15+ greatest women in STEM

From antibiotics to aeronautics, how females led science to the next level.
Christopher McFadden
Barbara McClintock (on the left) and Marie Curie (on the right)1, 2

There may not be a better time than Women's History Month to celebrate and remember the extraordinary women who made significant advances in STEM and transformed the lives of millions. Of course, it would be impossible to list them all, but these 15 women definitely deserve recognition for their enduring contributions to the fields of math, science, technology, and engineering.

Without further ado, here is our list of 15 of the most influential women in STEM, in no particular order.

1. Hypatia

15+ greatest women in STEM
A fictional sketch of Hypatia. Source:Elbert Hubbard/Wikimedia Commons

Hypatia's entry to our list of great women in STEM might appear to some as tenuous. After all, her work was not quite what we would define today as STEM. Forgotten by the modern world for many centuries, her memory is honored here. She was one of the great thinkers of ancient Alexandria and a prolific polymath who studied and taught mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy. Her life has been depicted in the Spanish film Agora, which is well worth a watch. 

Founded by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., Alexandria became a center of culture and learning for the ancient world. By 364 C.E., however, the Roman Empire split and Alexandria became part of the eastern half. The city was soon engulfed in civil wars that destroyed much of the city's ancient learning.  In 391 the Roman emperor ordered the destruction of the city's famed museum - the last known member of the museum was the mathematician and astronomer Theon—Hypatia’s father.

Hypatia was born sometime between 350 and 370, and little is known of her life. Her father taught her mathematics and astronomy and she taught and wrote in a number of areas, including Neoplatonic philosophy. Her public lectures were very popular.

The religious and political turmoil in the city, however, made her an easy target. She was a pagan who publicly spoke about non-Christian philosophy, and she became embroiled on the "wrong" side of the city's politics.

In 415 or 416, a fanatical Christian mob dragged her from a carriage and into a church, where they beat her to death with roofing tiles and then burned her body.

2. Beatrice Shilling

15+ greatest women in STEM
Beatrice Shilling. Source: Thrust Vector/Wikimedia Commons

This celebrated motorcycle racer and aeronautical engineer designed a solution that helped save the lives of British airforce pilots during World War II. In 1940, amidst the Battle of Britain and the Battle of France, the pilots of the Royal Air Force were experiencing a serious problem that endangered their lives. During temporary negative-g maneuvers such as a nosedive or inverted flight, the carburetors in their Merlin airplane engines tended to flood, causing the engines to cut out. This restricted British pilots to ‘half-rolls’ that kept the fuel at the bottom of the tank but limited their ability to dogfight.

To overcome this problem, Shilling came up with a clever workaround — the RAE restrictor also dubbed with the ribald nickname Mrs. Shilling’s orifice. The device was a washer that restricted and regulated the flow of fuel to the engine, preventing it from flooding. It could be easily inserted into the carburetor and was used until the pressure carburetor fuel metering system was designed in 1943. 

From a young age, Shilling was interested in riding racing motorcycles and studying engineering. When she was just a teenager, she became a member of the Women’s Engineering Society (an organization in the UK that encouraged women to pursue a career in STEM), and she bought her first motorcycle at age 14, which she maintained herself.

After secondary school, she was apprenticed for three years to an electrical engineer - her employer was Margaret Partridge, a founder member of the Women’s Engineering Society. She then attended Victoria University of Manchester, where she studied for a degree in electrical engineering as one of only two women taking the course. She later earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in mechanical engineering.

She eventually took a position as a research assistant at the University of Birmingham, where she worked on supercharged single-cylinder engines.

In 1936, Shilling went to work for the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) in Farnborough, where she would remain until her retirement in 1969. At the outbreak of the Second World War, she was promoted to a post with responsibility for carburetor research and development.

After the war, Shilling continued her work in research and development, including working on supersonic aircraft and rocket propulsion. She also continued her interest in motorcycles.

By the 1930s, she was one of the few women racers to compete at the Brooklands circuit. In 1934 she was able to lap Brooklands at 106 mph (170 kph), making her only the second woman to earn the British Motorcycle Racing Club’s Gold Star for plus-100mph laps. She continued to race through the 1960s.

Shilling died in 1990 of spinal cancer. In Farnborough, a pub was named after her: The Tilly Shilling.

