In this month’s Wonder Women Wednesday post, we feature not one – but five – inspirational women who have made significant contributions to the STEM fields. While these five women cover a broad range of disciplines, they have all overcome adversity in order to pursue their passions in STEM.
Edith Humphrey (1875-1978)
Humphrey was a British inorganic chemist who is believed to be the first British woman to obtain a doctorate in chemistry. As a child, Humphrey was fortunate enough to attend North London Collegiate School, one of the first girls’ schools to include science in the UK curriculum. Humphrey continued her studies in chemistry and physics at Bedford College, London, before completing her PhD at the University of Zurich in chemistry. Humphrey’s research focused on studying a series of geometrically isomeric cobalt complexes which became instrumental in the development and proof of Werner’s coordination theory. Following her PhD, she moved to Leipzig to conduct more research. This transition was not easy and “she wasn’t allowed in any Leipzig laboratories, as it was thought that her presence there would distract the men.” Eventually she moved back to England to continue her work as a research chemist.
Muriel Wheldale Onslow (1880-1932)
Onslow was a scientist who combined genetics with biochemistry. Her work on the inheritance of flower color in snapdragons became one of the foundations of modern genetics. She also made significant discoveries in the field of biochemistry, including the discovery of anthocyanins, a group of pigments in plants. Her work has paved the way for future genetics research. Her route to success however was not easy. After achieving First Class Honors in her studies on botany at the Newnham College in Cambridge, she received no degree because Cambridge did not award degrees to women at the time. She overcame this adversity however, and in 1926, became one of the first appointed women lecturers at Cambridge.
Lynn Margulis (1938-2011)
Lynn Margulis is an American evolutionary theorist whose work in evolutionary biology has been fundamental to our understanding of endosymbiosis. Margulis studied cells and the idea that over time, natural selection acting on mutations could generate new adaptations and new species. Her work has been immensely important in explaining the process of symbiosis in biological evolution. However, before she received any sort of praise for her work, she also dealt with extreme criticism. For instance, it is stated that one of her grant applications with rejected with the harsh response, “your research is crap, do not bother to apply again.” This type of criticism didn’t phase Margulis however, and she continued her research and stuck by her theory until it proved to be one of the greatest accomplishments in endosymbiosis.
Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012)
Rita Levi-Montalcini was an Italian neurobiologist and Nobel laureate, known for her discovery of nerve growth factor. After graduating from high school, Levi-Montalcini attended the University of Turin Medical School where she graduated summa cum laude with an MD. She went on to work as neurohistologist Giuseppe Levi’s assistant, before her academic career was halted due to Benito Mussolini’s 1938 Manifesto of Race, which barred Jews from academic and professional careers. As a result, Levi-Montalcini’s research was conducted in the confines of her bedroom. She conducted experiments from her home laboratory to study the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos, which laid the foundation for much of her later research. Fortunately, Levi-Montalcini’s achievements were eventually recognized, and she was the joint recipient of a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Chien Shiung-Wu (1912-1997)
Chien Shiung Wu was a Chinese-American physicist who made significant contributions to the field of nuclear physics. Wu worked on the Manhattan Project where she helped to develop a process for separating uranium metal. Her most well known achievement however, is conducting the Wu experiment, where she contradicted the hypothetical law of conservation parity. This discovery was pivotal in the work of her colleagues Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang, both of whom won the Nobel Prize in Physics for this work. Many people claim that Wu was cheated out of her Nobel Prize, possibly due to sexism by the selection committee at the time. Today, Wu’s achievements and contributions are acknowledged, and she has garnered the nicknames, “The First Lady of Physics” and the “Chinese Madame Curie.”
Article Written By: Lisa He