5 Groundbreaking Female Scientists You Need to Know
As the third season of Showtime gem "Masters of Sex" premieres on Sunday, Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson are gearing up to publish the sexology tome that made them famous, "Human Sexual Response" (1966). The only show that requires me to scrounge up access to Showtime, "Masters of Sex" is a brilliant historically-based drama that I have been madly in love with since day one. "The study of sex is the beginning of all life. Yet we sit like prudish cavemen in the dark riddled with shame and guilt," Masters says.
In the show and in real life though, Masters would have been nowhere without Virginia Johnson, who bravely provided a necessary (oh-so necessary, still necessary) female perspective in the oft-misunderstood field of sex. Since we’re apparently still having the conversation about women in science, let’s just take a minute to remember some of the contributions of female scientists, in a field that has been biased against them for decades.
1. Marie Curie (1867 – 1934)
The one and only. As you well know, Marie Curie was a Polish physicist who performed groundbreaking research on radioactivity (groundbreaking in the sense that she coined the term "radioactivity"). She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person to win twice, and still is the only woman to have won twice. Curie was very aware of the necessity of publishing her findings quickly, insuring herself credit where it was due, which has notoriously not been the case for many female scientists throughout history.
2. Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)
Rosalind Franklin was an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer who was appreciated for her work with coal and viruses in her lifetime, but who is now best known for her important research on the molecular structure of DNA. There has been a great deal of writing (and controversy) on the sexism Franklin faced throughout her career, beginning with her father not wanting her to pursue science, and continuing through her years with Watson and Crick (the guys who got most of the DNA glory). Crick admitted himself: “I’m afraid we always used to adopt — let's say, a patronizingattitude towards her.” She died before Watson, Crick, and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work on nucleic acids and the double helix structure of DNA.
3. Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909 – 2012)
An Italian Nobel laureate honored for her work in Neurobiology, Rita Levi-Montalcini persisted in her field even in the face of fascist laws in Italy banning Jews from academic and professional careers. During World War II she set up a lab in her bedroom and studied the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos, which laid the groundwork for future Nobel Prize-winning discovery of nerve growth factor as a research associate at Washington University in St. Louis. Levi-Montalcini also served in the Italian Senate from 2001-2012, as a Senator for Life.
4. Jane Goodall (1934 – present)
If you’ve never read any of Jane Goodall's writing, pick up Through a Window and get going. As someone who is not at all an animal lover (I mean, they’re fine), even I have loved and been fascinated by everything I’ve read of her work. We all know at least the basics: she is considered the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, after having spent a cumulative 55 years living among them and researching their behavior in Tanzania. But reading her actual research is a much deeper, enlightening experience. She founded the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977, and is a critical world leader in conservation and animal rights.
5. Sarah Tuttle (@niais)
You probably have not heard of astrophysicist Sarah Tuttle’s work, but she recently delivered a defense of female scientists on Twitter that’s groundbreaking in its own right. At the World Conference of Science Journalists a few weeks ago, Nobel-Prize winning scientist Tim Hunt proved once more that smart people can be very, very stupid. “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” he reportedly said. "You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry!" Wow.
Luckily, Sarah Tuttle took to Twitter to express her well-deserved frustration toward Hunt’s half-assed apology: "Dear Tim Hunt, We knew what you meant, actually. Your honesty is welcome. Do you know what we honestly think? We honestly think that you have no place in science. We honestly think that your attitudes are backwards, draconian, and inappropriate." Read the whole glorious rant here.
Because the sad truth is that every female scientist is doing groundbreaking work by simply showing up, working hard, and continuing to show up in the face of deeply ingrained sexism in the intellectual community. Ladies, keep crushing it.
Photo Credit: Masters of Sex Facebook