Wondrous Women of Science
Although the International Day of Women and Girls in Science has passed, the BMSA Communications team wanted to shed light on some important women in the scientific field for international Women’s Day. We wanted to bring to light some of the contributions, hurdles and progress of women in science and continue the difficult conversation about achievement, opportunity and access.
As a society, we tend to highlight big discoveries and downplay the role of collaborators. While much of this is true today, it was especially true in previous centuries. Because of the social norms of the 18th century, women could often only access science by acting as supporters for a male researcher. As well, the institutionalism of “hard sciences” like physics and chemistry in the 19th century left women behind to more field-related work (“soft sciences”), like biology, because women were often excluded from professional spaces due to implicit and explicit biases because women were often seen as less intelligent or incompatible with the nature of science.
We acknowledge that science is a collective enterprise, and as such, recognize that many other individuals and groups are also deserving of attention. We recognize that this post does not encapsulate all of the important work people did.
We hope this post will, however, encourage us to think about why societies have made producing talent difficult, and why this task still may be difficult today. Although we must be careful to not overplay the role of women in science and distort history, we must remember the barriers that women faced in order to participate in the field we all love and continue asking ourselves how these barriers have shifted or evolved today.
Contributor Claire Millard
In 1945, Lise Meitner was overlooked for the Nobel prize awarded solely to Otto Hahn, by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, for the discovery of nuclear fission despite Meitner’s contributions. Nuclear fission is the subdivision of atomic nuclei that is followed by the release of large amounts of energy.
During her time in Germany, she and Hahn discovered the protactinium isotope which she was awarded the Leibniz Medal for. Meitner also explained the cause of the Auger effect in 1922, explaining the physical property of the filling vacancies in the inner valence shell of an atoms when core electrons are removed.
Lise Meitner was outstanding in many ways. Alongside her contributions to the discovery of nuclear fission opening a door to new scientific potential, she was the second woman at the University of Vienna to receive a doctorate and she was the first woman to become a full physics professor at the University of Berlin.
Meitner began her education at the University of Vienna in 1901, where she studied physics under the instruction of Ludwig Boltzmann and received her doctorate degree from the university. After obtaining her degree, she moved her studies to Berlin to study with Max Planck and Otto Hahn. Meitner continued to work with Hahn for upwards of 30 years until Hitler took over Germany and she fled to Sweden.
Upon arriving in Sweden, Meitner continued with her work corresponding with German scientists. After years of work, Hahn discovered evidence of what was later termed “nuclear fission” by Meitner. Although she and her nephew were the the first to explain the process of nuclear fission, Hahn drastically downplayed her role in the discovery leading to her exclusion from the Nobel Prize.
The discovery prompted Einstein to reach out to the President at the time, giving rise to the Manhattan Project during WWI creating the first nuclear weapons. Meitner, despite discovering the explosive potential of the process, refused to be a part of the Project because didn’t want to have anything to do with a bomb.
Although she was awarded many outstanding titles throughout her years as a scientist, her exclusion from the Nobel prize for nuclear fission is considered “the Nobel mistake”. And as written on her tombstone, she will be remembered as "Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity”.
Contributor Michelle Li
Gertrude B. Elion
January 23, 1918 – February 21, 1999
Gertrude Elion always had a thirst for knowledge. But after her grandfather died of cancer when she was 15 years old, she was especially motivated to get involved in medicine. She has made significant contributions to the healthcare and research world, and even received a Nobel Prize in 1988 alongside George H.
Hitchings and Sir James W. Black for their development of prominent drugs, like AZT and acyclovir, to treat several major diseases like AIDS/HIV, leukemia, malaria and herpes, just to name a few.
Elion graduated with a degree in chemistry at Hunter College in New York City. However, Elion was not allowed to work in research laboratories because she was a woman. She was eventually able to land a job working as a laboratory assistant with a chemist. Despite not being paid for her work, she thought the experience would have been valuable nonetheless.
Elion later went on to attend graduate school at New York University in 1939 and was the only female in her class. She also took on various teaching roles in addition to doing her research work and obtained her Master of Science degree in chemistry two years later.
Elion first began her work in a research lab when became an assistant to George Hitchings. At the same time, she started her next journey of obtaining her doctorate degree at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute where she attended on a part-time basis. Unfortunately, she was not allowed to continue her doctorate on a part-time basis and ultimately decided to give up her pursuit to obtain her doctorate degree in order to continue her work with Hitchings.
In the lab, Elion and Hitchings worked on finding substances to inhibit metabolic pathways which could be developed into drugs. Their approach to developing these drugs was different than other pharmacologists. Instead of using trial-and-error, they used “rational drug design” methods which limited the amount of guesswork they did because they relied on their understandings of biochemistry and physiological processes to develop effective drugs.
