Unsung Women Who Changed Science

“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.” Rosalind Franklin

Women have made great scientific discoveries throughout history.  Unfortunately, due to cultural mindsets during their time, many were not recognized for their work. In celebration of Women’s History Month, we are paying homage to just a few of the women we can thank for key discoveries and contributions that modernized the world of science.

Esther Lederberg

Born Esther Zimmer in 1922, she and grew up in the Bronx, New York. Dr. Lederberg attended Hunter College where she first planned to study French or literature, but made the final decision to study biochemistry.  Post-graduation she worked as a research assistant at the Carnegie Institution of Washington.  In 1944, she began a graduate program at Stanford University where she studied bacterial genetics, and earned her Master of Arts. She married Joshua Lederberg, and began her doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin in 1946.

As a graduate student she became the first person to isolate the λ bacteriophage and discovered that the virus was not found in the cytoplasm but on the host chromosome. Dr. Lederberg’s work with the bacteriophage helped to increase the understanding of the genetic mechanisms of horizontal gene transfer and specialized transduction. This created the foundation for successive work in the field of genetics; for example, the model to study other viruses such as the Herpes virus.

Dr. Lederberg’s husband (whom she later divorced) won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1958 for the work.  Though the work was collaborative, he did not mention her role in any of the discoveries.

Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin was born in 1920 in London, England.  She attended St. Paul’s Girls’ School which happened to be one of the few institutions at the time that taught girls physics and chemistry. Dr. Franklin began her undergraduate studies in chemistry at Cambridge University in 1938.

After her graduation in 1941, she went on to graduate work in the lab of R.G.W. Norrish. Unfortunately, she received little support or encouragement from her mentor because she was a woman. Dr. Franklin was offered an assistant research officer position at the British Coal Utilization Research Association (BCURA).  This position helped her pursue PhD work relevant to current events which, at that time, was World War II. She went on to receive her PhD from Cambridge in 1945.

Dr. Franklin was later introduced to Marcel Mathieu who offered her a job as chercheur (researcher) in the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat. This is where she learned to use x-ray crystallography to analyze carbon structures. In 1950, Dr. Franklin moved back to England to work in John T. Randall’s Biophysics Unit at King’s College in London where she used two different x-ray diffraction techniques to get a clear structure of DNA.

Without Dr. Franklin’s knowledge, Francis Crick and James Watson, who were also working on a theoretical model of DNA, were shown a summary of her unpublished work and some x-ray diffraction photos by Franklin’s colleague, Maurice Wilkins. The data confirmed the structure that Watson and Crick had theorized. They published their theoretical DNA structure in the same Nature issue as Franklin and Wilkins published their x-ray structure data.

Dr. Franklin passed away in 1958 from cancer when she was only 37.  James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962.  There was no mention of Franklin’s contributions.

Nettie Stevens          

Nettie Stevens was born in 1861 in Cavendish, Vermont, but moved to Westford, Massachusetts at age four. Her exceptional academic ability was noted early by her teachers. She attended Westford Academy from age 11 through graduation.

Dr. Stevens taught high school for a year before enrolling in a teachers’ college in Westfield, Massachusetts where she excelled in algebra, chemistry, and geometry. She finished in only two years, and again began teaching. She diligently saved her money to go back to school because she knew that she wanted to be a scientist.

She attended Stanford University from 1896 to 1899 where she earned a degree in physiology.  During this time, Dr. Stevens spent the summers working at the Stanford Hopkins Seaside Laboratory where she studied microscopic anatomy of organisms. This led to her earning her master’s degree in 1900.

Dr. Stevens began working toward her PhD at Bryn Mawr which she earned in 1903 at age 42.  After earning her degree, she went on to an assistantship at Carnegie Institute.  She studied mealworms and determined that males have both X and Y chromosomes, while females have only X.  She also reached the conclusion that not only is sex a chromosomal factor that is inherited, but male determines the gender. Her work on the topic was published as a Carnegie Institute report in 1905. Sadly, Dr. Stevens’ career was cut short when she died of cancer in 1912.

Thomas Hunt Morgan was credited with the work and awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1933 for his discoveries concerning the role played by chromosome in heredity.  While Stevens and Morgan did work together, nearly all of her findings were independent.  She was credited simply as a technician in a Science journal article.

Chien-Shiung Wu

Though Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu was a physicist rather than a biologist, her participation in a world changing project made her a necessary part of this list. Dr. Wu was born in China in 1912.  She studied at the National Central University in Nanjing.  Her initial field of study was mathematics, but she later changed her focus to physics.  Dr. Wu studied at the graduate level at Zhejiang University for two years, and then was a researcher at the Institute of Physics of the Academia Sinica in the Nangang District of Taipei. She was initially accepted at the University of Michigan, but instead attended the University of California, Berkeley.

Dr. Wu joined the Manhattan Project at Columbia University in 1944.  Her research helped to develop the process for enriching uranium.  This led to the ability to produce fuel for atomic bombs.

After her work on the Manhattan Project, Dr. Wu conducted an experiment which contradicted the “law of conservation of parity”. Physicists Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang won the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics for the project. Though her experiment had contributed greatly to the project, Dr. Wu was excluded from the prize.

Learn more about these brilliant women and several other scientists by checking out these resources:

6 Women Scientists Who Were Snubbed to Due to Sexism

Ten Historic Female Scientists You Should Know

10 Groundbreaking Women Scientists Written Off By History

Beyond Tesla: History’s Most Overlooked Scientists

Esther Lederberg, Pioneer of Bacterial Genetics

DNA from the Beginning: Nettie Maria Stevens

Nettie Stevens: A Discoverer of Sex Chromosomes

Famous Scientists: Nettie Stevens

DNA from the Beginning: Rosalind Franklin

U.S. National Library of Medicine: The Rosalind Franklin Papers

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