March 8 – A Woman’s Work

Today’s factismal: It is International Women’s Day!

Today is International Women’s Day, when we celebrate all of the things that women have brought into the world (one of which is you). And in honor of the holiday, I’d like to remind you that science wouldn’t be science without the innumerable contributions made by women.


Let’s start with Marie Curie. She is arguably the most famous female scientist and for good reason. She was the first person to win two Nobel prizes (in 1903 and 1911) and the only person to win in multiple categories. Her work in radioactivity (a word she invented) led to the discovery of polonium and radium (which she also named); she also helped develop the X-ray machine that is used in hospitals today.

Rosalind_FranklinAnd then there is Rosalind Franklin. She is arguably the most famous female scientist not to win the Nobel prize.  Her work on X-ray crystallography led Watson and Crick to their understanding of the structure of DNA. Unfortunately, she died just four years before they were awarded the Nobel prize; since they are only given to living persons, she was ineligible.

The most famous non-winner of a Nobel Prize (Image courtesy NASA)

The most famous non-winner of a Nobel Prize
(Image courtesy NASA)

Speaking of women who were cheated out of Nobel prizes, we can’t forget Jocelyn Burnell (née Bell). Despite interference from her adviser and derision from the other people on her research team, she discovered a new type of star. Called pulsars, these stellar phenomena are so amazing that the US Navy uses them as an aid for time-keeping! But because the Nobel committee assumed that the work had all been done by her adviser, all she got out of the discovery was a PhD and a stellar career.

Margaret Mead on a US postal stamp (Image courtesy US Post Office)

Margaret Mead on a US postal stamp
(Image courtesy US Post Office)

And then there was Margaret Mead. Her doctoral dissertation on life in Samoa became a best-seller that stayed on the charts for more than 40 years! By investigating how ordinary people lived in a society and by directly interacting with the lower classes, she provided an insight that was unparalleled and revolutionized the field of anthropology.

And these four women are hardly the only ones who have contributed. There is Grace Hopper, who invented most of computing as we know it. There is Marjorie Courtney-Latimer, who discovered the first “living fossil”. There is Mary Anning, who discovered the ichtyosaur , two species of pliesosaur, a pterosaur, and countless ammonites and beleminites (she also told us what coprolites really were {ick!}). The list can and does go on and on.

So celebrate women today. And especially celebrate their contributions to science and to making this world a better and more knowledgeable place!

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