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Today, we honor the contributions of (a handful of the) women scientists previously ignored or undervalued based on their gender. Across the sciences, many women fell victim to the Mathilda effect, the repression or denial of the contributions of women researchers to science, which often resulted in the particularly disparaging consequence of having those contributions instead attributed to men in the field. Read on to learn more about five women in science whose contributions to their field laid the foundation for the innovation we enjoy today.
Prior to the work of Nettie Stevens, it had been a mystery as to what determines whether a pregnancy produces a boy or a girl. Theories suggested that it was a result of nutrition or body temperature, among others. But Nettie Stevens, a secondary school teacher who decided in her late 30s to go to university, disproved all that by engaging in groundbreaking genetics research that linked chromosomes to the determination of sex.
After receiving her PhD from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, Stevens continued at the college as a researcher studying sex determination. Stevens worked with mealworms, noticing that a female mealworm’s 20 chromosomes were all of a similar size, while male mealworms had 19 large chromosomes and one smaller one. From there, she was able to deduce that the males produced sperm with X and Y chromosomes—the sex chromosomes—and that females produced reproductive cells with only X chromosomes. This was evidence supporting the theory that sex determination is directed by an organism's genetics.
Edmund Beecher Wilson, Stevens’ colleague, is more often credited with the discovery. Although Stevens and Wilson both worked on chromosomal sex determination, many authors have credited Wilson alone for the discovery. Stevens was not even recognized immediately after her discovery. For example, Morgan and Wilson were invited to speak at a conference to present their theories on sex determination in 1906 but Stevens was not invited to speak. Despite these setbacks, Stevens was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1994 and in May 2017, Westfield State University honored Stevens through the naming ceremony of the Dr. Nettie Maria Stevens Science and Innovation Center.
“[I]it is shameful that there are so few women in science . . . In China there are many, many women in physics. There is a misconception in America that women scientists are all dowdy spinsters. This is the fault of men. In Chinese society, a woman is valued for what she is, and men encourage her to accomplishments yet she remains eternally feminine."
Nicknamed “the First Lady of Physics,” Chien-Shiung Wu was born in Liu Ho, China, in 1912. Wu overturned a law of physics and participated in the development of the atom bomb when the experimental physicist emigrated from China in the 1930s and was recruited to Columbia University in the 1940s as part of the Manhattan Project.
In the mid-1950s, two theoretical physicists, Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, approached Wu to help disprove the law of parity. The law holds that in quantum mechanics, two physical systems—like atoms—that were mirror images would behave in identical ways. Wu's experiments using cobalt-60, a radioactive form of the cobalt metal, defied this law by proving that conservation of parity did not apply to weak interactions, an assumption that had been accepted for 30 years.
This work helped her two male colleagues earn the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics, but she did not share in the award. Wu was denied the acknowledgment because her role was experimental and not theoretical. As time went on, Wu became an increasingly outspoken advocate of gender equality in her profession and campaigned to be paid the same as her male counterparts.
Born in Northern Ireland in 1943, Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered radio pulsars—the by-products of supernova explosions that make all life possible—in 1967 while still a graduate student in radio astronomy at Cambridge University in England. Now recognized as one of the most important discoveries of the last century, the finding had resulted in a Nobel Prize, but the 1974 award in physics went instead to her supervisor, Anthony Hewish, and Martin Ryle, a co-researcher.
Bell Burnell had consulted Hewish after noticing an unexpected pattern of radio pulses, and, after overcoming his reluctance to investigate further, the two of them and their wider team, including Ryle, investigated further, ultimately discovering pulsars. They published a paper with five authors—with Bell Burnell as second—but when the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for the discovery in 1974, it was given to Hewish and Ryle, excluding Bell Burnell.
