11 Of History's Greatest Female Scientists

Part 2 of our "Women In Science" series.

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. 

Throughout history, women have had difficulties seeking education, finding employment doing research, and getting credit for their work. Even still, there are plenty of women who have overcome all of these obstacles in order to make their marks on history.

This list is by no means a complete record of women to whom we are indebted for their work in science, but here are 11 of history's greatest female scientists:

1. Marie Skłodowska Curie

Nobel Foundation 
Nobel Foundation 

Marie Skłodowska Curie is generally the first person that people think of when making a list of influential female scientists, and for good reason. 

As women in Warsaw were not allowed to attend college when she came of age, Marie was educated secretly for a few years until she moved to Paris to get a proper degree. There she met Pierre Curie, a physicist whom she would later marry. Together, the Curies collaborated on Marie's work on the radioactivity of uranium. The pair went on to win the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics. Marie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.

After her husband's death, Marie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 for the discovery of radium and polonium, and she remains the only person in history to win Nobel Prizes in two different scientific categories.

Element 96, Curium, was named after Marie and Pierre.

Marie Curie isn't just one of the greatest female scientists; she's one of the greatest scientists of all time.

2. Ada Lovelace

Alfred Edward Chalon - Science & Society Picture Library
Alfred Edward Chalon - Science & Society Picture Library

Ada Lovelace cherished her education growing up in the early 19th century. She was tutored in math and science, showing exceptional talent early on. 

She ultimately went to work with inventor Charles Babbage, who was designing a machine capable of making calculations on its own. She was able to offer insight into making the machine far better than originally conceived, processing equations that were quite complex. Her contribution is widely regarded as the first computer program.

Though her work wasn't celebrated much before her untimely death at age 36, the rediscovery of her work in the mid-20th century has led to her being given her rightful place in history.

Her astounding legacy is celebrated each fall on Ada Lovelace Day, when science advocates use her story to encourage girls to pursue STEM fields. 

3. Rosalind Franklin

Jewish Chronicle Archive/Heritage-Images
Jewish Chronicle Archive/Heritage-Images

Rosalind Franklin was raised in a wealthy Jewish family that helped refugees fleeing the Nazis. Education was held in a very high regard, and Franklin was a very bright student. She ended up earning multiple scholarships, but she passed the money along to the Jewish refugees, as they needed it more than she did.

Her most significant contribution to science was using a technique called x-ray crystallography to take the very first picture of DNA. This image helped resolve the 3-D structure of DNA in 1953, one of the biggest puzzles in biology at the time.

This image would become one of the biggest cases of "he said-she said" in science, as there are many different versions of how Franklin's images came into the possession of James Watson and Francis Crick, who are credited with the determining the structure of DNA. Some versions claim the images were freely given to them, while others suggest they were taken without her knowledge or permission. Either way, Franklin's contributions have been downplayed over the years, though there has been a recent effort to raise her profile.

Watson, Crick, and Maurice Wilkins (a colleague of Franklin, though the two famously didn't get along) shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. Franklin passed away in 1958 and the Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously, so there has always been a debate as to whether her work would have been recognized or not.

4. Lise Meitner

Growing up in Vienna, Lise Meitner received private tutoring, as girls were not allowed to receive formal education. Once that changed, she became one of the first women to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Vienna.

She became the protégé of Max Planck, one of the world's most famous physicists. She wasn't paid for her work but gained valuable experience that she used when she became the first female physics professor in Germany. Sadly, the rise of the Nazi party forced her to leave her job and immigrate to the Netherlands.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1944 went to her longtime collaborator, Otto Hahn; Meitner's contributions to that work were overlooked.

Meitner's scientific contributions were immortalized with element 109, Meitnerium, which was discovered and named after her death.

5. Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Unlike most of the other women on this list, Jocelyn Bell Burnell had access to a university education (in the 1960s), but she still had to deal with plenty of sexism.

