March is Women's History Month, and we at A Plus are excited to bring you a 4-part series honoring women who have made incredible contributions to scientific discovery and pushed the boundaries of human knowledge.
The majority of well-known inventors are men, but women also have a long history of designing machines to make tasks more efficient, increasing safety, and pushing the bounds of human knowledge.
Here are 10 ways women were able to change the world through hard work and brilliant innovation.
1. Whooping Cough Vaccine
Pertussis, commonly known as Whooping Cough, is a respiratory bacterial infection that can be fatal, particularly in infants under a year old. In the 1930s, pertussis claimed the lives of over 6,000 children each year in the United States alone.
Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering worked tirelessly to create a vaccine , visiting ill children and taking samples at all hours of the night. They even called upon First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to help raise money for their research as funds ran low. While others searched for a vaccine as well, theirs was one of the most effective at saving children's lives.
Today, the pertussis vaccine is one of the most common childhood vaccines. It's important for all children to receive it — it's given after the child turns 1 — in order to protect those who are most vulnerable.
Everyone knows the horror of spilling a dark-colored beverage on a light-colored carpet, and there is one product that has made it much easier to clean it up and act as if it never happened: Scotchguard.
Patsy Sherman was at 3M in the early 1950s working on fluorochemicals, chemicals that offer protection against heat, other chemicals, oil, and more. Sherman's lab assistant accidentally spilled a chemical onto his cloth shoes. Not only did his shoes resist dirt and stains, but it didn't change the original color of the material. With some tweaking, the formula became widely used to protect carpet and upholstery against dirt and stains.
Women in combat may seem like a fairly recent phenomenon, but one woman has played an integral role for years. While working at DuPont in the 1960s, chemist Stephanie Kwolek was attempting to find a way to make tires lighter and thinner in response to the impending fuel shortage. She ended up creating polymers that were incredibly strong.
Kwolek's invention has been used in a variety of products, with bulletproof vests being the most well-known.
4. Computer Compiler and Programming Language
Do you know how to use a computer even though you have no idea how to type in binary? You have Rear Admiral Grace Hopper to thank for that .
Hopper was an incredible computer scientist who created FLOW-MATIC, an early programming language that was close to human speech, and one of the first compilers, which translate human code into a language computers can understand.
5. Windshield Wipers
Though early automobiles were a more convenient way to get around than anything horse-drawn, they still had a few key flaws. Drivers would have to stop driving in order to clear frost, rain, and snow from the windshield. Mary Anderson noticed how time-consuming this was and developed a lever that pushed a squeegee across the glass. She filed her patent in 1903.
Unfortunately, Anderson's invention didn't catch on right away. Cadillac became the first automobile manufacturer to install an updated, automatic windshield wiper in 1922.
6. Wireless Communications
Wireless communications features that we almost can't live without, like cellular phones, Bluetooth, and Wi-fi, owe their origins to Hedy Lamarr, a mathematician and inventor who was most well-known as being a movie star in Hollywood's Golden Age. But she was so much more than just a pretty face.
In World War II, Lamarr helped develop a secure communications system that was capable of skipping along radio frequencies, making it al but impossible for the Nazis to intercept. This technology allowed for countless others to expand and improve the field of digital communication.
7. Liquid Paper
Correcting a mistake on a computer is as simple as hitting backspace and entering the new information, but it was a much bigger deal when typewriters were the most common form of creating documents.
Bette Nesmith Graham was working as a secretary and became frustrated when a single typo would create considerably more work. She mixed up quick-drying paint in a color that matched her company's paper. If she made an error, she used a small paintbrush and erased the mistake, without having to redo the entire document.The invention made her rich — Gillette bought her company, Liquid Paper, for $47.5 million in 1979 — and made millions of other people's jobs that much easier.
You might think the dishwasher was created by someone who spent a considerable amount of time scrubbing pots and pans. In fact, Josephine Cochrane invented it to preserve her fine china, which her servants kept chipping and breaking when they washed them.
Others had tried to automate dishwashing before, but those machines relied on scrubbing brushes and didn't work very well. Cochrane's design used hot water at a higher pressure to blast food and debris away. After she patented her invention and began to produce them in 1897, it became a hit in the food service industry. However, it would still be several decades before dishwashers became popular household appliances.
9. Communications Flares
Long before radio communication, sailors found it difficult to communicate with people on other ships. This was especially hard at night, as flags couldn't be seen and lanterns produced too little light.
Martha Coston was married to man who had served in the US Navy and was exploring ways for ships to better communicate at night when he fell ill and died in 1848. She noticed one of his notebooks had a rough sketch of a flare, and she took it upon herself to see the idea through.
Though she didn't have a formal education, she worked for years on the idea, drawing inspiration for the colors based on the construction of fireworks. She was finally able to design flares that would shine in red, white, or blue. The military quickly bought her invention and used them to create color codes to communicate with one another at night.
10. Anti-fungal Medications
One of the most commonly-used and vital medications in the world was developed by two women who collaborated from a distance of about 150 miles, between New York City and Albany. While investigating strains of bacteria that kill fungus, Elizabeth Lee Hazen and Rachel Fuller Brown discovered the antifungal wonderdrug Nystatin, which they named in honor of New York state.
Their product has had a myriad of uses, treating everything from diaper rash, vaginal yeast infections, fungal tree infections, and even killing mold that grows on water-damaged paintings without destroying the artwork itself.It has saved countless lives.
Check out our complete Women In Science series:
Cover image: Michael Schall / A Plus