In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re featuring a multi-part tribute to notable women in science. From biology and medicine to mathematics and physics, women made many important discoveries and theoretical leaps that were too-often lost in history, particularly before the late 20th century. This series will chronicle some of science’s most innovative, insightful women.
Merit Ptah (c. 2700 BCE)
The history of women in science begins with Merit Ptah. Her title of “Chief Physician” is inscribed on a tomb at Saqqara, next to fellow Chief Physicians Imhotep and her (unnamed) son, making her the first woman named in any scientific field. Although her exact accomplishments are unknown, her title implies she was a teacher and supervisor for other doctors as well as a practicing physician for the royal court. In honor of her status, modern scientists named a crater in Venus after her.
Nettie Stevens (1861-1912)
With a research career spanning only 11 years, Nettie Stevens discovered two species of unicellular organisms, published 40 papers, won the 1905 Ellen Richards Prize for the best scientific paper written by a woman, and provided evidence that X and Y chromosomes determine the sex of an organism. She worked as a teacher from the age of 19 to continue her education, culminating in an M.A. from Stanford University and a Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr College. She originally started work with protozoa. From there, she migrated to cytology and then embryology. She published her paper on the Y chromosome (Studies in Spermatogenesis, Part I) in 1905, then continued working as an associate at Bryn Mawr College until she succumbed to breast cancer in 1912.
Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012)
Born in Turin, Italy to a Sephardic Jewish family in 1909, Rita Levi-Montalcini overcame both her father’s resistance to her education and World War II to pursue neurophysiological studies. Although she started in universities, she resorted to a make-shift lab in her basement to further her research when Benito Mussolini’s 1938 Manifesto of Race banned her from seeking an intellectual career. After the war, she accepted a residency at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where she worked for 30 years. She won the 1986 Nobel Prize for Medicine with biochemist Stanley Cohen for discovering nerve growth factor (NGF) and epidermal growth factor (EGF). Also, she helped form multiple foundations and institutions and continued researching until her passing on December 30, 2012.
Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
Rosalind Franklin is best known for her pioneering x-ray diffraction images showing the double helix structure of DNA. Before that, she worked as an associate research officer with the British Coal Utilization Research Association (CURA) and wrote her Ph.D. thesis on the porosity of coal. Famously, a dispute with her colleague led to her images suggesting DNA’s double-helix structure being leaked to rival scientists James Watson and Francis Crick. Watson and Crick received the Nobel Prize for “their work on the structure of DNA” 4 years after Rosalind Franklin died of ovarian cancer. Despite her young passing, she was heavily awarded posthumously for her studies of DNA.
Any women you want us to honor next time? Let us know in the comments below!