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Five More of History's Most Influential Women in STEM

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I am a former maths teacher and owner of DoingMaths. I love writing about maths, its applications, and fun mathematical facts.

Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)

In my earlier article 'Five of History's Most Influential Women in STEM', I wrote about five women who made important, world-changing contributions to STEM. In this article I am featuring another five. Whether their work was in physics, chemistry, computing or some other area of STEM, the women on this list have all left behind a legacy that continues to affect us to this day.

Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper (1906 - 1992)

Grace Hopper was born in New York in 1906. After graduating with a B.A. in Mathematics and Physics from Vassar College in 1928, she moved onto Yale University to complete her Masters and PhD in Mathematics and Mathematical physics, completing this in 1934. Throughout this time she continued to teach mathematics at Vassar, but it was with the outbreak of World War II that Hopper moved into the area she is best remembered for.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Hopper decided to join the war effort. After an initially unsuccessful application, she persevered and joined the US Naval Reserve in 1943. Here she was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University where she worked on Mark 1, one of the earliest electronic computers. She was responsible for programming the computer and also wrote the user manual on it. During the war, Hopper also worked on calculations linked to rocket trajectories, the nuclear bomb and many other parts of the war effort.

She remained at Harvard after the war where she worked on the Mark 2 and Mark 3 computers. It was while working with Mark 2 that Hopper coined the phrase ‘bug’ to describe a computer issue after a moth managed to find its way into the circuitry and cause problems with the computer's functioning.

After leaving Harvard, Hopper moved into private business where she continued to push the boundaries of computer use. Her programming team created the first computer language compiler, ‘A-O’, and the first programming language to use English-like commands, ‘Flow-Matic’, opening up computer programming to more people than ever. She was also heavily involved in the promotion and development of the computer language ‘COBOL’.

Hopper also continued her work with the Navy, retiring as a rear admiral at the age of 79, having been the oldest serving officer in the US Armed Forces. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 to recognise her contributions to computer science.

Caroline Herschel


Caroline Herschel (1750 - 1848)

Caroline Herschel was born in Hannover, Germany in 1750. Although Caroline’s father was keen for all of his children to learn mathematics, her mother did not encourage Caroline’s education, instead training her for a life as a housewife. In 1772, her brother William took her with him to Bath, England where she acted as his housekeeper.

William was a devoted astronomer and devoted his spare time to making telescopes. He tutored his sister in mathematics and when his reputation as a telescope maker had grown sufficiently, he began doing this full time, with Caroline as his apprentice. In 1782 William was made court astronomer to King George III and five years later, Caroline’s own astronomical work and discoveries led to her receiving her own pension of £50 a year from the king to act as William's assistant. This made her the first professional female astronomer.

Another first for Caroline happened in 1786 when she became the first woman to discover a comet; she would go on to discover seven more. After William’s death she returned to Hannover where she continued her work, cataloguing every discovery she made. Some of this work is still in use today.

Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin (1920 - 1958)

Rosalind Franklin was born in London, UK in 1920 and knew from early on that she wanted to be a scientist. She was awarded her degree in chemistry from Newnham College, Cambridge in 1941 before going to work for the British Coal Utilisation Research Association where, as part of the war effort, she worked on the porosity of coal. This work formed the basis for her 1945 PhD thesis titled "The physical chemistry of solid organic colloids with special reference to coal."

Franklin then moved to the State Chemical Laboratory in Paris where she studied X-ray diffraction, something which would lead her to her best recognised work. In 1951 she moved back to England and began working as a research associate at King’s College London. She started applying her X-ray diffraction techniques to DNA using her own purpose-built equipment. The pictures of DNA that she produced from this work were a crucial part of discovering the structure of DNA.

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Unfortunately, Franklin’s work was passed on, without her knowledge, to the scientist John Watson who, along with Francis Crick, was also studying the structure of DNA. The two men used Franklin’s pictures as the basis for their own work on DNA, published in 1953, which later won them the Nobel Prize in 1962.

Franklin left King’s College for Birkbeck College in 1953 where she revisited her work on coal before turning her attentions to the molecular structure of viruses, comparing viruses’ RNA with the DNA of higher life-forms. Unfortunately, Franklin was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1956 and died in 1958 at the tender age of 37.

Marie Curie

Marie Curie

Marie Curie

Marie Curie (1867 - 1934)

One of the most famous scientists of all time, Marie Curie was born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland in 1867. In 1891 she moved to Paris, France in order to study at the prestigious Sorbonne, gaining Licenciateships in physics and mathematical sciences. It was here that she met Pierre Curie and they married in 1895.

The two made a fantastic laboratory team. Henri Becquerel had discovered radiation in 1896 and the Curies took this work further, discovering polonium (named after Marie’s home country) and radium. In 1903 the Curies and Becquerel shared the Nobel Prize for Physics for their work on radioactivity.

Pierre tragically died in 1906 and Marie threw herself further into her work. She replaced her husband as a professor at the Sorbonne, becoming the first woman to teach there. Her continued work with radioactivity lead to another Nobel Prize in 1911 (this time for Chemistry) for the discovery of how to isolate pure radium. She was also instrumental in the development of X-rays and other medicinal uses for radioactive substances.

Marie was not the only notable female member of the Curie family. Her daughter Irene Joliot-Curie won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry along with her husband in 1935 for their work on artificial radiation, and her other daughter Eve was a noted writer and journalist.

Marie Curie was the first female winner of a Nobel Prize and to date is the only woman to win it in two different fields. The element Curium, discovered in 1944, was named after Marie and Pierre.

Hedy Lamarr

Publicity photo of Hedy Lamarr for the film 'Comrade X'

Publicity photo of Hedy Lamarr for the film 'Comrade X'

Hedy Lamarr (1914 - 2000)

Hedy Lamaar was born in Vienna, Austria in 1914 and today is best remembered for her movie career during the Golden age of Hollywood. However, it is her role as a scientist and inventor which gains her a spot on this list.

Unhappily married at the age of 19 to a wealthy Austrian munitions manufacturer, Hedy fled to the US, managing to get herself signed up to the MGM studio. She went on to star in numerous films including ‘Samson and Delilah’, ‘The Strange Woman’ and ‘Come Live With Me’. However in her spare time she had a most unusual hobby for Hollywood actresses of the time, she was an inventor.

Howard Hughes, the businessman and aviator, who Lamarr was romantically involved with, provided her with equipment and resources to enable her skills to flourish. Lamarr repaid the favour by studying the shapes of fast birds and fish in order to improve the wing shape and speed of Hughes’ planes.

Hedy’s most influential invention came in 1942 during World War II. Working alongside her friend George Antheil, she invented and patented a frequency hopping device. This was a means of changing radio frequencies in order to keep radio-guided missiles from being jammed by the enemy. Although ignored by the US military at the time, they did pick up her invention in the 1960s and it is a precursor to the technology used today in wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Hedy kept her inventing secret from the public and spent her final years living a reclusive life, dying in January 2000 at the age of 85.

© 2020 David

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