Centuries of Women in Science

By Lisa Jancarik

Ada Lovelace Day occurs on October 13th each year as a day for the scientific community to welcome and encourage women and girls to enter the sciences. Lovelace was born to poet Lord Byron, and known as a lifelong friend to inventor Charles Babbage. She worked closely with Babbage on his mechanical analytical engine, a precursor to computers. The first algorithm for the machine, which she developed, is today considered the first computer program.

While math and science were unusual occupations for women in centuries past, Lovelace was not unique. Several women advanced astronomy, chemistry, physics and biology over a period of centuries.

Women Scientists of the 20th Century

Some of the 20th century’s most notable scientific contributions were made by women. While some had a smooth path, others struggled for opportunity and recognition.

In biology, Rosalind Franklin ranks among these women. Using X-ray crystallography, she imaged DNA and had nearly figured out its structure when a colleague showed her images to James Watson. When Watson quickly figured out that the molecule was a double helix and published the finding with Francis Crick, he and Crick were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize. By then, Franklin had died of ovarian cancer. Another X-ray crystallographer, Dorothy Hodgkin, also mastered X-ray crystallography and determined the 3-D structures of penicillin, vitamin B12 and insulin.

Women did eventually gain Nobel recognition. In the 1970s and 1980s, geneticist Barbara McClintock first described “jumping genes,” which have since been found in a range of organisms, including maize and even insects and humans. McClintock earned a Lasker prize in 1981 and a Nobel Prize in 1983 after years of not being taken seriously.


Emilie Du Chatelet

(1706 – 1749)

Math and Physics

A courtier and a paramour of philosopher Voltaire, this broadly educated woman’s French translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia is still used today. In her childhood, Du Chatelet is thought to have been permitted to study Latin and geometry with her brother. Later, she began serious study of Descartes’ analytical geometry and published her first book, Foundations in Physics, in 1740.


Caroline Herschel

(1750 – 1848)


Herschel was the first British woman to receive payment for her scientific efforts, as she was the assistant to the king’s personal astronomer (her brother, who discovered the planet Uranus). She was also the first British woman to have her work published by the British Royal Society. In her own work, she discovered eight comets plus stars and nebulae.


Mary Somerville

(1780 – 1872)

Math, Physics, Astronomy

Although her father disapproved of her pursuit of mathematics, Somerville found support for her efforts in her adult life. Eventually, she moved from Edinburgh to London, where she hosted her own intellectual circle including famous astronomer John Herschel and inventor Charles Babbage. She wrote on a number of scientific topics and studied magnetism. Her best known work; however, was the English translation of Pierre- Simon Laplace’s The Mechanism of the Heavens, which became a textbook for much of the next century despite her personal dissatisfaction with the finished work. 


Mary Anning

(1799 – 1847)


Young dinosaur fans may have heard of Anning as the first person to recover an ichthyosaurus (“fish lizard”) when she was 11 years old. Her older brother put her up to excavating it, although he had misidentified it. In fact, she had a long career as a fossil hunter. Her fossils of ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, pterodactyls and other specimens helped construct our knowledge of the Jurassic period. Although she had little formal education, she taught herself the anatomy, geology and paleontology she needed to know to be taken seriously by contemporaries.


Maria Mitchell

(1818 – 1889)


Unlike Somerville, Mitchell enjoyed her father’s support, and he taught her to use a sextant and reflecting telescope. By age 17, she was already teaching science and math to girls at a school she started. When she discovered a comet in 1847, she earned recognition in the American astronomical community. She would go on to become the first female astronomy professor in the U.S., working at Vassar College. Her work there largely focused on the Sun.