Women’s scientific achievements have been overlooked and undermined throughout history. Often, it's their husbands, fathers or really any other male relative that end up taking credit for their discoveries as the world of academia, and science in particular, were not made to account for, accommodate or simply welcome women. The effect of consistently denying a social group education, especially higher education, for millennia has left a permanent scar which restricts women’s ability to nowadays achieve doctorates at the same rate as their male counterparts. This has created a tremendous gap in research in every field which perpetuates itself by pushing out and discouraging women. Here I will give a few examples of some of the most notable women who were robbed of their achievements.
The first woman I’m going to be talking about is Lise Meitner who was an Austrian physicist who helped discover nuclear fission. Otto Hahn performed the first experiments on nuclear fission, but couldn't explain his results. In 1939, Meitner, who was corresponding with Hahn, published the first paper to use the word "fission" in nuclear physics, explaining that the uranium atom splits when bombarded by neutrons. Hahn alone was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the work. Throughout the rest of her career, Meitner would be nominated 48 times for the chemistry and physics Nobel Prize, but never won. Without her work, significant technological advancements, like the atomic bomb would have not been possible.
In the process of developing the atomic bomb, many other women were pushed aside, amongst them is Chinese-American physicist Chien-Shiung Wu who participated in the Manhattan Project and would go on to help disprove the law of parity in quantum mechanics. Wu’s colleagues won the Nobel Prize, however she was sidelined and not properly credited for her work. Her situation is strikingly similar to that of Rosalind Franklin who played a central role in the understanding of the molecular structures of DNA. Franklin’s colleague, M. Wilkins was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry whilst she was, conveniently, excluded.
Someone who was central in laying the groundwork for Franklin’s later research is Nettie Stevens, an american geneticist whose work helped prove that chromosomes dictate and organism’s sex, as opposed to environmental infulences. By studying beetles, she was able to develop the X-Y determination system. Another geneticist, Edmund Beecher Wilson discovered the same findings in his independent research, but because Stevens was a female, she was discriminated against and thus, Wilson received all the credit.
I will now mention Hedy Lamarr, an Austrian actress and inventor who, with help from her colleague, George Antheil, developed a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes that used spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology to defeat the threat of jamming by the Axis power. They created the guiding principles that would lead to Bluetooth and GPS technology. However, the US navy kept their findings in storage for 20 years, and did not adopt their revolutionary technological findings until the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
In particular, the military is a very difficult industry to succeed in as a woman, especially as a black woman, this makes Katherine Johnson’s achievements so much more important. She is best known for her major contributions to the United States’ aeronautics and space programs with the early application of digital electronic computers. Johnson’s calculations of
orbital mechanics were critical to the success of the first and subsequent crewed spaceflights. She succeeded in an incredibly male dominated field- Mathematics- while living in a still deeply segregated South.
Johnson’s experience, sadly, isn’t unique. Alice Ball experienced similiar discrimination after inventing an injectible form of chaulmoogra oil, a treatment for Hansen’s disease or leprosy. This was a much more effective treatment as it isolated the active ingredients. Ball died from an unknown illness before she could publish, aged 24, and another scientist took credit for her work. 90 years after her death, the University of Hawaii declared February 29th as “Alice Ball Day”.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a Northern-irish astrophysicist who, like Wu and Meitner, were not included as one of the recipients for the Nobel Prize. Her work was surrounding pulsars, and her advisor took all credit.
Finally, the creator of the technology behind the PCR tests that we rely on so much, Margarita Salas. The first scientific woman to be accepted into the Royal Spanish Academy, adn shortly before her death was awarded the 2019 European Inventor Award. Throughout her career in academia, she published over 200 scientific articles, she was also an advocate of women and feminism in science.
The erasure of women from scientific history does not stop at the inability of the Nobel Committee to include the female scientists as part of the recipients, rather it’s the hostility and sometimes discrimination that women experience in the workplace and in academic environments that makes the celeberation of women in stem so important in the fight for gender equality.
Flavia F. Y12
Image credits: https://womenyoushouldknow.net/downloadable-poster-women-science/