10 Important Women in STEM History

A recent article on The Huffington Post highlighted the fact that despite some progress, under-representation of women in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) is still an ongoing problem. According to Christine Bork, “Women earn only 17 to 18 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering and computer science, and only 11 percent of executives at Fortune 500 tech companies are women. In fact, women now make up over half the workforce, but hold only 25 percent of IT jobs.” Today, girls are still discouraged from pursuing their interests in math and science.
At a time when the most famous young women in American culture are people such as Paris Hilton and Nicole “Snookie” Polizzi, whose notoriety rests, respectively, on the shifting foundations of inherited fortune and drunken escapades, it might behoove us during this Women’s History Month to take a look at some women whose contributions to society rested on their intellectual achievements.

There is an impressive history of women in STEM—check out these significant contributors to get a better understanding of the diverse intellectual abilities of women throughout time:

  1. Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673) was the Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and was known for her beauty, fashion sense, and charm. But of all her witty remarks, this is the one in which she revealed the most about herself: “I would rather die in the adventure of noble achievements than live in obscure and sluggish security.” To that end, she pursued scientific knowledge despite popular arguments of the time that claimed women were inferior, and despite the criticism heaped upon her. Though science as we know it today was still in its infancy, Cavendish wrote what was called natural philosophy, and argued that “experiments and philosophies must be directed toward problem solving, not merely being used as knowledge for knowledge’s sake.”
  2. Maria Agnesi (1718 – 1799) was brilliant from birth: by age 13 she could speak seven different languages and soon devoted herself to the study of Mathematics. She followed up the invention of Calculus by Sir Isaac Newton by writing a 1000-page, two volume mathematics tome that includes the first reliable book for teaching differential and integral calculus. The French Academy of Science lauded her achievement and said, “This work is characterized by its careful organization, its clarity and its precision. There is no other book, in any language, which would enable a reader to penetrate as deeply, or as rapidly, into the fundamental concepts of analysis. We consider that treatise the most complete and best written of its kind.” In addition, she advocated education for women, was elected to the Bologna Academy of Science and awarded by Pope Benedict XIV, two rare honors for women at that time.
  3. Marie Curie (1867 –  1934) was the first person to be awarded two Nobel Prizes, one in Chemistry and one in Physics, and the first female professor at the University of Paris. She discovered polonium and radium, two of the elements, coined the term radioactivity, and developed techniques that separated radium from its radioactive properties so that the element could be studieds on its own. The focus of these studies was on the potential of radium in therapeutic medicine. Of radium therapy, Curie said, “It may be easily understood how deeply I appreciated the privilege of realizing that our discovery had become a benefit to mankind, not only through its great scientific importance, but also by its power of efficient action against human suffering and terrible disease. This was indeed a splendid reward for our years of hard toil.”
  4. Marjorie Stewart Joyner (1896-1994) and is believed to be the first female African American to receive a patent. The granddaughter of a slave and a slave owner, she invented a permanent-wave and hair-straightening machine. She received early training from the first black American female entrepreneur, Madame C.J. Walker. Her prototype was made of pot roast rods, which she attached to a hair drying hood joined by an electrical cord, which heated the rods to seal the curl. As she later said, “If I can take pot roast rods and have a one-of-a-kind invention, believe me, people can do what they set their minds to.” 
  5. Katharine Blodgett (1898-1979) was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in physics at the University of Cambridge, and created the first 100% transparent, non-reflective glass, which she discovered during research into monomolecular coatings at General Electric, where she was the first female scientist hired by the company. Her new method of reducing glare on glass, which was patented in 1938, revolutionized photography, scientific equipment including microscopes and telescopes, and eyeglasses. She is perhaps most famous, however, for inventing a color gauge to measure the molecular coatings on glass. Among her other inventions were a method for de-icing plane wings, and poison gas absorbents.
  6. Grace Hopper (1906-1992) was the first woman to graduate from Yale with a Ph.D. in Mathematics, the first woman to become an admiral in the United States Navy, and a pioneer in the field of computer programming. Most of her work consisted of creating early computer codes that used English, including helping develop the COBOL computer language, the most widely used computer business language in the world. Her goal was to create these languages so that average people (non-mathematicians and programmers) could use the language to work on computers themselves. She also and invented the compiler, which translates English into computer language.
  7. Virginia Apgar (1909 – 1974) is known today for inventing neonatology, including the method of measuring the health of newborn babies that bears her name. The Apgar Test has significantly reduced infant mortality.  Determined to become a doctor from an early age, she was influenced to enter the field of anesthesiology, in which she specialized in obstetrical anesthesiology, and it was then that she developed the Apgar test, to determine how anesthesia affected women and infants at birth. She was the first woman to become a full professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and later went on to head the March of Dimes to raise money for research into the causes and treatment of various birth defects.
  8. Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-1994) helped develop protein crystallography and discovered three-dimensional biomolecular structures, including Vitamin B-12, for which she won the 1964 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. She also determined the structure of insulin, cholesterol, lactoglobulin, ferritin, tobacco mosaic virus, and penicillin. The San Diego Supercomputer Center describes her as “the Darwin of our age” because she was one of the first people to see the structure of DNA, and because she also worked tirelessly throughout her life for world peace.
  9. Hedy Lamar (1913-2000) was a Viennese-born, drop-dead gorgeous Hollywood glamour girl in the 1930s and 40s, often considered the most beautiful woman in the world. But this siren of the silver screen was also an inventor who came up with the concept of “frequency hopping” as a way of preventing signal jamming. She and her co-inventor believed that this method could be used as a way to control torpedoes so that they hit their targets without interference during World War II. After patenting the invention, they gave it to the US Navy, who disregarded it. Decades later, Lamar’s work has become the basis of part of today’s military communication satellite system and is part of cell phone technology.
  10. Patricia Bath (1942-) was the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology at New York University and in 1976 she co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness when she discovered that blacks were twice as likely as whites to suffer from blindness caused by glaucoma. As a result of her interest, she invented the “Laserphaco Probe” as a method of treating cataracts. Using a laser, the Probe makes a small incision in the eye and vaporizes cataracts, after which a second tool on the probe washes out the eye and inserts a new lens. This procedure is safer and more accurate than traditional surgical methods.

This is just a handful of the inventive and intelligent women who have contributed to medicine, mathematics, information technology, and other areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.  Without their pioneering work, our quality of life would be much different.  The achivements of these women prove that Science, Technology, Engineering andd Mathematics truly benefit from the participation of women, and that we should make sure girls are encouraged in these fields and get all the education they need!

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