3. Katherine Johnson

15+ greatest women in STEM
Katherine Johnson. Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, in 1918, Katherine Johnson was intensely curious from an early age. She skilled several grades in school and began attending High School at the age of 13. At 18, she enrolled in West Virginia State College, graduating with honors in 1937. She then took a job teaching at a black public school in Virginia. 

When West Virginia decided to integrate its graduate schools in 1939, Johnson and two Black men were handpicked to be the first black graduate students at West Virginia State. She left her teaching job and enrolled in the graduate math program., although she left before completing her degree in order to start a family.

In 1952, a relative told her about available positions at the West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA - the forerunner of NASA) Langley laboratory. At that time, the agency was segregated, and the West Area Computing section was an all-Black department.

Over the next few years, Johnson worked on a number of projects at NACA, including analyzing data from flight tests. In 1958, she provided some of the math for a series of lectures given by engineers in the Flight Research Division. When these engineers went to work on the Space Task Group, Johnson was also invited to join the program. There, she worked on trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight.

In 1960, she and engineer Ted Skopinski coauthored a report laying out the equations describing features of orbital spaceflight. It was the first time a woman in the Flight Research Division had received credit as an author of a research report. In 1962, preparations were underway for John Glenn's orbital mission, computers were used to calculate the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule. But the astronaut was wary of putting his life in the hands of the computers, which had a tendency to crash. So, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl”—Johnson—to run the same equations by hand. Glenn is reported to have said, “If [Johnson] says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.”

Johnson retired in 1986, after 33 years at NACA/NASA. In 2015, at age 97, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.

She died on Feb. 24, 2020, at the age of 101.

The extraordinary story of Johnson and other female mathematicians who worked at NASA between the 1950s and 1970s featured in a book titled Hidden Figures. The book was later adapted into a film of the same name. 

4. Rosalind Franklin

15+ greatest women in STEM
Rosalind Franklin working in a lab. Source: Jenifer Glynn, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology/Wikimedia Commons

Rosalind Franklin is best known for her work on X-ray diffraction studies, which would eventually lead to the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA. Her infamous Photo 51 led to the elucidation of the structure in 1962. However, she wasn't recognized directly for the findings, and many believe she was robbed of the well-deserved credit by her male colleagues.

In 1951, she was working as a research associate at King's College in London where Maurice Wilkins was leading a research group studying the structure of DNA. He showed researchers James Watson and Francis Crick Franklin's Photo 51 without her knowledge, and the photo ended up being the key to deciphering the structure. However, a Nobel Prize can only be shared among three people at most, and only Watson, Crick, and Wilkins received the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their work. 

Watson himself later suggested that Franklin should be awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Sadly, the Nobel Committee does not make posthumous nominations, and Franklin had died by that time.

5. Lise Meitner

15+ greatest women in STEM
Lise Meitner. Source: Master and Fellows of Churchill College, Cambridge, England/Wikimedia Commons

Lise Meitner was an Austrian-Swedish scientist who worked on the subject of radioactivity and nuclear physics. In 1966, she shared the Enrico Fermi Award with the chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann for their joint research that led to the discovery of uranium fission.

Meitner received her doctorate at the University of Vienna in 1906 and spent most of her career in Berlin, becoming the first woman to become a full physics professor at the University of Berlin. There she focused on researching radioactivity. She was among the first to isolate the isotope protactinium-231, studied nuclear isomerism and beta decay, and investigated the products of neutron bombardment of uranium. Because she was Jewish, Meitner left Germany in the summer of 1938, due to the rise of the Nazis, and settled in Sweden, becoming a Swedish citizen.

After Hahn and Strassmann demonstrated that barium results when uranium is bombarded with neutrons, Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch, clarified the physical characteristics of the reaction and suggested the term fission for the process. In 1944, Hahn received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work in nuclear fission, but Meitner was not recognized.

She was invited to work on the Manhattan Project in 1942,  but rejected the offer, saying, "I will have nothing to do with a bomb!"

Meitner retired to England in 1960 and died eight years later. The chemical element meitnerium (109) was later named in her honor.

6. Gertrude B. Elion

15+ greatest women in STEM
Gertrude B. Elion. Source: GSK Heritage Archives/Wikimedia Commons

Gertrude B. Elion shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology with George Hitchings and Sir James Black, for their methods of rational drug design for the development of new drugs. Their method focused on understanding the target of the drug rather than using trial and error. These techniques led to the development of the HIV drug, AZT. She also developed the first immunosuppressive drug, azathioprine, used in organ transplantation.

7. Kamala Sohonie

15+ greatest women in STEM
Kamala Bhagvat Sohonie. Source: Indian Academy of Sciences/Wikimedia Commons

Kamala Sohonie was born in 1912 in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, India. Her father was one of the first chemists to graduate from the Tata Institute of Sciences (later the Indian Institute of Sciences) and inspired his daughter to follow in his footsteps.

In 1933 she earned a B.Sc degree in chemistry, with a minor in physics, from Bombay University. However, when she applied to the Indian Institute of Science for a research fellowship, her application was turned down on the grounds that "women were not competent enough to pursue research". 

She eventually persuaded the university to grant her admission, on the condition that she would be on probation during her first year. After that year, her professors were impressed with her work, and she was allowed to continue her work on proteins in milk and legumes. In fact, her work was so impressive that the institute changed its rules to allow women to conduct research there.

After earning her M.Sc in 1937, Sohonie received a scholarship to study at Cambridge University, in England. She completed her Ph.D. there in just 14 months, becoming the first Indian woman to earn a Ph.D. in the sciences at a British university.

On her return to India, Sohonie was appointed as the Professor and Head of the biochemistry department at Lady Hardinge Medical College in New Delhi. After marrying in 1947, she moved to Mumbai and joined the Royal Institute of Science as a professor of biochemistry. 

Her research later led to the development of “Neera”, a drink prepared from palm oil extract which proved to be highly beneficial in overcoming various health issues faced by malnourished children and pregnant women. For her work on Neera, Sohonie received the Rashtrapati Award (Presidential award). 

In 1997, Sohonie won the National Award for Excellence and Contribution to Science. The following year, she died shortly after collapsing while receiving a standing ovation at a celebration of her life by the Indian Council for Medical Research.

The struggles and achievements of Kamala Sohonie inspired thousands of girls and women in India to pursue careers in science.

8. Marie Curie

15+ greatest women in STEM
Marie Curie. Source: Nobel Foundation/Wikimedia Commons

Marie Skłodowska Curie is the only woman and one of only four people to win two Nobel Prizes. She was awarded the Nobel prize in physics in 1903 and the prize in chemistry in 1911. 

Curie was born in Warsaw on November 7, 1867, and was educated in local schools. In 1891, she went to Paris to continue her studies at the Sorbonne where she earned degrees in Physics and the Mathematical Sciences. In 1895, she married Pierre Curie, a physics professor. Curie earned her Ph.D. in 1903, and in 1906, following the death of her husband, she took his place as Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences, the first time a woman had held this position.

She was also appointed Director of the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the University of Paris, founded in 1914.

Her early research, conducted together with her husband, was often conducted in difficult conditions. The discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in 1896 inspired the Curies in the work which eventually led to the isolation of polonium and radium. It was Curie who developed methods for the separation of radium from radioactive residues in large enough quantities to allow for its thorough study.

In recognition of their work, in 1903, the French Academy of Sciences proposed Henri Becquerel and Pierre Curie as candidates for the Nobel Prize in Physics - leaving out any mention of Marie Curie. The mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler was outraged at this and advised Pierre to insist that the committee include Marie as well. She was eventually included and all three were awarded the prize. Curie's second Nobel - awarded in Chemistry in 1911, came after the death of her husband and was unshared.

Marie Curie died in 1934, aged 66. She died of aplastic anemia acquired from exposure to radiation during her scientific research and from her radiological work at field hospitals during World War I. In 1995 she became the first woman to be entombed on her own merits (as opposed to those of a spouse) in Paris' Panthéon.

9. Inge Lehmann

15+ greatest women in STEM
Inge Lehmann. Source: trowelblazers/Wikimedia Commons

Since 1997, the American Geophysical Union has been giving the Inge Lehmann Medal every year in recognition of "outstanding contributions to the understanding of the structure, composition, and dynamics of the Earth's mantle and core.”

The award is named after great Danish geophysicist Inge Lehmann, who was the first scientist to theorize that apart from the outer molten core, Earth also has an inner solid core, separated by what has come to be called the Lehmann Discontinuity. Lehmann’s hypothesis was confirmed in 1970 when more sensitive seismographs became available. Her discoveries played a key role in increasing our understanding of Earth’s inner composition.

Born in Denmark in 1888, Lehmann faced a great deal of discrimination as a female scientist. She once protested to her nephew, Niles Groes, “You should know how many incompetent men I had to compete within vain.” 

Lehman later conducted extensive seismological research in other countries, benefiting from an interest in using seismology to track clandestine nuclear explosions. On receiving the William Bowie Medal in 1971, the highest honor of the American Geophysical Union, speakers described her as, “the master of a black art for which no amount of computerizing is likely to be a complete substitute.”

Lehmann died in 1993 at the age of 105.

In 2015, an asteroid (5632 Ingelehmann) was named after her to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage in Denmark. 

10. Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace

15+ greatest women in STEM
A painting of Ada King by Alfred Edward Chalon. Source: Science Museum Group/Wikimedia Commons

Lovelace was the daughter of the famed poet Lord Byron, although he and Lovelace's mother, Annabella Milbanke Byron, separated just after her birth in 1815, and she never knew him. Lovelace was educated privately by tutors but was taught advanced mathematics by Augustus De Morgan, the first professor of mathematics at the University of London.

In 1835, she married William King, 8th Baron King, and, when he created an earl in 1838, she became countess of Lovelace, although most people today know her as simply Ada Lovelace.

In 1833, Lovelace was introduced to Charles Babbage and became interested in his work on the Analytical Engine, an early type of computer.

In 1843, Lovelace translated and annotated an article written by the Italian mathematician and engineer Luigi Federico Menabrea (“Elements of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Machine”). Lovelace's annotations of that paper included a detailed description of an algorithm that could be used to program the Engine. 

Although Babbage never completed his Analytical Engine, Lovelace’s work is today considered the forerunner of computer programing and she is credited as being the very first computer programmer. The second Tuesday in October has become Ada Lovelace Day, a day for honoring the contributions of women to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

11. Jocelyn Bell Burnell

15+ greatest women in STEM
Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Source: Astronomical Institute, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic/Wikimedia Commons

Burnell discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967 using a radio telescope she helped to build.

Burnell earned her bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Glasgow in 1965. After earning her doctorate in radio astronomy from the University of Cambridge in 1969, she worked as a research assistant at Cambridge, where she aided in constructing a large radio telescope.

In 1967, she was reviewing readings from her experiments in monitoring quasars, when she discovered a series of extremely regular radio pulses. She and her adviser, astrophysicist Antony Hewish, worked for months to eliminate possible sources of the pulses and later discovered other regular patterns of radio waves. They determined that they were in fact emanating from rapidly spinning neutron stars, later called pulsars.

In February of 1968, news of the discovery was published in the journal Nature. 

The 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Hewish and researcher Martin Ryle for the discovery of pulsars. Although a number of prominent scientists protested about Burell's omission, she always maintained that her position as a student at the time of the discovery meant she had not expected to share the honor.

Burnell later taught at a number of British universities and worked at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. In 2001, she was appointed dean of science at the University of Bath and later worked as visiting professor at the University of Oxford.

Despite not earning the Nobel, Burnell has received a number of other honors. In 1999, she was created Commander of the Order of the British Empire and was made a Dame in 2007. She also served as president of the Royal Astronomical Society was elected to a two-year term as president of the Institute of Physics in 2008. In 2021, she received the Copley Medal.

In 2018, 51 years after her discovery of pulsars, Bell Burnell was awarded a $3-million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics — which she donated to a charity in the UK whose mission is to support physics graduate students from under-represented groups. 

12. Barbara McClintock

15+ greatest women in STEM
Barbara McClintock. Source: Smithsonian Institution/Wikimedia Commons

McClintock was an American scientist and cytogeneticist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1983. In her work, McClintock challenged existing concepts of what genes were capable of.

Born in 1902, McClintock almost didn’t go to college. Although a talented student, her mother felt a college degree would harm her chances of marriage. Luckily, her father intervened and she enrolled in the Cornell College of Agriculture. At that time, genetics was a new discipline and Cornell only offered only one undergraduate course. Taking the course, McClintock found a lifelong interest.

She earned her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees at Cornell, specializing in the cytogenetics of maize. In 1936, she found work as an assistant professor at the University of Missouri. In 1941, she took a position at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a research facility funded by the Carnegie Institution. She was now free to focus exclusively on research. McClintock would remain at Cold Spring Harbor, as a researcher and later as scientist emerita until her death at the age of 90.

In her study of the color patterns of maize at the genetic level, McClintock noted that the kernel patterns changed too frequently to be considered mutations. She eventually realized that some genes could move around within chromosomes, switching physical traits on or off. This contradicted prevailing genetic theory and when she eventually presented her work, it found a very hostile reception in the scientific community.

It was the mid-1960s before her findings were confirmed by others and she received the credit she was due. McClintock received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983, more than 30 years after making the discoveries for which she was honored.

13. Chien-Shiung Wu

15+ greatest women in STEM
Chien-Shiung Wu. Source: Science Service (Smithsonian Institution)/Wikimedia Commons

Wu was an American experimental physicist who made significant contributions to nuclear physics. She was a member of the Manhattan Project, working at the Substitute Alloy Materials Lab at Columbia University, focusing on radiation detectors. Her work helped her to later develop the process of separating uranium metal into Uranium-235 and Uranium-238 isotopes by gaseous diffusion. 

Wu was born in a small town near Shanghai, China, and attended a school started by her father, who believed in education for girls. She went on to study physics at a university in Shanghai, and in 1936, she moved to San Francisco, and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, with some financial assistance from an uncle. She earned her Ph.D. in 1940. 

Wu became a physics instructor at Princeton University and Smith College, and in 1944, she joined the Manhattan Project at the Substitute Alloy Materials (SAM) Lab at Columbia University, focusing on radiation detectors. 

After the war, Wu took up a position at Columbia and made several significant contributions to the study of beta decay. 

In 1956, she was approached by theoretical physicists Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, who asked her to devise an experiment to prove their theory that the law of conservation of parity did not hold true during beta decay. Her work resulted in Lee and Yang winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1957, but Wu's work was not acknowledged.

In 1958, Wu's research helped answer important questions about blood and sickle cell anemia. She was also the first woman to serve as president of the American Physical Society. In 1978, she was awarded the inaugural Wolf Prize in Physics. Her book Beta Decay, published in 1965, is still a standard reference for nuclear physicists. 

14. Dorothy Hodgkin

15+ greatest women in STEM
Dorothy Mary Crowfoot Hodgkin. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1921, when Hodgkin enrolled at Sir John Leman Grammar School in Beccles, England, she was only the second girl to study chemistry in her school. Hodgkin’s mother, Grace Mary Crowfoot, was also very encouraging towards her daughter’s passion for the subject, so the day Dorothy turned 15, her mother gifted her a book on X-ray crystallography. Later, Dorothy received a first-class honors degree in chemistry from Oxford before completing her Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge. 

From confirming the structure of penicillin, and work on cholesterol and Vitamin B12, to developing the first detailed model of insulin, Hodgkin made several important discoveries in the field of biochemistry.  in 1964, she was awarded the Nobel prize in Chemistry for her use of X-ray crystallography to examine the structure of biomolecules. To this date, Dorothy Hodgkin is the only British woman who has won a Nobel Prize in science. 

In the year that followed, she was awarded the Order of Merit and she also became the first woman to receive Copley Medal from the Royal Society. From 1970 to 1988, Hodgkin serves as the Chancellor of the University of Bristol. She died in 1994.

15. Dian Fossey

15+ greatest women in STEM
Dina Fossey. Source: episodeinfo/Wikimedia Commons

Fossey's life has been famously depicted in the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist, which is an adaptation of her book of the same title. Fossey spent 18 years studying mountain gorillas in Rwanda and her contributions to zoology, primatology, and anthropology are second to none. 

Her research and conservation work largely helped reduce the downward population trend in mountain gorillas, saving them from extinction. Sadly, she was murdered in 1985, in a case that remains unsolved. 

16. Rachel Carson

15+ greatest women in STEM
Rachel Carson. Source: United States Fish and Wildlife Service/Wikimedia Commons

Last but by no means least, the great Rachel Carson. Carson was an ecologist and writer, whose work is often credited with starting the environmental movement.

Carson began her studies at the Pennsylvania College for Women in 1925 with the intention of becoming a writer, but she changed her major to biology. After her bachelor’s degree, she earned an MA at Johns Hopkins University in 1932 and taught at the University of Maryland, while pursuing postgraduate studies at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods HoleMassachusetts.

In 1936, Carson began work as an aquatic biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, was published in 1941. Her 1951 work The Sea Around Us became a national bestseller.

Her most important work, however, was 1962's Silent Spring, which created worldwide awareness of the dangers of environmental pollution and the consequences of indiscriminate pesticide use. The book helped lead to the ban on DDT use and inspired the environmental movement.

Sadly, Carson died in 1964, before she could see any real results from her work, but her legacy as one of the most influential environmental writers ever published remains to this day.

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