Today we take a look at various women who have inspired us for their trailblazing efforts in science. We start with Dr Harriette Chick, who was a microbiologist, nutritionist and the first scientist to show sunshine impacts health. Particle physicist, Dr Fabiola Gianotti, is the first woman leader of CERN. You likely know Florence Nightingale for her contributions to nursing, but did you know she was the first woman awarded the Order of Merit, and the first scientist to develop graphical statistics? Astronomer Dr Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was the first person to discover what the universe is made of, though few people understand her tremendous contributions to the field of physics.  Did you know that the word “scientist” was invented to describe the research contributions of Mary Somerville? She trained as a mathematician, astronomer and historian. Finally, Dr Jane Cooke Wright was a “first” in many senses, as a Black woman physician, cancer researcher, and the first woman elected president of the New York Cancer Society.

Learn more about these amazing scientists below!

Harriette Chick

Harriette Chick

Microbiologist, nutritionist and first scientist to show sunshine impacts health

Dr Harriette Chick was born on 1875, was the first scientist to show that sunshine was important for the synthesis of Vitamin D in our skin. Growing up in Victorian England at a time when women did not have the right to vote, she studied science at University College London in 1894, earning a PhD in bacteriology, whilst spending time working in both Vienna and in Munich. Eleven years later, in 1905, Chick became the first woman employed by the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine in London, the only not-for-profit medical research institute in Britain at that time.

After WWII, rickets became a growing health problem, leaving children with soft bones that broke easily. Harriet’s meticulous study of the diet and activities of a group of rickets-ridden children in Vienna led her to realize that the problems seemed to ease with the arrival of summer each year. By examining children kept in the shade and those allowed in the sun, she figured out the critical role of sunlight for bone health.

She would go on to lead a new Division of Nutrition at the Lister Institute, focusing on deficiencies of water-soluble vitamins. Even after retiring, she continued to write reviews and lived to the age of 101 years.

Fabiola Gianotti

Particle physicist and first woman leader of CERN 

Fabiola Gianotti

Dr Fabiola Gianotti was born on 1960. She received her PhD in experimental particle physics from the University of Milan in 1989. She has worked as a research physicist in the Physics Department of CERN since 1994, leading protects such as the detector R&D and construction, software development and data analysis. She has published over 500 publications in her impressive career.

In November 2014, Dr Fabiola Gianotti was announced as the head of CERN, Europe’s most renowned particle physics laboratory. Established in 1954, CERN did not appoint its first woman leader for another six decades. Fabiola has been hailed as one of the world’s leading scientific minds, including by Time, who chose her as a runner up as their Person of the Year in 2012. Dr Gianotti serves on several university and international science committees, including the Scientific Advisory Board of the United Nation Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon.

Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale

Nurse, feminist, first woman awarded the Order of Merit, and first scientist to develop graphical statistics

Born into a middle-class family in England in 1820, Florence Nightingale showed strong academic aptitude, but it took much convincing of her parents to allow her to join a short nursing training program in Dusseldorf. At age 33, she became the superintendent of a women’s hospital in London. In 1854, during the Crimean War, Nightingale was invited to oversee the nurses helping British troops in Turkey, where she earned the nickname, “Lady of the Lamp” for her strong attention to her patients’ needs.

Nightingale established modern nursing education by formalising its scientif practices. In 1860, she established the Nightingale School of Nursing at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, and she provided training for midwives and nurses in workhouse infirmaries. In 1907, she became the first woman awarded the Order of Merit.  (1907). May 12, the day of her birth, is known as International Nurses Day, commemorating nursing contributions in health professions.

Many people recognise Nightingale as a nurse, but few realise she was also an innovative statistician. Have you heard of the Nightingale Diagram or the Nightingale Rose? When Florence Nightingale returned from the Crimean War, she realized that the majority of soldiers were dying, not from their wounds, but from infections (typhus and cholera, among others) acquired inside the hospital, triggered by neglecting hygiene conditions. She depicted this in her diagrams (right image), with blue representing deaths occasioned by diseases, red for the deaths due to wounds and black for all other causes of death. She used these data visualization tools to make her successful case for better sanitation in hospitals.

Florence Nightingale

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Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Astronomer and first person to discover what the universe is made of

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Born in 1925, Dr Cecilia Payne was the first woman to earn a doctorate in Astronomy from Radcliffe College (now part of Harvard) in 1925. Her thesis, establishing that hydrogen was the overwhelming constituent of stars, has been described as the most brilliant thesis in astronomy. She would go on to make more than million observations of variable stars to determine stellar evolution. Despite this, she remained a lowly paid technical assistant at Harvard until 1956 when she became the first woman to be promoted to full Professor and later as Chair of Astronomy, the first woman to head a department at Harvard.

