Sunday, December 20, 2009

Famous Female Scientists

One of my favorite exam questions for female students is to name five well-known scientists who are female.  I ask for the name, the field of study, and specifically what she discovered or became famous for doing.  I'm looking for names of women whose accomplishments are recognized beyond their own field.  I have yet to find a student who can name more than two or three women.  Most often named is Marie Curie, but students usually cannot explain precisely what she did.  Second is Jane Goodall, and students do a better job of explaining her work.  Then the students typically become stumped and ask if naming me counts (it doesn't).

Some students seem to think that there aren't very many notable women scientists and that it's not possible to name more than two or three.  I name several for them and suggest that there are quite a few more, but that their stories are just not well known.  I do find that female students are more curious about this question than about other questions asked of them during exams.  Most students become interested enough to seek out books describing famous female scientists and inventors--they often contact me later to say that they really enjoyed reading about such women.

A recent survey (Women, Science and Success: The New Face of Innovation) showed that 65% of Americans could not name a single female scientist.  Take a look at the photos above and see how many of these notable female scientists and naturalists you can name.  Their correct identification and accomplishments can be found at the very bottom of the page (scroll all the way down).


biochem belle said...

I can identify three offhand w/ minimal help from google:

#5 - Rosalind Franklin, crystallographer who worked on the structure of DNA w/ Watson & Crick

#6 - Ada Yonath, famous for her work on the structure of the ribosome, for which she shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this year

#12 - Dian Fossey, known for her studies of gorillas (as one might guess from the photo :P)

The others will take a little more digging for me.

Zen said...

1. Barbara McClintock of tranposons fame.

2. Jane Goodall of chimpanzee society fame.

8. Margaret Mead of anthropology and Samoa fame.

I recognized Franklin and Fossey before I saw the comments, bringing my total to 5.

Anonymous said...

#4 is Mary Leakey.

Anonymous said...

2 is Jane Goodall, 8 I think is Margaret Mead.

estela escalera said...

#7 Rosalyn Sussman Yalow

NLP said...

I'd like to see Christiane Nusslen-Volhard in there, Nobel prize 1995 for discovery of early embryonic development genes in drosophila, launching a field whole field of work with implications in human cancer biology and...pretty much all cell signaling.üsslein-Volhard

Beth said...

3. Jane Lubchenco - marine ecosystems and director of NOAA.

Isabella said...

#11: Annie Easley, part of the team that developed the software for the Centaur rocket stage.

Isabella said...

Another one:

#9 Mary Kingsley, Explorer (Africa) (I found her on your own blog)

Isabella said...

And the last one, sorry for the flurry ....

#10: Rachel Carson, marine biologist accredited with the advancement of the environmental movement.

Zen said...

I strongly suspected #10 was Rachel Carlson, but would have had to look her up, which seemed to me to defeat the purpose of the exercise.

While I’m here, I just learned of a wonderful scientist: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. More here,, which says in part:

“She wrote the most important astronomy Ph.D. of the 20th century. She used the new quantum theory which described atoms and how they give out light to analyse the light coming from the sun. And what she discovered, to her amazement, was that the sun was 98% made of hydrogen and helium, elements hardly ever found on the earth. At the time the pervading view was that the sun was made of iron, something which had been believed since the time of the Greeks.”

Eric said...

Nice post and great blog. My daughter, another female scientist, introduced me to it today.

As a biochemist and feminist, I know lots of female scientists.

I went to a talk by Barbara McClintock when I was learning about transposons. I was warned that McClintock's talks were incomprehensible. The talk was comprehensible, beautiful, and very fast. If you lost focus you could not catch up.

McClintock had battles to fight in her work.One, incomprehensible to us now, was to be allowed to wear shorts outside while working on Long Island in the summer. As a graduate student at Yale, she was viewed by all as the smartest person in the room.

We have come a long way.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for those. I had forgotten Leakey and others you mentioned were new to me. but I think you left out someone very important: Admiral/Dr. Grace Hopper, USN . She invented Cobol, the pre-eminent computer language of the 20th century and did a lot in her field besides. Shouldn't a mathematician count as a scientist?