Ten Inspiring Women in Science History
The issue of gender balance in science has always been a challenging one. Women have long been underrepresented in STEM, with current data suggesting that even in today’s world less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women. Those that are successful receive much less recognition than their male counterparts, with fewer than 4% of Nobel Prizes for science being awarded to women, and only around 11% of senior research roles being held by female scientists in labs across Europe.
Throughout science history, the achievements of female scientists have often been overlooked, and that’s why we’re taking a moment to shine the spotlight on some of the most inspiring women in STEM history who have made crucial and ground-breaking contributions to their research fields. Some names will be familiar to you, some you might not know, but all are significant and their achievements deserve to be remembered and celebrated.
From the first female physician to a life-changing drug developer, from the unrecognised pioneers to the ‘unsung hero’ of DNA, these ten women achieved extraordinary scientific feats in a time when things were even more challenging for a woman in science…
1. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910)
The first female scientist on our list is a woman of significant ‘firsts’ who paved the way for women and girls to pursue medicine as a career. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to attend medical school in the United States, and the first to qualify as a doctor. Her thesis on typhoid fever was the first medical article by a woman to be published in the US, and she was one of a number of notable names who co-founded the first medical school for women in England. Her determination to succeed and be accepted where no female physician had before leaves a great legacy and cements her name as one of the greatest and most inspiring women in the history of medical science.
“It is not easy to be a pioneer - but oh, it is fascinating! I would not trade one moment, even the worst moment, for all the riches in the world.” - Elizabeth Blackwell
2. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917)
Following in the footsteps of Elizabeth Blackwell came another woman determined to be a spearhead for change. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, inspired by an encounter with Blackwell in 1859, went on to become the first qualified physician and surgeon in Britain. She faced numerous setbacks on her journey towards a career in medicine, eventually opening her own private practice before becoming a member of the British Medical Association in 1873. She was also very active in the women’s suffrage movement and in her later life became the first female mayor in England.
3. Florence Rena Sabin (1871-1953)
Anatomist and pioneering medical researcher Florence Rena Sabin was the first woman to become a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, USA. Enrolling as a student of the school at the age of 25, Florence flourished under the mentorship of Franklin P Mall who encouraged her to study the brain and the lymphatic system. Her research went from strength to strength, propelling her to not only a full professorship at Johns Hopkins, but also to an influential role at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. Her later years were taken up by work in health legislation and reform, proving herself to be a powerful advocate for public health issues.
“I hope my studies may be an encouragement to other women, especially to young women, to devote their lives to the larger interests of the mind. It matters little whether men or women have more brains; all we women need to do to exert our proper influence is just to use all the brains we have.” - Florence Rena Sabin
4. Alice Augusta Ball (1892-1916)
Born in Seattle, Washington, USA, in 1892, the life of Alice Augusta Ball was a short but significant one. After studying chemistry at the University of Washington, Alice went on to study pharmacy and later pursued a master’s degree at the University of Hawaii. The topic of her thesis gained the attention of the Leprosy Investigation Station of the US Public Health Service, who approached her to look at a potential treatment, which she developed into a form suitable for injection at the age of just 23. She died the following year, and the significance of her work was only recognised some years later when her research into the treatment became known as “The Ball Method”. History remembers her today as not only the developer of an effective leprosy treatment, but also as a significant and ground-breaking female African American scientist.
5. Barbara McClintock (1902-1992)
Nobel Prize winner and American scientist Barbara McClintock was known for her research into maize cytogenetics. Her early studies were in botany, but she soon developed a greater fascination with genetics, leading to research focused on developing ways to characterise and visualise the chromosomes within maize. Many breakthrough theories and publications followed, and in 1983 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of genetic transposition. She is remembered today as one of the most significant women in science history for her contributions to biology.
