien-Shiung Wu (1912 – 1997)
Wu was a Chinese American particle and experimental physicist who made significant contributions in nuclear and particle physics.
Born in Liuhe Taicang in Jiangsu Province, China, Wu was lucky enough to receive top education. In 1929 Wu graduated from the top of her class and was admitted to the National Central University in Nanjing, where she studied physics. Wu was then encouraged by her supervisor to earn her PhD abroad at the University of Michigan, but due to sexism at the university, Wu went on to study at Berkeley in California.
One of Wu’s defining moments was in 1944, when her doctoral research on radioactive isotopes was crucial to the success of the B reactor in Handford. The reactor began unexpectedly to start up and shut down again. Wu was the one that figured out that xenon-135, a product of fission, was the culprit.
In 1958, Wu was the first woman to get an honourary doctorate in Science. She came to be known as the “First Lady of Physics”, “Chinese Madame Curie” and the “Queen of Nuclear Research”.
Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1848)
Herschel was a German-born British astronomer who was a pioneer in this field and is considered the first professional female astronomer.
In 1772, Herschel moved to Britain with her brother, where she trained as a singer and sang soprano in several performances. She soon started her Astronomy career whilst keeping house for her brother, William Herschel, also an astronomer. Herschel aided in her brother’s research and began executing laborious calculations that were connected to his observations. She helped him to discover Uranus, to which he got credited and knighted because of the discovery. As she assisted, her interest grew, and she decided to look to the skies herself using a Newtonian reflector. This led to her making her own observations and discoveries.
Herschel is best known for being the first person to discover a comet. In 1788, she discovered a periodic comet which later came to be known as the 35P/Herschel-Rigollet. Herschel went on to discover seven more comets between 1789 and 1797. Ten years after her first discovery, Herschel presented a catalog of 560 stars to the Royal Society. She then continued her observations and completed the cataloging of 2,500 nebulae and many star clusters. In 1828, the Astronomical Society awarded Herschel its gold medal for an unpublished revision and reorganisation of their work. The next woman to receive this accolade was Vera Rubin in 1996, over 150 years later, in 1996.
Up until her death, at the age of 97, Herschel continued to be a well-respected astronomer; not only by the general public but also by many scientists.
If you’re a woman in the Life Science industry who would love to make an impact like your female counterparts before you, call one of our consultants at Focus On Life Science today. Your next pivotal role could be closer than you think!