Professor of Chemistry at Harvard University, Jeremy Knowles bemoans how little public recognition exists for Payne-Gaposchkin:

“Since her death in 1979, the woman who discovered what the universe is made of has not so much as received a memorial plaque. Her newspaper obituaries do not mention her greatest discovery. […] Every high school student knows that Isaac Newton discovered gravity, that Charles Darwin discovered evolution, and that Albert Einstein discovered the relativity of time. But when it comes to the composition of our universe, the textbooks simply say that the most abundant atom in the universe is hydrogen. And no one ever wonders how we know.”

Mary Somerville

Mathematician, astronomer, historian and the world’s first “scientist”

Mary Somerville

Mary Somerville was born in 1780 in Scotland who is famously known as a polymath; excelling in mathematics, astronomy and science history. Along with the astronomer Caroline Herschel, they would become the firs twomen members of the Royal Astronomical Society. In fact, such was her impact, that the word “scientist” was coined by Philosopher William Whewell to descirbe Somerville, in his 1834 review of her book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences. While Somerville was obviously not the first person to practice science, it is a double delight that this term was invented to describe not only a woman in STEM, but also in praise of her public communication of science in beautiful and engaging prose. So in a sense, Somerville was not the first “scientist” but she was also the first science communicator to reach a broad public audience!

The enduring impact of Somerville’s opus, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, continues to be celebrated. It was an internationally best selling book that pre-dates Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by 25 years.

Somerville studied mathematics, but she also engaged in a wide-ranging scholarship of other disciplines. She translated French astronomy books into English and had political clout as a scientific authority in England. Like many scientists, Somerville had diverse interests and she was highly creative (she played the piano!).

She described herself as “intensely ambitious,” explaining that: “I felt in my own breast that women were capable of taking a higher place in creation than that assigned to them in my early days.”

Her landmark book, On The Connexion… painted a vibrant picture of scientific discovery.

“In contrast to the vague speculations of eighteenth-century natural philosophy, her 500-page book covers a tight field of hard sciences — astronomy, physics, chemistry, geography, meteorology and electromagnetism. Its groundbreaking style, clear and logical, occasionally opens out into passages of sublime perspective, such as the description of universal gravity as a force equally present “in the descent of a rain drop as in the falls of Niagara; in the weight of the air, as in the periods of the moon”. Somerville ranges over subjects from stellar parallax to terrestrial magnetism, from comets to giant seaweed.”

Jane Cooke Wright

 Physician, cancer researcher and first woman elected president of the New York Cancer Society

Jane C. Wright

Dr Jane Cooke Wright was born in Manhattan in 1919 to a distinguished African-American family. She obtained an art degree from Smith College in 1942 and three years later obtaind a medical degree, graduating with honors, from the New York Medical College.

In 1964, working as part of a team at the N.Y.U. School of Medicine, Dr. Wright developed a nonsurgical method, using a catheter system, to deliver heavy doses of anticancer drugs to previously hard-to-reach tumor areas in the kidneys, spleen and elsewhere. She was the only woman, and only Black person, among the seven researchers who founded the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) and later became head of the chemotherapy department and associate dean at New York Medical College. It was the first time a black woman had held such a senior position in a medical school.

Dr Wright worked alongside her father, Dr Louis T. Wright, who was one of the first Black students to earn an M.D. from Harvard Medical school and the first African-American doctor appointed to a public hospital in New York City. Together at the Cancer Research Foundation at Harlem hospital, “The Wrights were one of the first groups to report the use of nitrogen-mustard agents as a treatment for cancer, which led to remissions in patients with sarcoma, Hodgkin’s disease, chronic myelogenous leukemia, and lymphoma. The Wrights were also some of the first researchers to test folic acid antagonists as cancer treatments. ”

After her father died in 1952, Dr Wright took over as Director. The American Association for Cancer Research writes:

“She was among the first researchers to test chemotherapeutic drugs in humans, which produced effective dosing levels and helped saved lives. Dr. Wright began her pioneering work in 1949, and during her 40-year career she published over 100 research papers on cancer chemotherapy and led delegations of cancer researchers to Africa, China, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union. By 1967, she was the highest ranking African-American woman in a United States medical institution. In 1971, she became the first woman elected president of the New York Cancer Society.”

Dr Sandra Swain, 2013 president of ASCO, said of Dr Wright:

“Not only was her work scientific, but it was visionary for the whole science of oncology. She was part of the group that first realised we needed a separate organisation to deal with the providers who care for cancer patients. But beyond that, it’s amazing to me that a Black woman, in her day and age, was able to do what she did.”

STEM Women

STEM Women is set up to help the public to connect with women who work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Our network is run by a group of practising STEM women professionals. We aim to create a safe place for people of all genders to discuss how we can work together to make STEM more inclusive.

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