March the 8th – we’re all familiar with Women’s day. A day attributing marvelous women who made an impact on the world. Sadly, along the way, many records were either swept under the mat or snatched by others taking claim to fame. Quite often, men would take claim for a woman’s work, there was an era where this was clearly an acceptable thing to do.
There are six particularly notable women who made a change we cannot forget:
1. Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Irish Astrophysicist, student of astronomy, architect and designer of the Planetarium in Northern Ireland. Receiving her PhD in Astronomy at Cambridge in 1969, assisting in the construction and design a telescope. One that would later on discover radio pulsars – the leftovers of massive stars.
On discovery, she noted that not only did these massive stars explode, but they left spinning stars behind them. She was also the first to observe and analyze them. Unfairly, her supervisor, Anthony Hewish and his colleague Martin Ryle received the 1974 Nobel Prize, even though her name along with her peers appeared in the academic publication which disclosed their discoveries.
Turning into complete outrage when she snubbed Nobel, her response on the subject in 1977 was quite something:
“There are several comments that I would like to make on this: First, demarcation disputes between supervisor and student are always difficult, probably impossible to resolve. Secondly, it is the supervisor who has the final responsibility for the success or failure of the project. We hear of cases where a supervisor blames his student for a failure, but we know that it is largely the fault of the supervisor.
It seems only fair to me that he should benefit from the successes, too. Thirdly, I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them. Finally, I am not myself upset about it — after all, I am in good company, am I not!”
2. Ada, the Countess of Lovelace
Fearing that her daughter would follow in her father’s footsteps, Anne Isabella Byron pressed her daughter Ada to devote her life to the decidedly unpoetic world of mathematics.
Following her mother’s advice, Ada Lovelace did just that! Developing the first computer and being the first person to write on the subject of computer programming all the way back in the 19th century, explaining how these machines would assist us in solving mathematic equations, create music and even understand words.
Despite all of this, her name receives very little mention, even up until today when it comes tot he history of computing.
3. Rosalind Franklin
Being the first person to photograph DNA’s structure, more commonly known today as the double-helix, Franklin used a method called X-ray diffraction. Taken without permission, her images were published in The Scientific American reports and were shown to Francis Crick and James Watson, who ended up publishing a 1953 edition of Nature with no more than a supporting footnote for Franklin.
Still debated as to how critical Franklin’s image was, if it was indeed stolen – she would never live to see Watson and Crick receive their Nobel Prize. Sadly passing away from cancer in 1958, most likely from the side effects of the great work she performed.
4. Lise Meitner
Austrian, working along side chemist Otto Hahn for 30 years. She was the first to discover nuclear fusion. Which in return brought us the infamous Atomic Bomb.
While fleeing the Nazis, some of her work was completed. As they grew in numbers and gained immense power over Germany, she was stripped of her professorial appointment due to the anti-Judicial race laws. Abandoning her home for Sweden, she continued her work. Upsettingly only Hahn was honored with a 1944 Nobel Prize despite the fact that they had both worked together on the discovery of Nuclear Fusion. They were both nominated! In a letter following this, Meitner wrote.
“Surely Hahn fully deserved the Nobel Prize for chemistry. There is really no doubt about it. But I believe that Otto Robert Frisch and I contributed something not insignificant to the clarification of the process of uranium fission—how it originates and that it produces so much energy and that was something very remote to Hahn.”
With the proceedings becoming public in the 1990’s, the American Physical Society journal – Physics Today ascertained how it was possible for her name to be neglected.
“It appears that Lise Meitner did not share the 1944 prize because the structure of the Nobel committees was ill-suited to assess interdisciplinary work,” the journal wrote. “Because the members of the chemistry committee were unable or unwilling to judge her contribution fairly; and because during the war the Swedish scientists relied on their own limited expertise. Meitner’s exclusion from the chemistry award may well be summarized as a mixture of disciplinary bias, political obtuseness, ignorance, and haste.”
Not receiving a Nobel Prize had no ill effect on Meitner, she did at least receive an element on the Periodic Table – Meitnerium, Mt Atomic number 109.
5. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin
Studying Botany, Physics and Chemistry at Cambridge in the early 20th century, later on migrating to the US to obtain her degree based on the fact that her gender was simply not allowed to graduate up until 1948 in the UK. At Radcliffe College, now associated with Harvard, Payne became the first Astrophysicist with a PhD.
Her thesis, yet to be topped by anyone explains how stars are made of Hydrogen and Helium. It was however years later when Payne’s discovery was finally accepted, all because of Henry Norris Russell. The same man who cautioned Payne that the sun was predominantly made up of hydrogen, after he had published similar findings. He of course went on to receive credit for the conclusion, leaving Payne in the background.
6. Nettie Stevens
Geneticist by qualification, Nettie completed her PhD in 1903. She was the first to discover the importance f the Y chromosome, the one responsible for determining the gender of any given species. The mother and environmental influences were before that thought to determine one’s sex.
Sadly, her male boss, Mr. Thomas Morgan took credit in 1905, even though he has originally discredited her findings.
Throughout history, there were many women who never received the gratitude they should have due to sexism, war, culture and some very apparent fame hungry men out there. Let’s take this post to pay tribute to a few who changed history in the making.
Thank you to All That Is Interesting for this great article.