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)
There are so many influential people in the history of STEM that it would be impossible to mention them all in one article. However, when taking a look through such lists it's not difficult to notice how few women appear. Much of this is down to opportunity throughout history and into the modern day. Some potential STEM icons never had the chance to gain the required education due to their gender, others made enormous contributions but weren't recognised to the extent they should have been, again due to their gender.
In this article we are going to look at five incredible women who defied societal norms to make huge contributions to STEM.
Hypatia (c. 355 – 415)
Hypatia was a Greek mathematician, astronomer and philosopher, and the earliest female mathematician of whom we have reasonable knowledge of her life.
Born in Alexandria, the daughter of prominent mathematician and teacher Theon of Alexandria, Hypatia was the world’s leading mathematician during her lifetime and a renowned teacher. She is credited with having written commentaries on ‘Conics’ by Apollonius of Perga and ‘Arithmetic’ by Diophantus of Alexandria, as well as work on astronomy, however these have all been lost.
Hypatia was brutally murdered in 415 by a violent mob (possibly a group of Christian zealots angered by her perceived Paganism).
Florence Nightingale (1820 – 1910)
Although best remembered for her nursing and for being the ‘Lady with the Lamp’, Florence Nightingale’s inclusion on this list is largely due to her statistical work during the Crimean war.
While working at the Barrack Hospital in Scutari, Turkey in 1854, Nightingale took note of the appalling conditions facing soldiers in the hospital. Wards were filthy and overcrowded, supplies were inadequate and the staff unhelpful.
Nightingale is credited with the invention of the Polar Area diagram (a sort of cross between a pie chart and a histogram) which she used to highlight the poor conditions within army hospitals where many more soldiers died from infection and disease than from their actual battle injuries.
Nightingale’s work led to vastly improved conditions in army hospitals and a reduction in preventable deaths. After the war she started the Nightingale School of Nursing in London, training women for a career in secular nursing at a time when most nursing was provided through religious means.
In a BBC poll in 2002, Florence Nightingale was voted the 52nd Greatest Briton of all time.
A Polar Area Graph on Army Mortality Rates by Florence Nightingale
Katherine Johnson (1918 – 2020)
Katherine Johnson was an American mathematician whose work was instrumental in getting the first US astronauts into space and safely back again.
Born in 1918 in West Virginia, Johnson graduated from West Virginia State College with degrees in Mathematics and French when aged just 18. In 1953 she joined National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the fore-runner to NASA) as a ‘computer’ manually performing complex calculations.
Despite the abundant racial and gender barriers of the time, Johnson’s ability and determination led her to become a member of NASA’s Space Task Group where she worked on the mathematics required to get an astronaut safely into space and back again. She was the first woman in her division at NASA to receive credit as the co-author of a paper and played an important role, not just in the Mercury missions into space in the early 60s, but also the Apollo missions, which landed a man on the moon in 1969. She continued to work for NASA until her retirement in 1986.
Johnson’s story, alongside that of her colleagues Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, was made into an Oscar nominated film ‘Hidden Figures’ in 2016 starring Taraji P. Henson as Johnson.
Sophie Germain (1776 – 1831)
Sophie Germain was a self-taught French mathematician known for her work on elastic theory and Fermat’s Last Theorem.
Born in Paris, France in 1776, Germain was inspired to study maths at the age of thirteen when reading a book about the Greek mathematician Archimedes and his death at the hands of a Roman soldier. She taught herself Greek and Latin so that she could read the works of Isaac Newton and Leonhard Euler, and using a male pseudonym, M. Le Blanc, managed to obtain lecture notes from the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris to further her studies.
Due to prejudice against her gender, she was unable to make a living out of mathematics, but continued to work independently and corresponded by letter with other great mathematicians of the time such as Lagrange and Gauss. The French mathematician Adrien-Marie Legendre was so impressed with Germain’s work that he included it in the second edition of his book ‘Théorie des Nombres’. One of Germain’s most important contributions to maths was her work towards proving Fermat’s Last Theorem.
After her death, Germain’s life was celebrated through the naming of a Parisian street and girls’ school in her honour.
Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852)
Ada Lovelace was born in 1815, the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron. When Ada was a young girl, her mother insisted that her tutors taught her maths and science which was highly unusual for a girl at the time. Ada excelled in these from a young age.
It is for her work with the inventor Charles Babbage that Lovelace is best remembered today. The pair met when Lovelace was still a teen and she became fascinated with his plans for a ‘difference engine’, an early form of mechanical computer. In 1843 she translated into English an article on Babbage’s machine by the Italian mathematician and engineer Luigi Federico Menabrea. As well as translating the original French work into English, she also added her own notes and ideas. In the end, Lovelace’s own notes ended up being three times as long as the original article. These notes included thoughts on how codes could be created for Babbage’s machine to allow it to repeat a series of instructions, an idea that is still used in computing to this day.
Due to her pioneering work on computer coding, Lovelace is widely considered to be the first computer programmer. The early programming code ‘Ada’ was named in her honour and the second Tuesday of October has become Ada Lovelace Day, a day to celebrate the many contributions women have made to STEM.
Five More of History's Most Influential Women in STEM
- Five More of History's Most Influential Women in STEM
A follow up to my original article on influential women in STEM, featuring another five incredible minds whose contribution to science, technology, engineering and maths changed our world forever.
© 2020 David
David (author) from West Midlands, England on September 16, 2020:
Thank you. These five and others are some truly inspirational people.
Danny from India on September 16, 2020:
Nice information David. Women have excelled in many fields and this is proof of it.