10 under-appreciated women in science

Over at Smithsonian.com, Sarah Zielinski has a great piece about important female scientists whose names aren't as publicly well-known as they ought to be. She lists 10 smart, sciencey ladies. Here's my favorite:

Barbara McClintock (1902 – 1992)

While studying botany at Cornell University in the 1920s, Barbara McClintock got her first taste of genetics and was hooked. As she earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees and moved into postdoctoral work, she pioneered the study of genetics of maize (corn) cells. She pursued her research at universities in California, Missouri and Germany before finding a permanent home at Cold Spring Harbor in New York. It was there that, after observing the patterns of coloration of maize kernels over generations of plants, she determined that genes could move within and between chromosomes. The finding didn’t fit in with conventional thinking on genetics, however, and was largely ignored; McClintock began studying the origins of maize in South America. But after improved molecular techniques that became available in the 1970s and early 1980s confirmed her theory and these “jumping genes” were found in microorganisms, insects and even humans, McClintock was awarded a Lasker Prize in 1981 and Nobel Prize in 1983.


  1. Go chicks.  It’s so weird and twisty that woman don’t get the acknowledgment men do – I recently read the obit. of Betty Skelton, who went higher, faster and better than many of her male counterparts ever could.

    Had I ever heard of her before?  No.  But my head is full of Donald Campbell, Lindbergh, Orville Wright and the like.

    She really seems to have kicked butt.

    Go chicks more please!

  2. McClintock is my favorite, too. Her autobiography, “A Feeling for the Organism,” was fascinating reading back in my undergrad days. I expect that she influenced hundreds of college kids to pursue a scientific career.

  3. I often get irritated with how Marie Curie is the de facto woman-scientist. Nothing against Curie, of course, it’s just that her ubiquity perpetuates the notion that female genius is an anomaly and that Curie is some sort of rare mutant among women…

    If one bothers to look them up, they can find many brilliant women throughout history. They will also see how many ridiculous obstacles stood in the way of these female minds, many of them never even fathomed by their male counterparts. Knowing this, we can only imagine how many great ideas and discoveries were stifled and lost. It’s not just in the domain of science either.

    Whenever I hear people saying that there were ‘no female Einsteins’ , I wonder whether they know that the world was given two Mozarts, however one of them saw all of her compositions coldly discarded once she hit puberty…

    1. “..and that Curie is some sort of rare mutant among women…”

      She was.  Not only did she win the Nobel in Physics but also in Chemistry.  While not the only person ever to win more than 1 Nobel, she is the only one to EVER win Nobels in more than 1 field.  So yes…. she was a mutant.  But a wonderful mutant who deserves all the accolades she gets… .and then some.   She holds a position in the chronicles of SCIENCE! that not even Einstein could boast.  :)  And while we’re on the subject of women who got short changed let’s not forget Emmy Noether, Rosalind Franklin and, of course, Lise Meitner. 

      1. Yes, she deserves every praise coming her way. I meant that she is often presented as the sole female genius in male scientists lineups, like the science world ‘Smurfette’. If we are to regard her as a super mutant amongst ALL geniuses, I’m all for it :)

        I just find it sad that many people can only name a single great woman in science (or a single female genius) and are perfectly content with knowing just that one.

  4. Speaking for myself, of course, but I’m kinda partial to Mrs Henrietta Leavitt and her Cepheid Variables.

  5. I was lucky enough to meet Dr McClintock after a presentation at the Gairdener awards in Toronto. Her intelligence was only exceeded by her humility. An amazing woman.

  6. I don’t want to disparage the value of these people’s work, the challenges they faced, or the value in remembering their accomplishments. But is it really surprising that someone whose main accomplishment was translating the Principia or discovering Ichthyosaurus isn’t that well known? After all, most of us probably haven’t heard of Andrew Motte or William Conybeare, either.

    It would have been nice to list a few more women like Emmy Noether with discoveries that deserve much more attention in science, period, and not just in its the story of social development. Otherwise it makes it seem like women didn’t manage anything that important, which despite the social handicaps against them, isn’t true.

  7. No offense to the list, but they all seem to be pretty well known, at least within science. I recognized them all. If I had to give an example of an obscure, but really significant woman scientist, it would be Margaret Dayhoff, who basically invented the field of bioinformatics but died in the 1980s, before it became mainstream.

