Hidden Figures – Women in Science History

Historically, science has seemed to be a male dominated field and though that is now changing, we have always been told that in the past, that although women became scientists, there have been no real women scientists of note, except for very, very rare exceptions like Marie Curie. Whilst Histories of Science celebrate figures like Newton, Galileo or Einstein, female scientists were never mentioned at all and if they were, it would probably be in a supporting role.

Except that this version of history is not true and has never been true. There have always been great female scientists, who have made incredible contributions to our understanding and knowledge. Anyone who has seen the film ‘Hidden Figures’ about African American female mathematicians who worked at the NASA during the Space Race, will be aware that the history of women in science is one where the accomplishments of women is just not acknowledged. In fact, women scientists have been actively written out of history. The historian Margaret Rossiter has devoted her life to bringing to light the ingenious accomplishments of those who have been forgotten.

In her book Women Scientists in America, Margaret Rossiter investigates the systematic way that the field of science actually deterred women, but also relates the ingenious methods that enterprising women nonetheless found to pursue knowledge in their various subject areas.

“It is important to note early that women’s historically subordinate ‘place,’ in science (and thus their invisibility to even experienced historians of science) was not a coincidence and was not due to any lack of merit on their part. It was due to the camouflage intentionally placed over their presence in science.”

There are many female scientists who actually changed the world, breaking boundaries and making important discoveries. Here are 10 of them:

Ada Lovelace – Mathmatics

Dec. 10, 1815-Nov. 27, 1852

Many consider Lovelace to be the first computer programmer, long before what we would now call computer even existed. After working with Charles Babbage, who proposed an Analytical Engine (a programmable, general-purpose computer) she recognised that the machine might have applications beyond pure calculation, and published the first algorithm (programme) intended to be carried out by such a machine.

Ada Lovelace

Janaki Ammal – Botany

Nov. 4, 1897-Feb. 7, 1984

Janaki Ammal was an Indian botanist who worked on plant breeding, with work involving studies on sugarcane and the aubergine She also worked in ethnobotany, and took an interest in plants of medicinal and economic value from the rain forests of India. She developed several hybrid species still grown today and advocated for protecting the biodiversity of India.

Katherine Johnson – Mathmatics

Aug. 26, 1918-Feb. 24, 2020

An American mathematician, made famous by the film ‘Hidden Figures’, whose calculations of orbital mechanics were critical to the success of the first U.S. crewed spaceflights. Her calculations were also essential to the beginning of the Space Shuttle program, and she worked on plans for a mission to Mars. In 2019, Katherine Johnson was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

Katherine Johnson

Beatrice Shilling – Aeronautical Engineering

8 March 1909 – 18 November 1990

Beatrice “Tilly” Shilling was a British aeronautical engineer and amateur racing driver, who purchased her first motorcycle at age fourteen and later obtaining a Bachelor and Master’s degree in mechanical engineering During the Second World War,  after Royal Air Force pilots discovered a serious problem of stalling in fighter planes with Rolls-Royce engines, she designed and developed a small device – a brass thimble with a hole in the middle – to restrict fuel flow to the engine’s carburettor solving a problem that had jeopardised the life of pilots.

Beatrice Shilling

Jennifer Doudna – Biochemisty

Feb. 19, 1964-

Doudna is an American biochemist. She has made fundamental contributions in biochemistry and is one of the primary developers of CRISPR, a ground-breaking technology for editing genomes considered one of the most significant discoveries in the history of biology. She was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with Emmanuelle Charpentier.

Rosalind Franklin – Chemistry

July 25, 1920-April 16, 1958

Rosalind Franklin was an English whose work was central to the understanding of the molecular structures of DNA. Along with subsequent related work, this led to Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins being awarded a Nobel Prize in 1962.  After finishing her work on DNA, Franklin led pioneering work at Birkbeck on the molecular structures of viruses. Her team member Aaron Klug continued her research, winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982. Had Franklin been alive, she would very likely have shared the Nobel Prize.

Rosalind Franklin (Credit: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology)

Marie Curie – Chemistry

Nov. 7, 1867-July 4, 1934

Probably the well-known scientist on this list, Curie’s achievements include pioneering research on radioactivity. She developed mobile radiography units during World War One and with her husband, Pierre discovered the radioactive elements polonium and radium. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and the only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice, and the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two scientific fields.

Marie Curie

Chien-Shiung Wu – Experimental Physics

May 31, 1912-Feb. 16, 1997

Chien-Shiung Wu worked on the Manhattan Project and made significant contributions in the field of nuclear physics. She is known for conducting the Wu experiment, which proved that parity is not conserved. The discovery resulted in her male colleagues Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang winning the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics, Wu’s contribution was only recognised when she was awarded the inaugural Wolf Prize in Physics in 1978. She was nicknamed the “First Lady of Physics” and the “Queen of Nuclear Research”.

Chien-Shiung Wu

Vera Rubin- Astronomy

July 23, 1928-Dec. 25, 2016

Vera Rubin was an American Astronomer who was a pioneer in work on galaxy rotation rates, discovering a discrepancy between the predicted motion of galaxies and observed motion. Known as the galaxy rotation problem, it provided evidence of the existence of dark matter The New York Times described her legacy as “ushering in a Copernican-scale change” in cosmological theory and is the one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century.

Vera Rubin

Gladys West, Mathematician


Inducted into the U.S. Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018, Gladys Mae West is an American who has made significant contributions to the mathematical modelling of the shape of the Earth. Her work was eventually incorporated into Global Positioning System (GPS).[1] West was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018. After retiring, she completed a PHD in a completely different area.

Gladys West
US Air Force, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

History is full of many, many more women who have made enormous contributions to science.

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