While performing graduate work with a radio telescope at the University of Cambridge in 1967, Bell Burnell noticed an anomaly in the signal. Upon further investigation, Bell Burnell would discover the first pulsar, which is a neutron star that spins incredibly fast. That discovery was recognized in 1974 with the Nobel Prize in Physics — though Bell Burnell's contribution wasn't. The Prize was given to her advisor and one of his colleagues. 

Bell Burnell continued to make great strides throughout her career and in her retirement has become a strong advocate for science.

6. Rita Levi-Montalcini

When it comes to unstoppable grit and determination, Rita Levi-Montalcini is unparalleled.

She earned her medical degree even though her father did not approve of women getting an education. Unfortunately, she wasn't able to find a job doing medical research due to anti-Jewish laws passed by Benito Mussolini. But neither her father nor a fascist dictator could stop her from pursuing her dreams.

She continued her research throughout World War II from a lab she built in her bedroom and immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s. She went on to co-discover Nerve Growth Factor, a protein-like molecule that grows and maintains neuron health in the brain, which earned her the Nobel Prize in 1986.

Levi-Montalcini died in 2012 at age 103, leaving behind an incredible and inspiring legacy.

7. Grace Hopper

United States Navy
United States Navy

Tough-as-nails Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was commissioned into the U.S. Navy Reserve early in World War II, after leaving her position as a college professor. She worked as a computer scientist, greatly advancing computer programming languages, which made the machines far more versatile.

Hopper created the first compiler, which translates human coding language into binary. Essentially, the compiler allowed humans to "talk" to computers. She received many military and academic honors throughout her career and continued to consult for computing companies until her death at age 85. 

No wonder they called her "Amazing Grace!"

8. Barbara McClintock

Smithsonian Institution
Smithsonian Institution

While most of the other women on this list were discouraged by men from getting an education, it was Barbara McClintock's mother who didn't want her going to college, out of fear it would destroy her chances at marriage. McClintock's father disagreed and pushed for his daughter to attend Cornell, where she studied botany and genetics (though the university didn't give women genetics degrees at the time).

She is most widely known for discovering certain sequences of DNA that can change locations within the gene. When this happens, it can affect how the gene is expressed. Officially known as "transposable elements," they are often referred to as "jumping genes." While some of these mutations are harmless, others are responsible for diseases like hemophilia and breast cancer.

In 1983 McClintock became the first woman to be awarded an unshared Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine — a record she still holds. 

9. Dorothy Hodgkin

Nobel Foundation
Nobel Foundation

The daughter of two archaeologists, Dorothy Hodgkin took an early interest in science. She studied chemistry at Oxford. 

Curious about the shape of molecules and their functions, Hodgkin learned how to perform x-ray crystallography, which entails probing the structure of molecules with x-rays. She pioneered its use on biomolecules like penicillin and insulin, which helped pharmaceutical companies produce them in large quantities, thus making new treatments available for bacterial infections (penicillin) and diabetes (insulin).

She won the 1964 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for determining the structure of vitamin B12, and her contributions to medicine have been recognized through a host of other awards and honors.

10. Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson was an environmentalist author who is best known for her hard-fought and ultimately successful effort to ban the pesticide DDT from the United States.

Her most famous work was Silent Spring, published in 1962. She used the book to call attention to the environmental effects of man-made chemicals like DDT while exploring the ethics of our impact on the Earth. Carson's book is often credited as the inspiration behind modern environmental efforts.

With the world now grappling with the effects of human-driven climate change, Carson's words are as relevant as ever.

11. Irène Joliot-Curie

The list now comes full circle, with Irène Joliot-Curie, daughter of Pierre and Marie Curie, who proves that excellence often runs in the family.

After graduating college, she followed in her parents' footsteps by working with her husband in the lab, where they were able to artificially create new radioactive elements for the first time. The couple was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 for this work.

The astounding Curie legacy doesn't stop there. Irène and Frédéric had two children who each became celebrated scientists!

Check out our complete Women In Science series:

Part 1: 12 Quotes From Incredible Female Scientists That Will Inspire You To Reach Higher