If you see “International Day” trending on Twitter today, don’t mistake it for a celebration of all things intercontinental.
What’s being observed all around the world is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day created by the United Nations not only to “recognise the critical role women and girls play in science and technology” but also to identify ways in which we can foster their invaluable contribution moving forward.
On this day, Techly is reflecting on some of the most influential women in science, each more than deserving of being considered among the greatest minds in history. It goes without saying that there are many, many more inspirational women to be discovered beyond this short but star-studded list.
Barbara McClintock (1902-1992)
If someone tells you Barbara McClintock was a little corny, they’re not making fun of her cheesy sense of humour. Some of the cytogeneticist’s most groundbreaking discoveries came from the study of corn, where she analysed plant genetics at the cellular level and discovered the significance of transposons, or “jumping genes”, for which she won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1983. McClintock’s work disproved the traditional genetic theory that genes were in fixed positions on the chromosome.
Lise Meitner (1878-1968)
The significance of Lisa Meitner’s work is simply staggering, given she formed a crucial part of the team that discovered nuclear fission of heavy elements. The Austrian-Swedish physicist also offered the theoretical explanation for nuclear fission alongside her nephew, which inadvertently led to the invention of the atomic bomb. Meitner made a point of distancing herself from military research and refused to work on the Manhattan Project, the United States’ top-secret project which developed the atomic bomb. Meitner’s gravestone, written by her nephew, reads, “Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity.”
Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852)
Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace – better known as Ada Lovelace – was a gifted mathematician credited with having written instructions for the very first computer program in history. The daughter of iconic poet Lord Byron, she is considered the first computer programmer in the world and was posthumously recognised for her notes on an analytical engine invented by fellow mathematician Charles Babbage. In her notes, she outlined how engines could achieve “looping” (repeating a series of instructions) and described how codes could be used to enable a device to operate with letters, numbers and symbols.
Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
While English chemist Rosalind Franklin’s work involved viruses, coal and graphite, she is most renowned for her work on X-ray diffraction images of DNA. Franklin is responsible for Photo 51, the iconic image which led to James Watson’s discovery of the double helix structure of DNA – for which Watson received a Nobel Prize. Many of Franklin’s achievements were unrecognised until after her death, and Watson later suggested Franklin deserved to be awarded the Nobel Prize alongside him.
Marie Skłodowska-Curie (1867-1934)
Marie Skłodowska-Curie is probably the first name to come to many people’s minds when thinking of the most influential women in history, let alone science. The achievements of the French-Polish physicist and chemist, who discovered the elements radium and polonium, cannot be overstated: she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (plus the first person and only woman to win twice), the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences, the first female professor at the University of Paris and the first woman to be buried on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris.