Three Iconic Women Scientists

Three Iconic Women Scientists

Despite data continuing to suggest that women have it much tougher than men establishing scientific careers, down the years several pioneering female researchers have swept aside such stereotyping to prove that science is by no means just a man’s world.

Here are three legendary women from across the scientific spectrum, who have climbed to the very top of the scientific tree.

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"Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood." – Marie Curie

Marie Curie – 1867-1934

Standing head and shoulders above her colleagues, Polish-born French physicist and chemist Marie Curie is a pioneering scientific great who not only discovered two new chemical elements – radium and polonium – but is also the only person ever to have won Nobel Prizes in both physics and chemistry. Moreover, her daughter Irene later also won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry! Best known for her contributions to radioactivity (a term that she herself coined), Curie also conducted the first research into the treatment of tumours with radiation, and was the founder of the world-famous Curie Institutes.

In 2009, readers of New Scientist voted Curie the “most inspirational woman in science”. No less a person than Albert Einstein once said: “Not only did she do outstanding work in her lifetime, and not only did she help humanity greatly by her work, but she invested all her work with the highest moral quality. All of this she accomplished with great strength, objectivity, and judgment. It is very rare to find all of these qualities in one individual.” 

Curie was born in Warsaw to two teachers, at a time when the city lay within the borders of the Russian Empire. She went to a gymnasium – a selective school for academically gifted children – and graduated with a gold medal as top student and a burning interest in science. 

After a period earning money to continue her studies, in November 1891 Curie moved to Paris aged 24, to study chemistry, mathematics and physics at the Sorbonne. In summer 1893, aged 26, she finished top in her Masters physics course. Her thirst for knowledge pushed her to continue with her education, and she completed a Masters degree in chemistry in 1894, aged 27.

After marrying another brilliant scientist, she began to investigate uranium as part of her doctorate, researching radioactivity, which she correctly surmised was a characteristic of the nucleus of the atom. The couple went on to discover polonium and radium. For their work, the Curies were honoured with the Nobel Prize for Physics, along with Henri Becquerel.

At first, the Nobel Committee was only going to award prizes to Pierre Curie and Becquerel but her husband insisted that she also be recognised. When, in June 1903, Curie was awarded her PhD by the Sorbonne, her examiners expressed the view that she had made the greatest contribution to science ever found in a PhD thesis.

Success was tempered by tragedy, however: Curie’s husband died tragically in an accident, when he was hit by a horse-drawn carriage in the street. Although she was distraught, Curie accepted an offer from the Sorbonne to replace her husband as the Chair of Physics. Again, she broke the mould: having become the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, now she was the first female professor at the University of Paris. 

In 1910, Marie isolated a pure sample of the metallic element radium for the first time. She had discovered the element 12 years earlier. In 1911, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the “discovery of the elements radium and polonium, the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.” Curie had broken the mould yet again by becoming the first and only person to date to win a Nobel Prize in both physics and chemistry.

Her many charitable and philanthropic works led her to care for soldiers in the First World War and then to set up the Radium Institute, now the Curie Institute, which continues to do important research work today. Three of its workers have been awarded Nobel Prizes: her daughter Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie won the chemistry prize in 1935 and Pierre-Gilles de Gennes won the physics prize in 1991. 

Curie died aged 66 on 4 July, 1934, killed by aplastic anaemia, a disease of the bone marrow, likely falling victim to the radioactivity she had been exposed to during her career.

Dame Jane GoodallJane Goodall – 1934-present

If Marie Curie was one of the world’s greatest physical scientists, British primatologist and ethologist, Dame Jane Goodall is one of our pre-eminent behavioural scientists; she is widely considered to be the foremost expert on chimpanzees and has closely observed the behaviour of our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom for the past quarter of a century, living in the bush of the Gombe Game Reserve in Africa. 

For Dr Goodall, it all started in childhood when her mother gave her a lifelike chimpanzee toy named “Jubilee”; today, the toy still sits on her dresser in London.

Like Curie, she was a bright student and achieved the distinction of being one of only nine people to receive a PhD in Ethology without first obtaining a bachelors degree. However, she could easily have opted to be a secretary and initially took a series of jobs at Oxford University and in a documentary film studio. By chance, a friend invited her to travel to Kenya. 

Having saved money for the trip by working as a waitress, Goodall left for Africa; two months after arriving she met the famous anthropologist Louis Leakey and his wife Mary. The rest, as they say, is history.

Goodall’s research at Gombe Stream is best known to the scientific community for challenging two long-standing beliefs of the day: that only humans could construct and use tools, and that chimpanzees were passive vegetarians. During her pioneering research among the apes, she found evidence for mental traits such as reasoned thought, abstraction, generalization, symbolic representation, and even the concept of self, all previously thought to be uniquely human traits. In response to Goodall’s revolutionary findings, Louis Leakey wrote: “We must now redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human!” 

Today, Jane Goodall is a UN Messenger of Peace; she spends much of her time lecturing, sharing her message of hope for the future and encouraging young people to make a difference in their world. She famously once said: “Every individual matters. Every individual has a role to play. Every individual makes a difference.” She has been recognised by the scientific community for her work with various awards and also in popular media as a modern-day scientific icon. 

Maria Mayer – 1906-1972 Maria-Goeppert-Mayer

But back to physics… German-born American physicist Maria Goeppert-Mayer received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1963; she was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for theoretical physics and the second woman in history to win a Nobel Prize, after Curie. She is recognised for proposing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus.

Born on 28 June, 1906 in Kattowitz, Germany (now Katowice, Poland), she was the only child of Friedrich Goeppert, a progressive professor of paediatrics at the University at Göttingen and Maria nee Wolff, a former music teacher. When she was very young, Goeppert-Mayer’s family moved to Göttingen in 1910, where she was educated at a girls’ grammar school run by suffragettes. Later, she earned her PhD under Max Born at the University of Göttingen, in 1930. The same year she married Dr Joseph Edward Mayer, an assistant to the German physicist and Nobel laureate James Franck, and the newly married couple moved to the United States.

In those days, academia was very much a man’s world, so despite her doctorate, for years Goeppert-Mayer was largely limited to internships in university laboratories, her presence only accepted because of her husband. During her husband’s time at the University of Chicago, she volunteered to become an associate professor of physics at the school. 

Then she was offered a part-time job as a senior physicist in the Theoretical Physics Division at the nearby Argonne National Laboratory. This was the first time in her career that she was able to work and be paid at a level commensurate with her training and expertise. Two years later she made the breakthrough that earned her worldwide acclaim. 

Goeppert-Mayer developed a mathematical model for the structure of nuclear shells. With Edward Teller (one of her colleagues at Argonne National Laboratory) she researched the configuration of the elements, and noticed the repetition of seven “magic numbers”, as she named them — 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82, and 126. Elements with a “magic number” of protons or neutrons were consistently more stable than elements with other configurations. Consequently, she proposed that inside the nucleus, protons and neutrons are arranged in a series of nucleon layers, like an onion, with neutrons and protons orbiting around each other at each level. 

Contemporaneously, but working independently, German physicist J Hans D Jensen reached the same conclusion. Goeppert-Mayer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, which she shared with J Hans D Jensen and Eugene Paul Wigner. 

Do your students recognise the importance that these 3 female scientists have had on the world?  In future blogs we will explore more inspirational women scientists. Who would you like to see featured?

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