Women scientists. Even in the 21st century we qualify “scientist” with “women”. Odd that. Women have been able to be whatever we want for quite some time, but women scientists are still regarded as extraordinary.
In a country where science and maths are a problem, and in Women’s Month (South Africa) I thought I would look at some famous women scientists. Perhaps these women can inspire the new generation.
Right from earliest times women have shown that they can be scientists. The Indian philosopher, Gargi Yachaknayi lived and worked in the 7th century BCE. The first woman physician to practice legally in Athens (and probably the world) was Agnodike in the 4th century BCE. The first woman astronomer in Ancient Greece was Aglaonike in the 2nd century BCE. Artemisia of Caria (c 300 BCE) was a botanist.Eccello of Lucania was a mathematician in the 5th and 4th century BCE. Enheduanna (c2285-2250BCE) was a Sumerian/Akkadian astronomer. Hypatia (370-415) was an Egyptian mathematician and astronomer. Mary the Jewess was a 1st or 2nd century CE alchemist In the 4th century CE, Leoparda was a gynaecologist (not a midwife). The list is long and includes Tapputi-Belatekallim first mentioned in a clay tablet dating to 2000 BCE) – Babylonian perfumer, the first person in history recorded as using a chemical process.
There is a long list of women physicians, surgeons, and medical specialists in the Middle Ages, and from every country. One such is a Napolitan oculist in Frankfurt-am-Main in the late 14th century, Margherita di Napoli.
In the 16th century we find Sophia Brahe (1556-1643, a Danish astronomer and chemist, with Catherine de Parthenay (1554-1631), a French mathematician.
In the 17th century we find our first female PhD, Elena Cornaro Piscopia (1646-1684), an Italian mathematician. We also find Anna Akerhjelm, an amateur archeologist, Marie Crous (fl 1640), a French mathematician, Maria Cunitz (1610-1664), a Silesian astronomer. Actually there were a lot of astronomers of every nationality. Eleanor Glanville (1654-1709), an English entomologist and Marie Meurdrac (c1610-1680), a French chemist. The first female pharmacist was Elizabeth Walker (1623-1690).
The 18th century has even more records of women scientists, including Princess Charlotte of Saxe-Meiningen (1751-1827), a German astronomer (I only included her because she’s a princess) and Jacoba van den Brande (1735-1794), the Dutch founder of the first all-female science academy (yes, there were lots of women scientists by then). Mathematicians, anatomists, botanists, inventors, natural history, physicians, biologists, physicists, chemists, astronomers, agronomists, horticulturists, midwives, and more, all contributed their bit to science.
By the 19th and 20th century there were women working in every scientific field from Anthropology to Zoology. The list is long. I select only a very few. Beatrix Potter (yes, the one who wrote the famous stories) was a mycologist. I had to look that one up. It is the study of fungi and lichen. Mary Cynthia Dickerson (1866–1923) was American herpetologist, museum curator and writer. At least I know what a herpetologist is. One of my friends was one. They study reptiles. Mary Anne Whitby would please generations of children – she was an English breeder of silkworms. Ida Freund (1863-1914) was the first woman to lecture chemistry at a British university. Edith Humphrey (1875-1978) was the first British woman to gain a doctorate in chemistry. Marie Pasteur (1826-1910) was the wife of the more famous Louis Pasteur and a French chemist and bacteriologist in her own right. Emily Roebling was an American civil engineer and Lanying Lin was a Chinese materials scientist. Florence Nightingale gets a mention as a statistician and nurse.
There were lots of female geologists and paleontologists, some inventors, a host of mathematicians and even more medical women with a wide range of specialties.
Nuclear physicists were scarce. Lise Meitner (1878-1968) gets a mention in the source I am using, but for some reason Marie Curie, the Polish/French physicist and chemist and probably the most famous woman scientist of all time (the only person to have been awarded a Nobel Prize in two different disciplines) doesn’t.
There are hundreds, thousands, of women in science today, many of them achieving great things. I hope this encourages young women today to pursue the sciences.