December 5, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Women throughout the ages have helped to shape our understanding of science. Here are six of the most influential ...


Marie Curie (1867-1934): Gave her life to research radioactivity


Marie Curie, the Polish chemist and physicist, is perhaps the most famous female scientist of all time. Risking her life nearly every working day (although perhaps not aware of it), her groundbreaking research on radioactivity – including discovering the elements Radium and Polonium – earned Curie and her husband a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903. She later became the first female teacher at the Sorbonne University in Paris and was awarded her second Nobel Prize, this time for Chemistry, in 1911. During the First World War, Curie led the radiology services for the Red Cross, setting up France’s first military radiology centre. Beyond her personal achievements, Marie Curie – or perhaps just the genius of the Curie household – might be credited with inspiring her eldest daughter, Irene, who was awarded her own Chemistry Nobel Prize in 1935.



Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958): Helped discover the structure of DNA

In 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson became household names after announcing their discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA. But few had heard of the female researcher Rosalind Franklin. First at Cambridge University, and later at King’s College London, Rosalind became an expert in X-ray crystallography, and it is now thought that it was Franklin’s X-ray photographs that revealed the complicated structure to Crick and Watson. She was a passionate and dedicated scientist, still conducting research and publishing papers right up until her death in 1958, just before Crick and Watson were awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering DNA’s structure in 1962.



Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943-): Made the greatest astronomical discovery of the 20th century

Bell Burnell made one of the greatest astrophysical breakthroughs of the 20th century while still only a postgraduate student at Cambridge University. After analysing miles of printouts of astronomical data, she spotted an unusual signal that she could not explain. Despite Bell Burnell’s supervisors suggesting she ignore the anomaly, she persisted. The anomaly turned out to be the first ever detection of a pulsar – a fantastically dense and quickly spinning star made of neutrons. The discovery led to a Nobel Prize for her two supervisors, but not for Bell Burnell. However, refusing to be demoralised, she went on to become a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Dame, and the first female president of the Institute of Physics.



Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012): Built a secret laboratory in her bedroom

Born in Turin, Italy, to a painter and a mathematician, Rita Levi-Montalcini was determined to study medicine. However, soon after graduating from the University of Turin, the rise of Fascism in Italy forced her into hiding because of subsequent laws barring Jews from academic and professional careers. But Levi-Montalcini persevered and built a secret laboratory in her bedroom, using sewing needles and watchmaker’s tweezers, to investigate cell biology using chick embryos. Her later cell research in the US earned Levi-Montalcini a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1986. She continued to be committed to her science, working for hours every day until her death in 2012, aged 103.



Hypatia of Alexandria (c.355-415): One of the first female scientists

Hypatia was a Greek philosopher, and one of the first female scientists in recorded history. Following in her father’s footsteps, she became the world’s leading mathematician and astronomer: building on her father’s already detailed star charts, advancing work on geometry and fighting to preserve the Greeks’ strong scientific heritage in times of passionate religious conflict. It was Hypatia’s popularity as a teacher of philosophy that made her an enemy of some religious groups and eventually led to her brutal murder by a Christian mob. She has since become a powerful symbol for intellectual pursuit in the face of ignorance and prejudice.



Ada Lovelace (1815-1852): The world’s first computer programmer

Born from a brief marriage between the poet Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke, Lovelace was taken from her ‘eccentric’ father at a young age and encouraged by her mother to study mathematics – an extremely unusual pursuit for women at the time. However, Lovelace’s studies revealed her talent for logical subjects, and she is now known as ‘the world’s first computer programmer’, having invented a basic algorithm that worked much like modern computer codes. Not only that, she also predicted the importance and power of such machines in the future, at a time when her peers assumed the full potential for computers was basic algebra.


IMAGES: Wikipedia Commons, Jewish Chronicle Archive, Quadrennial Physics Congress, Alessandra Benedetti, BBC