- What is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science?
- Who are some of the top women in science throughout history?
On February 11th, it’s the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day that we should honour the most influential and inspirational female scientists. But, we hear you ask, who are these women? And what did they do? Read on to discover a mere handful of these amazing people and why they deserve their very own day.
What is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science?
The International Day of Women and Girls in Science was established on the 22nd December 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly in order to “achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, and further achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls”.
Celebrated every year since then on February 11th, this day should remind us that, while women have continued to participate significantly at all levels of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), they’re still not represented and recognised as much as they should be.
Who are some of the top women in science throughout history?
If we asked you to think of the most famous names in science, you’d probably answer with names such as Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin or Sir Issac Newton. Or maybe you’d come back to us with someone from more recent years such as Stephen Hawking. And while these outstanding scientists did incredible work and have contributed greatly to how we live today, we should also acknowledge the often unrecognised women who have paved ways in science and earned accolades for themselves too. 🏆
There are so many women that should be heralded for their trailblazing work, so we’ve chosen five for you to learn about.
#1 Katherine Johnson
A physicist and mathematician who worked with NASA in calculating trajectories, launch windows and return paths for a significant number of well-known space flights, you may recognise the work of Katherine Johnson from the Oscar-winning movie, Hidden Figures. 🎥
During NASA’s early years, she was part of a team who solved equations by hand; this earned her the name “computer” because of her outstanding mathematical capabilities.
Johnson took part in projects such as Project Mercury which saw the first man fly into space and Apollo 11 in 1969, the first time a human landed on the moon. 🌙
In 2012, she told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper: “You tell me when and where you want it to come down, and I will tell you where and when and how to launch it.”
2015 saw Johnson be awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, which is America’s highest civilian honour and is given to people “who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavours.”
More than well-deserved, don’t you think?
#2 Caroline Herschel
Not only was Caroline Herschel the first woman to discover a comet, but she was also the first woman to be awarded a Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1838. So, who is this stellar woman?
Well, her life may have gone in a completely different direction had she pursued singing, which is the main reason she moved from her homeland of Germany to the English city of Bath to join her older brother, William, in 1772.
However, as destiny would have it, the pair became fascinated by astronomy so therefore focused on this and put singing on the backburner. Herschel helped William by recording celestial observations and producing more precise lenses so that they could explore the sky at night; between the two of them, the siblings recorded about 2500 new nebulae and star clusters. What are nebulae? Nebulae, or nebula for the singular word form, are giant clouds of dust and gas that sit between stars and act as nurseries for new stars. ✨
In 1787, along with William, Herschel was employed by King George III after being the first woman to discover a comet. This also made her the first woman to be paid for scientific work.
If you think that’s not enough, she now has a comet, an asteroid, a crater on the Moon and a space telescope named after her. 🔭
And to think, she originally wanted to be a singer! It’s like it was written in the stars. 💫
#3 Alice Augusta Ball
Imagine inventing the cure for a serious disease like leprosy and then having that cure named after you! Well, that’s what happened to Alice Augusta Ball.
A superstar science student who went on to get, not one, but two degrees at the University of Washington – one in pharmaceutical chemistry and the other in pharmacy – Alice August Ball was the first woman and first African American person to earn a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii in 1915.
Thanks to her master’s research on the chemical make-up and active ingredients of kava root (piper methysticum), Dr. Harry T. Hollman asked Ball to join his team at Kalihi Hospital in Honolulu to research treatments for leprosy. If you had leprosy in Hawaii at that time, you were banished to another island and forced to live in isolation until you died. 😨
There was only one treatment available for leprosy and it was the oil taken from the seeds of the chaulmoogra tree; however, it was very difficult to use chaulmoogra oil because its pungent taste made you vomit, and if you tried to inject it, it would form blisters under your skin from being too thick. So, what could be done?
Ball came to the rescue and succeeded in isolating ethyl ester compounds in the oil via the use of alcohol. Once she had chemically modified the compounds, she was left with an extract that was injectable and could be easily absorbed in the bloodstream. 💉
Later coined the “Ball method”, use of this technique led to 78 leprosy sufferers to be free of lesions in 1918.
Sadly, Alice Augusta Ball did not live long enough to enjoy her success and died in 1916 at the age of 24. But her work has left a legacy and in 2000, the Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii declared February 29th as ‘Alice Ball Day’.
#4 Elizabeth Garrett Anderson
A pioneering physician, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was the first Englishwoman to qualify as a doctor. 🩺
After dashing her parents’ dreams of getting married after finishing school, Anderson decided that she would, instead, become a doctor. However, this was easier said than done and, despite having a decent education, she was rejected from several medical schools due to women studying medicine being unheard of at the time.
Instead, she enrolled at Middlesex Hospital as a nursing student and went to classes that were actually intended for men. After many complaints from other students, she was banned from attending them again. In 1865, she passed her exams, but the Society of Apothecaries immediately put a ban on female entrants following her success. 🤨
Still determined to get a medical degree, Anderson taught herself French and went to the University of Paris. Here, she successfully earned her degree, but the British Medical Register refused to accept her qualification. So, in 1890 she went on to open the New Hospital for Women in London, which later became London School of Medicine for Women, at which she was the Dean.
Never one to sit back and accept the patriarchy, Anderson’s continuous campaigning efforts eventually led to the legalisation of females entering the profession of medicine in 1876. 🎉
Does fierce feminism run in the family? It seems so: Anderson’s daughter Louisa was a prominent suffragette in the early 1900s. 💪
#5 Mary Anning
Mary Anning, born in 1799 in Dorset’s picturesque coastal town Lyme Regis, discovered the first complete fossil of a dinosaur. 🦕
Coming from a poor family and with no formal education, Anning started helping her father collect fossils as a young child. They would polish the fossils and sell them to tourists as Lyme Regis was – and still is – a popular seaside spot for UK holidaymakers. Even though she was uneducated, Anning was able to read so she taught herself geology and anatomy.
Unfortunately, Anning’s father died from TB and so to maintain the family’s only source of income, she continued fossil hunting with her brother, Joseph. It was he who found a skull in 1811, and a few months later, Anning discovered the rest of the skeleton. At first, it was thought to be a crocodile but after being studied and debated for years, the findings were eventually classified as an Ichthyosaurus. Dating back 200 million years, it was hailed as the first complete fossil of a dinosaur. 🦖
From then on, Anning continued to explore the beaches of Lyme Regis (this coastal area is now known as the Jurassic Coast and stretches about 96 miles from Exmouth in East Devon to Studland Bay in Dorset) and discovered the complete skeleton of a long-necked Plesiosaurus and a Pterodactyl, or what we know as the dinosaur that can fly.
Even though Anning’s reputation for her fossil discoveries continued to grow, and she had essentially opened up the field of palaeontology, the scientific community was hesitant to acknowledge her work. Male scientists would often not credit her in their academic papers on the fossil finds – not even her first breakthrough, the Ichthyosaurus!
Sadly, Anning died at 47 of breast cancer, but her legacy lives on and today, the Natural History Museum in London displays many of her spectacular finds – including her ichthyosaur, plesiosaur and pterosaur.
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