  8. Part of the story is of course about the many ways in which women scientists were systematically barred from achieving the kinds of positions that would have allowed them to become better known. My grandmother, Dorothy Riggs Pitelka, was one of the first female Biology PhDs at UC Berkeley in the 1940s, but couldn’t take a tenure-track position there because her husband was already employed in the same department. (He didn’t have to slow down to have babies). She was one of the first scientists on the West Coat to use the electron microscope, among many other scientific accomplishments. 

    Her profile is here: http://texts.cdlib.org/view?docId=hb5g50061q&doc.view=frames&chunk.id=div00079&toc.depth=1&toc.id=

  9. Astronomy is an area which has especially had a lot of women in it. Antonia Maury, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, and Anny Jump Canon are all excellent historical examples.

    There have also been a fair number of historical female mathematicians. Sophie Germain did work in the early 19th century did work both in pure math (number theory) and applied math. Sadly, although her work was critical for the later design of the Eiffel Tower, the official list that was added as a plaque at the tower when it was made that listed all the scientists and engineers whose work had contributed to it, she was left off. 

  10. So a pal wrote an iPhone app which is a cryptogram puzzle game, which features quotes about women scientists. It’s called “Secret Ada” and it’s actually fun and good: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/secret-ada/id314343189?mt=8

    It also costs money. So this is, technically, an advertisement, for something that is probably of interest to the reader.

  11. Barbara McClintock figured out transposons before Watson and Crick figured out DNA. If you know the structure of DNA, transposons are relatively easy to understand. The fact that she explained how they work without the benefit of the double helix to hang her ideas on is staggering. Go Babs!

  12. Hey! Caroline Herschel is in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubry/Maturin books. Well sort of in there. Jack tells Stephen about how Miss Herschel helped him make the lens for one of his telescopes.

  13. All these women are deceased. What has a woman done lately for science?

    /obvious troll is obvious.

    Seriously, that’s an interesting read. Reminds me of this xkcd comic strip which mentions Meitner (and it’s a good comic in its own right).

  14. I thought Franklin was included in the DNA Nobel, though posthumously.  She should have been!  Even in Watson’s book The Double Helix makes it look like they effectively stole the discovery from her.

    1.  You can’t receive a Nobel Prize (or even part of one) posthumously.

      The only possible exception (in some way) is Mahatma Gandhi- the 1948 Peace Prize was deliberately “not awarded for lack of a suitable living candidate”, but it was an open secret that he would have got it had he been alive. On the other hand, he was murdered after he was nominated.

        1. She died at the right time for someone who was living the life she lived.  For God’s sake, Jim, she was working with hot metal for the whole period that made her famous.  Did you expect her to be receiving a gold watch at 87?  Helen Keller said, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature… Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

  15.  http://a1.sphotos.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-ash4/268072_249531335060585_113067532040300_1250592_8242079_n.jpg (Barbara McClintock as ‘Innovator’ in the Science Tarot cups suit)

  16. Thank you for featuring Dr. McClintock in recognizing women in science.
    I had the honor of meeting her in 1986 at Cold Spring Harbor Labs where she was resident scientist and I was student enrolled in summer course on plant molecular biology.
    At a reception for faculty and students in the class, Dr. McClintock shook hands and spoke with each and every one of us, despite her frail health at that time.
    Though in her 80’s, she still had that unmistakeable glint of intelligence in her eyes. 
    I was left with the impression of her as someone of undiminished intellectual capacity and curiosity trapped in an aged body.
    I hope people will read her biography, A Feeling for the Organism, and will come to appreciate how she overcame the tremendous odds against her as a woman in science to become one of the greatest biologists of all time.

  17.  A Feeling for the Organism inspired me, too. And of course Rosalind Franklin is my all-time favorite. A nice biography by B. Maddox from 2002:  Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA.

  18. McClintock was undoubtedly a great scientist – she was actually elected to the National Academy of Sciences and elected president of the Genetics Society of America even before she did the work for which she later received the Nobel, so she wasn’t unappreciated by her peers.

    The scientists on the list may be inspirational, but the list itself isn’t terribly inspiring and the presentation isn’t exactly inspirational either. It reads like a rather dry collection of facts and honours with the odd tidbit of personal history for colour. I certainly didn’t come away from it with any feel for these women’s lives or discoveries.

  19. Granted crystallography isn’t the most appreciated of subjects, but I really think Dame Kathleen Lonsdale deserves some recognition. Although considering she became a dame, and was first female fellow of the royal society as well as many other achievements perhaps indicates that, at least in her time, she did.


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