In honor of Jane Goodall and her episode, as part of The Experimenters, we started thinking about all the wonderful, often unheralded, women of science. Here are some amazing thinkers to think about:
Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)
Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA is controversial – or rather, it is the lack of recognition for her contribution that remains hotly debated to this day. In the 1950’s, Franklin was working at King’s College London, experimenting with x-ray diffraction to take pictures of the molecular structure of DNA. One of the key images she made was Photograph 51, which revealed that DNA is made of two helices. These images were shared with James Watson and Francis Crick without her permission. From the images they were able to deduce the structure of DNA, and published their findings without acknowledging Franklin’s images. They eventually received a Nobel prize for their work, while Franklin passed away at the age of 37 from ovarian cancer.
Bell Burnell (1943 – )
As a PhD student at Cambridge, Burnell was working with radio telescopes and observed a pattern of signals unlike anything that had ever been noted. These signals would become known as pulsars – the dense cores of collapsed stars – and have aided in our understanding of the working of the universe, from black holes to the theory of gravity. Although it was Burnell who first identified and analysed pulsars, she was listed second to her thesis advisor, Antony Hewish, on the paper announcing the discovery. Hewish was also awarded the Nobel prize in physics for the discovery, with no mention of Burnell.
Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968)
Lise Meitner was an Austrian physicist who made one of the most important discoveries of the twentieth century. She collaborate for many years with Otto Hahn in their laboratory in Berlin researching radioactivity. In 1939, it was Meitner who correctly detected and described the process of nuclear fission. But by that time, she had already been forced to flee Germany (she was Jewish) for Sweden, and it was Hahn who received the credit for their discovery. He alone was awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry for the discovery of fission.
Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (1947 – )
In the 1980’s, Barre-Sinoussi was a scientist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris studying retroviruses when a mysterious illness began killing young gay men. French doctors came to the Institute seeking help in identifying the cause, and it was Francoise and her team that were able to identify and isolate the virus, later named HIV. They also identified the link between HIV and AIDS and developed the blood test that diagnosed it. The discovery earned Francoise and Luc Montagnier the 2008 Nobel prize for medicine.
Dian Fossy (1932 – 1985)
Like Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey was also mentored and encouraged in her work by famed anthropologist Louis Leakey. He also helped her obtain funding for her long-term study of the mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains. She was a vocal opponent of poaching, and in later years focused her energy on preventing poaching around her Rwandan research site. In 1985, she was discovered murdered in her cabin. The case has never been solved.
Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964)
Rachel Carson was a marine biologist, conservationist, and science writer who wrote the book SIlent Spring. Carson was already a respected science writer when she turned her attention to the use of chemicals and pesticides on the environment in the post-WWII years. SIlent Spring was based on several years of research into the effects of DDT and government spraying programs and its effect on humans. The book, and Carson’s other work, eventually led to the ban on DDT and other pesticides, as well as the environmental movement that resulted in the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Vera Rubin (1928 – )
Vera Rubin graduated from Vassar in 1948 as the only astronomy major in her class. Hoping to do her graduate work at Princeton, she was told that they didn’t accept women in the astronomy department. She went on to study at Cornell and Georgetown, and it was during her PhD research that she made her first important discovery – that galaxies cluster together and orbit around a central point. She went on to prove the theory of dark matter by observing that galaxies moved at the same speed when far away as they did when closer, meaning there must be some unobserved mass holding the far-off stars to their orbits. Like many of the ladies on the list, Vera’s breakthroughs were largely discredited for several decades before finally coming into widespread acceptance.