Six scientists who were forgotten due to sexism

National Geographic posted an article about six women whose discoveries were forgotten or ignored because of sexism.

I recently found an article written in May from National Geographic. It was great to read something like this from National Geographic. It is painful to see how people forget or never even learned about discoveries made by women.

The list includes:

  • Rosalind Franklin: British biophysicist who studied DNA. Her data was critical to all Wilkins, Crick and Watson’s work (who have received credit for the discovery for 60 years). Her data and recognition was stolen and completely ignored.
    Franklin and Wilkins both worked on DNA projects, but Franklin was treated as an assistant rather than the head of her own project.
    Her image of DNA, known as Photo 51, was shown to Watson and Crick by Wilkins without her knowledge.
    This photo enabled Watson, Crick and Wilkins to deduce the structure of DNA. Their “findings” were published in the journal Nature in 1953. Franklin published in the same issue and provided further and more correct details on DNA’s
  • Jocelyn Bell Burnell: This Northern Irish scientist discovered pulsars in 1967 while still a graduate student at Cambridge University.
    Pulsars are remnants of massive starts which went supernova. She discovered pulsars by finding the recurring signals from their rotation. Her data was printed out on three miles of paper from a radio telescope she helped assemble.
    The results received a Nobel Prize, but the award was given to Anthony Hewish, Bell Burnell’s supervisor, and Martin Ryle.
  • Esther Lederberg: An American microbiologists who is best known for discovering a virus that infects bacteria, called lambda bacteriophage.
    Lederberg, along with her husband, developed the easy transfer of bacterial colonies from one petri dish to another. This process is called replica plating. This process enabled the study of antibiotic resistance. This method, the Lederberg method, is still used today.
    The work with replica plating was a major part of Lederberg’s husband’s Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, which was shared with George Beadle and Edward Tatum.
    Lederberg was also treated unfairly with her academic standing at Stanford. Stanley Falkow, a retired colleague of Lederberg’s said:

    “She deserved credit for the discovery of lambda phage, her work on the F fertility factor, and, especially, replica plating.”

    He added:

    “She had to fight just to be appointed as a research associate professor, whereas she surely should have been afforded full professorial rank. She was not alone. Women were treated badly in academia in those days.”


  • Chien-Shiung Wu: Born in China, Wu “overturned a law of physics and participated in the development of the atom bomb.”
    While at Columbia University as part of the Manhattan Project, Wu conducted research on radiation detection and uranium enrichment. She became one of the best experimental physicist of the time, said Nina Byers, a retired physics professor from the University of California, Los Angeles.
    Wu was approached by Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, two theoretical physicists. They asked for Wu’s help to disprove the law of parity. The law holds that in “quantum mechanics, two physical systems–like atoms–that were mirror images would behave in identical ways.”
    Wu’s experiments using cobalt-60, the radioactive form of cobalt metal, changed the 30 year-old law.
    This was a milestone in physics and led to the 1957 Nobel Prize. The prize was given to Yang and Lee. “People found [the Nobel decision] outrageous,” said Byers.
    Wu was discriminated against due to sexism and racism, added Pnina Abir-Am, a historian of science at Brandeis University.
  • Lise Meitner: The Austrian nuclear physicist’s work led to the discovery of nuclear fission. This work was the groundwork for the atom bomb.
    Meitner, who was Jewish, fled Austria in 1938 and continued her work with Otto Hahn in Sweden. Their working relationship lasted more than 30 years.
    While Hahn performed the experiments, Meitner produced the theory. When the findings were published, Hahn was published without including Meitner as a co-author. Though several accounts say that Meitner understood this due to the situation with Nazi Germany.
    Other contribution factors of neglect include gender. Meitner once wrote to a friend “that it was almost a crime to be a woman in Sweden. A researcher on the Nobel physics committee actively tried to shut her out. So Hahn alone won” the Nobel Prize.
  • Nettie Stevens: The American scientist performed studies which concluded that an organism’s sex was determined by chromosomes rather than environmental factors.
    Through her work with mealworms, Stevens found that males produce sperm with X and Y chromosomes and females only X chromosomes. This evidence supported the theory that genetic’s determined sex of an organism.
    Edmund Wilson, who did similar work, came to the same conclusion later than Steven’s did.
    Stevens was victim to the Matilda Effect, the repression or denial of the contributions of female researchers to science.
    Thomas Hunt Morgan, a geneticist of the time, is credited often with the discovery of the genetic basis for sex determination, because he was the first to write a genetics textbook. Pomona College’s Hoopes said, “He wanted to magnify his contributions.”


Do you have more to add to the list? 

The list from National Geographic is a great start. But there are many more women who have been ignored. Who would you add to this list?

For the full description of these women, please read the full article.

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2 thoughts on “Six scientists who were forgotten due to sexism

  1. abigailrosebarefoot says:

    Makes me think of this comic about women in science- also featuring Zombie Marie Curie

  2. Great comic! Zombie Marie Curie gives some solid advice.

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