15 Female Scientists Who Changed the World

According to the National Science Foundation, in 2006 50 percent of students who enroll in graduate courses in science or engineering are women. However, these results fall when compared to the real world. Between 2000 and 2005, only 27 percent of women are employed by the computer field, a leading employer of such graduates.

Could this be due to the previous lack of women engaging in the scientific field? While there were definitely barriers in the past that prevented women from obtaining an education and going into the workforce, things are different today. Yet we still recognize the many men who have throughout the course of science made amazing breakthroughs while neglecting the women.

To that end, we have gathered the top 15 female scientists who changed the world. It includes some of which contributed in the early days of science and some who still practice today.

Past Female Scientists Who Changed the World

Ranging from Egyptian times to the twentieth century, the world would not be the same without the contributions of these female scientists.

    1. Marie Curie : Together with her husband, they performed ground breaking and risky procedures in their laboratory. On the heels of the discovery of radiation by Henri Becquerel in 1896, she developed ways to separate radium from radiation leading to many current practices, including chemotherapy. Later in life, she became the Director of the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the University of Paris. For her work, she was awarded various prizes, including the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903 and again for chemistry in 1911.

    2. Ada Byron, : Also known as Lady Lovelace, she was the daughter of world renowned poet, Lord Byron. Although she strived to be an analyst and metaphysician, her father’s gift of imagination and creativity led her to see the then Analytical Engine as something far more profound. After her translation of the engines creator’s work took on a life of its own, she suggested a plan for how the engine could calculate Bernoulli numbers. This plan, developed in 1843, would then be regarded as the first ever computer program.

    3. Rosalind Franklin : Born in Great Britain in 1920, Rosalind decided to be a scientist at the age of 15. However, she hit a speed bump when her father refused to pay for higher education, believing women were unfit for it. With some prodding from family members, Rosalind was finally able to go where she was able to assist in making amazing breakthroughs in DNA research. She was able to adjust x-ray equipment to produce a fine beam and extract DNA fibers like never before. Unfortunately, her life was cut short at the age 37 by ovarian cancer. But her name and work still live on the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Illinois.

    4. Lise Meitner : Born in 1878 in Austria, she was the third of eight children. After obtaining a doctorate from the University of Vienna, she went on to study with noted chemist Otto Hahn who would later go on to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1944 for their collaborated work. It led to the discovery of a new element protactinium, the Auger effect, and eventually discovered the process of nuclear fission with her nephew. Being of Jewish descent, her work was interrupted by the Nazi invasion, but she survived to continue her work.

    5. Hypatia : Born at approximately 360 A.D. in Alexandria, Egypt, she is considered the first female mathematician. Along with her father, they collaborated together on impressive works such as “Arithmetica,” “Almagest,” and “Elements.” She is also believed to have written “The Astronomical Canon.” Hypatia also did work in philosophy, accounting, and astronomy. She is even credited with the charting of celestial bodies, the invention of the hydrometer, and more.

    6. Dorothy Hodgkin : Born in Cairo in 1910, this British scientist is noted with discovering protein crystallography, which is a method of x-rays that can determine the arrangement of atoms. She became interested in chemistry and in crystals at about the age of ten and was encouraged by a friend of her parents who gave her chemicals and helped her analyze them. When returning to Oxford in 1934, she would continue the work that earned her a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964. Her work was also vital in the studies of insulin and penicillin.

    7. Sophie Germain : She was born in France in 1776 to an era of revolution. Thirteen years later, her country would undergo its own revolution, and due to her confinement at home, she became interested in mathematics. Although her parents objected to a female learning mathematics, Sophie continued to read on the subject and teach herself. Unable to attend institutions of higher education, Sophie found ways to study by obtaining lecture notes, using a pseudonym to write to scientists, and even attending academic functions. Her work ultimately led to the theory of elasticity and noted advances in number theory.