“If you know you are on the right track, if you have this inner knowledge, then nobody can turn you off... no matter what they say.” - Barbara McClintock
6. Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012)
Another truly inspiring life was that of Italian neurobiologist Rita Levi-Montalcini. Her early aspirations to become a doctor were cut short in 1938 when Benito Mussolini barred Jewish people from pursuing academic or professional careers. Determined to continue her studies, she set up a laboratory in her bedroom where she carried out her research during the first years of World War Two. Once the war was over, she took a position at Washington University in St. Louis where she worked for 30 years. During this time, her work isolating nerve growth factor (NGF) was hugely significant, and eventually led to her being jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
“Above all, don't fear difficult moments. The best comes from them.” - Rita Levi-Montalcini
7. Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994)
Born into a family of archaeologists, British scientist Dorothy Hodgkin was encouraged to pursue scientific research from an early age and was driven by exploration and discovery. She studied chemistry at Oxford, becoming only the third woman at the time to graduate with first-class honours. A PhD at Cambridge saw the beginnings of her work into X-ray crystallography and the potential it offered to determine the structure of proteins. She spent time working as a chemistry teacher, during which period she taught a young Margaret Thatcher. Her research career continued back at Oxford, where she went on to determine the structures of steroids, penicillin, insulin, and Vitamin B12, for which she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964.
“I believe in perfecting the world and trying to do everything to improve things, but not because I know what's to come of it.” - Dorothy Hodgkin
8. Gertrude Elion (1918-1999)
Another hugely influential woman in the world of medical research was the American pharmacologist Gertrude Elion. Beginning her career in food quality testing, she soon gained a research position with Johnson & Johnson before moving to Burroughs-Wellcome, now known as GlaxoSmithKline. Her drug research work took her to positions with several other notable organisations including the National Cancer Institute, the American Association for Cancer Research and the World Health Organization. During her career she was involved with the development of numerous important drugs, including those to treat leukaemia, malaria, lupus, hepatitis, arthritis, gout, organ transplant rejection and herpes. She was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1988.
“Don't be afraid of hard work. Nothing worthwhile comes easily. Don't let others discourage you or tell you that you can't do it.” - Gertrude Elion
9. Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
Often referred to as DNA’s ‘unsung hero’, British chemist Rosalind Franklin played a crucial role in one of the most significant discoveries in the history of science. She was responsible for producing the first X-ray diffraction pictures that identified the structure of DNA. However, her ground-breaking contribution went widely unrecognised for many years when others used her work to forge ahead with further studies that gained greater recognition. She died at just 37 years old, and it wasn’t until after her death that the impact of her extraordinary work was truly recognised. Her story has been the subject of many books, and even a West End play starring Nicole Kidman in the lead role.
“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.” - Rosalind Franklin
10. Mathilde Krim (1926-2018)
Our final nod of recognition goes to the Italian medical researcher Mathilde Krim, who began her science career as a cytogeneticist and cancer researcher. Her early work included being part of the team that developed the first method for the prenatal determination of sex. She was a passionate human rights activist, and when the AIDS epidemic began to take hold in the 1980s she dedicated herself to studying and raising awareness of the disease and its socio-political impact. She went on to establish the AIDS Medical Foundation, which later became the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR). Her dedication to the cause resulted in Bill Clinton awarding her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000, and she is remembered today as a hugely influential name who shone a bright light on the importance of AIDS research.
"Hey! What about..."
Tell us about the ones we’ve missed! Which female scientists in history do you consider the most influential? Which women of STEM are your career role models? Tell us in the comments or tweet us at @hello_bio!
More inspirational women on the Hello Bio blog
If you’re inspired and want to learn more about women in STEM, check out these other great articles on our blog:
- 10 Award-Winning Female Scientists You Should Know About
- Words of Wisdom from Women in STEM
- Celebrating Women in Life Science on International Women’s Day
- Promoting Diversity in STEM Online
- Gender Bias from a Woman in Science
- Celebrating Women in Life Science
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