Although the snub generated sympathy for Bell Burnell, in an interview with National Geographic News, the astronomer admirably acknowledged the state of scientific discovery at the time: "The picture people had . . . was that there was a senior man—and it was always a man—who had under him a whole load of minions, junior staff, who weren't expected to think, who were only expected to do as he said." Despite this attitude, Bell Burnell was still subject to the prevailing attitudes toward women in academia and has since become quite protective of women in academia. In 2018, Bell Burnell won the Special Breakthrough Prize, which comes with $3 million, all of which she donated to England’s Institute of Physics to fund women, refugees and ethnic minorities.
Born in 1909 in Hampshire, England, aeronautical engineer and daredevil motorcycle racer Beatrice “Tilly” Shilling is credited by her peers as helping the Allies to win WWII.
"From a child she was pulling engines apart," said Christine Twigg of the university's science and engineering faculty. "Her real passion was mechanical engineering." At age 14, Shilling purchased her first motorcycle, later obtaining a bachelor and master’s degree in mechanical engineering, with a specialization in the elimination of piston temperatures of high-speed diesel engines.
In March 1941, she solved a fatal flaw that had jeopardized the life of pilots. Earlier, in 1940, during the Battle of France and Battle of Britain, Royal Air Force pilots discovered that fighter planes’ Rolls-Royce engines were stalling when pitching their planes into a hard nose dive, allowing the enemy to escape. Shilling led a team that designed a simple device to solve this problem—a brass thimble with a hole in the middle that helped to limit fuel flow and prevent flooding at critical moments—which could be fitted easily into the engine’s carburettor. It remained in use as a stop-gap to help prevent engine stall for a number of crucial wartime years; in fact, this tweak in the engines is credited with transforming the planes’ performance, helping them to match the powerful Luftwaffe.
Shilling was appointed an OBE in recognition of her work in 1947. Standing for Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, an OBE is the second highest ranking Order of the British Empire award (excluding a knighthood/damehood). The OBE is awarded to individuals who have made major contributions at a local level or whose work has gained a national profile.
Ada Lovelace, born on December 10, 1815, was a leading nineteenth-century mathematician and daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron. Her mother, Annabella Milbanke, raising Lovelace on her own after leaving Lord Byron only five weeks after her birth, insisted that Ada was taught logic, science and mathematics from a young age—a rarity for women at the time. She identified mathematics as a method of taming Lovelace’s imagination, tapping into Lovelace’s childhood fascination with machines.
In 1833, Lovelace met Charles Babbage, an inventor and mechanical engineer. Lovelace was extremely interested in Babbage's plans for a device called the “Difference Engine.” The purpose of this, although Babbage never managed to complete it, was to calculate mathematical tables automatically. Babbage realized that a much more general design, the Analytical Engine, was possible. Lovelace studied the plans for the Analytical Engine; her notes described how codes could be created for the device to handle letters and symbols along with numbers. She also created a method for the engine to repeat a series of instructions, a process known as “looping” that computer programs still use today.
Lovelace’s work was published in 1843 in an English science journal. However, it would be more than 100 years until the Analytical Engine became a reality. Lovelace's notes inspired Alan Turing's work on the first modern computers in the 1940s. Lovelace’s contributions to the field of computer science were not discovered until well after her death. In 1980, the US Department of Defense named a newly developed computer language "Ada." Her passion for mathematics and early computer engineering have made her a symbol for modern women in technology.
Check out the links to resources included in this article, listed below in order of appearance: Matilda effect. Wikipedia.
Chien-Shiung Wu. (2016, June 1). Biography.
9 Scientists Who Didn’t Get the Credit They Deserved. Oxford Royale.
Lee, J. J. (2013, May 19). 6 Women Scientists Who Were Snubbed Due to Sexism. National Geographic.
Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics Awarded to Jocelyn Bell Burnell for Discovery of Pulsars. Breakthrough Prize.
BBC News. (2017, June 23). Beatrice Shilling: Pioneering Engineer's Genius “Helped Win World War Two.”
Rigby, S. (2021, February 11). 22 Pioneering Women in Science History You Really Should Know About. Science Focus.
Ada Lovelace. (2014, April 2). Biography.