    8. Barbara McClintock : Born in 1902, this American was one of the world’s most noted cytogeneticists, a geneticist who studies the structure and function of the cell with particular interest in chromosomes. She attended Cornell University in 1927 where she received a PhD in botany. However, after an undergraduate course in genetics, she found herself fascinated by the subject. Barbara devoted her studies to seeing how chromosomes change during the reproduction process. It was during this work that she discovered that genes could move between and on chromosomes, leading to many other important discoveries. For this, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983.

    9. Rachel Carson : She was a writer, scientist, and ecologist born in Pennsylvania in 1907. After obtaining a MA in Zoology from Hon Hopkins University, she was hired by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries to write radio scripts during the depression and feature articles on natural history for the “Baltimore Sun.” After becoming concerned by the use of synthetic chemical pesticides after World War II, Carson changed her focus in order to warn the public about the long term effects of misusing pesticides. One of the very first environmentalists, she changed the world by inspiring a host of present and future ones.

Living Female Scientists Who Changed the World

With a movement towards gender equality, a whole new group of female scientists have been able to change the world, including the below.

    10. Jocelyn Bell Burnell : A professor at Oxford University, she is an astrophysicist who has worked in all areas of the electromagnetic spectrum, observing new sources from radio frequencies to high energy gamma rays. Born in Ireland in 1943, she spent her graduate years in Cambridge helping to develop a new radio telescope that used a system of antennas rather than a dish. While using this telescope, she received an unidentified signal which she theorized where “little green men.” However, the signal was soon discovered to be a natural source. She then received huge notoriety for discovering the first ever radio signal. Further studies by groups of astronomers around the world identified the signals as coming from rapidly rotating neutron stars. These objects, first noticed by Jocelyn Bell, became known as pulsars.

    11. Rita Levi-Montalcini : The oldest living Nobel laureate, she was born in Italy in 1909. Another female scientist who faced roadblocks by her father, she was forbidden to seek an education. However, much like her predecessors, she overcame and went onto to graduate from medical school. Her collaborative efforts with Stanley Cohen would lead to a breakthrough in neurological science for the discovery of the nerve growth factor. This would lead to their winning of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986.

    12. Sally Ride : This American female scientist changed the world by becoming the first American woman in space. Born in Los Angeles in 1951, Sally received various graduate degrees in physics from Stanford University. Dr. Ride was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in 1978 and two years later completed a training and evaluation period, making her eligible for assignment as a mission specialist. Her historic flight took place on the STS-7 mission in 1983. She subsequently performed on various other missions. If you want to learn more about the first woman in space, click here.

    13. Jane Goodall : Named by her biographer as “the woman who redefined man,” Jane changed the perceptions of the connections between primates and people. Born in 1937, she traveled to Tanzania at the age of 23 to enter the world of the chimpanzee bringing little more than a notepad and binoculars. With patience, she was able to enter the world of the chimpanzee, be accepted as one of them, and learn more than ever imagined. To hear Jane in her own words, you can view a speech on what separates us from the apes here.

    14. Elizabeth Blackburn & Carol Greider : Together they earned the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009, along with Jack Szostak, for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase. Blackburn was born in Australia in 1948 and earned various medical degrees there before earning a PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology at Yale University. Greider was born in San Diego in 1961, and while completing a PhD in Molecular Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, studied under Blackburn. Together with Szostak, they discovered telomerase which is believed to have a retroviral origin.

    15. Shirley Ann Jackson : The only African-American woman on the list, Shirley was born in Washington, D.C. in 1946. Her parents actually encouraged her education and spurred her interest in science. In the historic year of 1964, she entered MIT as one of less than 20 black students and the only to study theoretical physics. In 1973, she became the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate degree from the institution where she worked on elementary particle theory. Her subsequent work earned her various prizes, and she was described as “the ultimate role model for women in science” by “Time” magazine. Currently, she is the president of the prestigious Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

With many known and unknown names, there is a lot to learn from the 15 female scientists who changed the world. But it doesn’t end there. Many other women have gone on to, and still are, contributing to the world of science. In fact, if you would like to see the rather sizeable list of other women who have won the Nobel Prize in a scientific or other area, click here.