Despite being officially retired, Elion also helped oversee the development of azidothymidine (AZT) which was the first drug used in the treatment of AIDS. She has greatly impacted the world of medicine and research with her extraordinary contributions and should always be remembered for her determination and dedication to science.
Contributor Si-Cheng Dai
Alice A. Ball
July 24, 1892 – December 31, 1916
Alice A. Ball: a brilliant African-American woman who discovered the first effective treatment for leprosy, making massive strides in the chemistry field. Despite her hard work in these fields, other scientists often tried to take credit for her discoveries. Fortunately, her legacy has recently come to light through acknowledgements from the state of Hawaii, where she worked as an instructor and researcher.
Ball attended the University of Washington and obtained there her undergraduate degrees in pharmaceutical chemistry and pharmacy. After her undergraduate education, Ball began to claim first title for many accomplishments. After moving to Honolulu, Hawaii to pursue graduate studies at the College of Hawaii, she became both the first African American and the first woman to obtain an M.S. degree in chemistry. Subsequently, Ball became the first female chemistry instructor at the university. And, more importantly to the thousands of lives she saved, Ball became the first person to procure an effective treatment for leprosy.
Leprosy is a long-term bacterial infection that can leave the victim with nerve damage and lesions on the skin and eyes; those with leprosy are prone to secondary infections that cause disfigurement of extremities. In Ball’s time, oil from the chaulmoogra tree, applied topically, was known to reduce symptoms of leprosy. Dr. Harry T. Hollmann, an assistant professor at Kalihi Hospital, saw Ball as a promising and inventive chemist and recruited her to work on producing a water-soluble, injectable form of chaulmoogra tree oil that would better treat those with leprosy. After working arduously on this project, Ball was able to produce such a solution, complete with no side effects. The eponymous “Ball Method” was shipped out across the globe, alleviating symptoms of thousands and enabling victims to return home to overjoyed families.
Tragedy then struck. Ball died on December 31, 1916 from chlorine gas poisoning in a laboratory accident. After her death, the president of the College of Hawaii, Arthur Dean, continued Ball’s work — and gave no credit to her.
There were also those who wanted the truth to come out. Six years after Ball’s death, Dr. Hollmann published a paper giving credit to Ball for developing the treatment for leprosy — a proper send off for the woman he recruited.
In the last two decades, even more praise has been deservingly given to Ball. A dedication plaque to Ball was placed under the only chaulmoogra tree in the University of Hawaii (formerly the College of Hawaii), and the Lieutenant Governor declared February 29 “Alice Ball Day.” The university also awarded a posthumous Regents’ Medal of Distinction to Ball for her efforts.
Ball’s chaulmoogra tree oil treatment for leprosy was used for an impressive twenty years before further drug innovations replaced it; her legacy, meanwhile, will continue to inspire others for generations to come
Contributor Ramtin Hakimjavadi
Rachel Louise Carson
May 27, 1907 – April 14, 1964
Rachel Louise Carson (May 27, 1907 – April 14, 1964) grew up in the rural river town of Springdale, Pennsylvania. As an American marine biologist, author, and conservationist, she was truly a student of nature. Her work served to significantly increase the environmental awareness of the public.
Carson life-long love of nature and the living world led her to pursue a degree in biology at a time that was very rare for women. She graduated from Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University) in 1929, studied at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, and received her MA in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932.
In her early career, she devoted much of her time in the federal service, and eventually became Editor-in-Chief of all publications for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She wrote several books on the sea, detailing discoveries from submarine technologies and underwater research, initially becoming famous as a naturalist and science writer for the public. Some of her early notable works include “Under the Sea-Wind” (1941) and her prize-winning study of the ocean, “The Sea Around Us” (1952). By 1952, Carson completely devoted herself to her writing when she resigned from government service.
After World War II, the overuse of synthetic chemical pesticides prompted Carson to warn the public about the long-term effects of misusing pesticides. In her most famous book “Silent Spring” (1962), largely credited with influencing the launch of the contemporary environmental movement, she challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and helped to focus opposition to dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) use. Despite fierce attacks by the chemical industry, her book played an instrumental role in a reversal in national pesticide policy, which led to a nationwide ban on several pesticides including DDT.
Despite extreme opposition, and being a female scientist in a male-dominated field, Carson courageously continued to remind us that we are a vulnerable part of the natural world subject to the same damage as the rest of the ecosystem. Carson also questioned widely held beliefs in government and private science that human domination of nature was the correct course for the future. She emphasized that human beings have the power to fundamentally alter nature, in some cases irreversibly. In 1963, Carson testified before Congress to call for new policies to protect human health and the environment.
Rachel Carson died in 1964 after a long battle against breast cancer. Carson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter - one of the most prestigious civilian awards in the United States. She will be remembered for being among the first to ask difficult questions about whether and why humans have the right to control nature, and her work in Silent Spring will serve as a guide for the future of all life on Earth.