Their breakthroughs still inspire us as much as they benefit us today.
Virtually every modern comfort of a First World society, from clean water on tap, to antibiotics, to modern high-rise buildings, is the result of a historical advancement in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines. While STEM disciplines are often still male-dominant, there have been many women throughout history that have risen to the challenge of shining in a field they are passionate about. Here are seven women who whose achievements still resonate with us today, all of whom made their achievements without the aid of modern knowledge or tools, and often against strong odds.
Ada Lovelace (1815–1852)
Daughter of the infamous Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace was a mathematician and writer. She is best known for her work on Charles Babbage’s proposed Analytical Engine, a mechanical device that would have been the first general-purpose computer had it been fully constructed. Ada’s proposed algorithm for calculating Bernoulli numbers made her the first computer programmer (albeit for a machine that was never realized). Her design still has much in common with, and paved the way for, modern computers.
Florence Nightingale (1820–1910)
Known as the founder of modern nursing or more colourfully as the “Lady with the Lamp”, Florence Nightingale’s skill in mathematics and contribution to statistics are less well known but no less deserving of praise. A pioneer in the graphical presentation of statistical information, she used the then-new pie chart and developed the polar diagram (an early form of histogram) to present statistical information in a more accessible fashion. Later, Florence conducted statistical studies in the interest of bettering sanitation and medical care for the British Army.
Marie Curie (1867–1934)
A physicist and chemist, Marie Curie remains the only woman to have won two Nobel Prizes. The first of these was awarded to her in 1903 for her work in physics. This Nobel Prize was jointly shared with her husband, Pierre Curie, and Henri Becquerel, all three having been collaborators in the discovery of radioactivity. This discovery opened the door to the field of nuclear physics, which would eventually lead to the field of nuclear medicine, and of course nuclear power. Marie also took some of the first steps into the nuclear medicine field when she used radon gas to sterilize wounds during her time as a radiologist on the French front of WWI.
Marie’s second Nobel Prize, this time for chemistry, was awarded to her in 1911. It was given in recognition of her discovery of the radioactive elements radium and polonium. Her discovery filled in the gaps of the then-incomplete periodic table of elements. It also spurred interest into practical uses for radioactive elements, the legacy of which can be found if you visit any sufficiently-equipped hospital, or even in your own home—ionization-type smoke detectors use some of these elements.
Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1906–1972)
A theoretical physicist, Maria Goeppert-Mayer’s lifelong interest in science led her to propose the nuclear shell model for the atomic nucleus in 1940. This model, used to determine how many neutrons and protons would combine to form stable atomic nuclei, became a cornerstone for atomic physics. It was key in the development of nuclear weaponry and nuclear power. In 1963, Maria and two other physicists were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for physics. After a lifetime of work in science, including time on the Manhattan Project, the Maria Goeppert-Mayer award was established by the American Physical Society.
Beatrice Shilling (1909–1990)
The British Royal Air Force found itself at a technological disadvantage in the 1940 Battle of Britain. Many of the RAF’s Spitfire and Hurricane fighter planes experienced engine failure while attempting certain combat manoeuvres. Into this mess stepped Beatrice Shilling, an experienced engineer who came up with “Shilling’s orifice”, a simple metal disc with a hole that restricted fuel flow to avoid flooding the engine’s carburettor. This very simple but effective stopgap put RAF fighter planes on more equal footing with their opponents and gave them a fighting chance to drive off the Axis warplanes until a more permanent solution for the engine problem could be developed.
While considered obsolete for modern engines, Beatrice’s bit of ingenuity can be considered a vital “brick in the foundation” that allowed Britain to hold out long enough for the Allies to turn the tide of WWII.
Hedy Lamarr (1914–2000)
Another wartime innovator, Hedy Lamarr was a Hollywood actress-turned-inventor who, with the aid of George Antheil, came up with frequency-hopping technology that would bypass single-frequency radio jamming. Originally intended for radio-guided torpedoes in WWII, Hedy filed a patent in 1942, but her design was not implemented by the U.S. armed forces until 1962. However, derivatives of her design continue to be used in military communications and Bluetooth devices today.
Vera Rubin (1928–2016)
An astronomer who had a lifelong fascination with the stars, Vera Rubin was also known as the “Mother of Dark Matter”. Vera overcame a long-held bias against women in astronomy. In 1970, she made critical observations that eventually formed the theoretical basis for the existence of dark matter. This and other findings paved the way for dark matter research that continues to this day.
These are just seven of the women who have made an impact in the STEM disciplines. Knowing they had a lot to contribute, the women mentioned above overcame their challenges and changed the world in significant ways through their STEM achievements.