Lise Meitner, the second woman to receive a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Vienna, discovered that uranium atoms were split when bombarded with neutrons. The discovery eventually led to the atomic bomb. From 1907-1912, Meitner worked at the Berlin Institute for Chemistry as an unpaid research scientist solely because of her gender. After being introduced to radio-chemist Otto Hahn, a thirty-year partnership in experimental work on radioactive elements took course until Meitner was forced to flee in 1938 under the Third Reich. A Jew and a woman, Meitner was left out of the nuclear fission published findings, and in 1944, Hahn won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his contributions in splitting the atom. Later Hahn rationalized Meitner's exclusion, burying her role even deeper. Although the Nobel Prize exclusion was never acknowledged, it was partly rectified in 1966, when Hahn, Meitner, and Fritz Strassmann were awarded the U.S. Fermi Prize.
Described as the world's first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace was an English mathematician and writer chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage's early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. The daughter of Lord Byron, Lovelace referred to herself as a "poetical scientist." Her notes on the Analytical Engine are considered the first algorithm ever specifically tailored for implementation on a computer.
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Rosalind Franklin was a biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer who played a key role in developing our modern understanding of the molecular structures of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal and graphite. Famed scientists Watson, Crick and Wilkins would go on to receive credit for discovering DNA's double helix structure even though Franklin's work was essential to the breakthrough. The three men earned the Nobel Prize for their discovery in 1962. Nobel Prizes aren’t awarded posthumously, and Franklin died in 1958 of ovarian cancer at the age of 37.
Photo: National Library of Medicine
Hedy Lamarr was an actress who was a contract star of MGM's "Golden Age." She was also an inventor who, along with George Antheil, invented an early technique for spread spectrum communications and frequency hopping, which is necessary for wireless communication from the pre-computer age to the present day. This work was honored in 1997, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave Lamarr a belated award for her contributions.
Elizabeth Blackwell was a physician who was the first woman to become a medical doctor in the United States as well as the first woman on the UK Medical Register. She was the first openly identified woman to graduate from medical school and a pioneer in promoting the education of women in medicine in the United States. Blackwell viewed medicine as a means for social and moral reform.
Esther Lederberg was a microbiologist and pioneer of bacterial genetics. While Lederberg deserved credit for the discovery of lambda phage, her work on the F fertility factor, and especially, replica plating, she never received it due to sexism. Lederberg's work would grow to lay the groundwork for future discoveries on genetic inheritance in bacteria, gene regulation and genetic recombination.
Photo: Esther M. Zimmer Lederberg
Chien-Shiung Wu was recruited to Columbia University in the 1940s as part of the Manhattan Project. She conducted research on radiation detection and uranium enrichment and eventually overturned a law of parity. The physics milestone led to a 1957 Nobel Prize for Wu's partners, but not for Wu, who was left out despite her critical role. She became known as one of the best experimental physicists of her time.
Photo: Smithsonian Institution Archives
By working on mealworms, Nettie Stevens was able to deduce that the males produced sperm with X and Y chromosomes and that females produced reproductive cells with only X chromosomes. This was evidence supporting the theory that sex determination is directed by an organism's genetics. Due to gender discrimination, Thomas Hunt Morgan, a prominent geneticist at the time, is often credited with discovering the genetic basis for sex determination.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Jocelyn Bell Burnell made the first discovery of a pulsar, a rapidly rotating neutron star. As a postgraduate student helping to build a radio telescope, Bell Burnell noticed an anomaly in the data. Her thesis supervisor, Antony Hewish, was insistent that the anomaly was man-made but Bell Burnell persisted on her findings. Ultimately, it was Hewish and Martin Ryle who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery, while Bell Burnell was left out of the story. Many prominent astronomers expressed outrage at the omission, including Sir Fred Hoyle and Dr. Iosif Shklovsky. Since, Bell Burnell has not let the oversight put a cloud over her career. In February 2013 she was named one of the 100 most powerful women in the United Kingdom by Woman's Hour on BBC Radio, and in February 2014 she was made President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the first woman to take that office.
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Betty Jean Jennings
The ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) was the world’s first electronic computer. It was a joint project between the U.S. Army and the University of Pennsylvania. Six women, including Betty Jean Jennings was one of the world's first “computers” (a job title, not a machine) hired by the university. At the time, the computer was used to calculate ballistics trajectories for World War II.
Pictured are Jean Jennings Bartik (left) and Frances Bilas Spence (right) preparing for the public unveiling of ENIAC, February 1946.
Photo: U.S. Army
Kathleen "Kay" McNulty
Kay McNulty was one of the six original programmers of the ENIAC, the first general-purpose electronic digital computer. Kay accepted her job as a "computer" in 1942 at a starting annual salary of $1,620. In June 1945, Kay was selected to be one of its first programmers, along with several other women from the computer corps.
Betty Holberton was one of the six original programmers of ENIAC. During World War II while the men were fighting, the Army needed women to compute ballistics trajectories. Holberton was hired by the Moore School of Engineering to work as a "computor" and was soon chosen to be one of the six women to program the ENIAC.
Photo: U.S. Army
Marlyn Melzer was one of the six original programmers of ENIAC. She was hired by the Moore School of Engineering in 1942 to perform weather calculations, mainly because she knew how to operate an adding machine; in 1943, she was hired to perform calculations for ballistics trajectories. And in 1945, she was selected to become one of the first group of ENIAC programmers. At the time, little recognition was attributed to the women working on the computer.
Frances Bilas majored in mathematics with a minor in physics and graduated in 1942. While there, she met Kay McNulty, who also later became an ENIAC programmer.
Ruth was hired by the Moore School of Engineering to compute ballistics trajectories and was later selected as one of the first programmers for the ENIAC. Along with Marlyn Meltzer, Licterman was on a special team of ENIAC programmers. They calculated ballistics trajectory equations painstakingly using desktop calculators, an analog technology of the time. Photographed are women programmers, it is unclear if Ruth is pictured.
Admiral Grace Hopper was not only one of the first female programmers, but also the first woman to graduate from Yale with a PhD in mathematics and the first woman to reach the rank of Admiral in the U.S. Navy. Hopper invented the first computer compiler in 1952. She also popularized the idea of machine-independent programming languages, which led to the development of COBOL, one of the first modern programming languages, and was instrumental in the creation of FLOW-MATIC language for the UNIVAC I and UNIVAC II computers.
Photo: Smithsonian Institution
Carla Meninsky was hired as a game designer for the Atarti 2600 console in the early 1980s. She was one of only two female engineers working at Atari, the other being Carol Shaw. While at Atari, Meninsky was responsible for the development of Indy 500 (1977), Star Raiders (1979), and Dodge ‘Em, an award winning racing game released in 1980.
Roberta Williams is a video game designer whose best known work was for the King’s Quest videogame series, a series widely considered to be a classic from a golden era of adventure games. Along with her husband, Roberta went on to found On-Line Systems, which became Sierra On-Line (now owned by Activision Blizzard) and turned Williams and her husband into leading figures in the graphical adventure game genre. Ars Technica stated that Roberta Williams was "one of the more iconic figures in adventure gaming".