Marie Curie in her chemistry laboratory at the Radium Institute in France, 1921 (Nobelprize.org)
Recognition for women working in science has rarely come easily—or consistently. Marie Curie became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in 1903 for her research on radioactivity. Since then, though, there have been just 49 female prize recipients out of a total of 911 Nobel laureates. Marsha Richmond, a science historian at Wayne State University, tells the stories of influential women who have been celebrated as scientific trailblazers, as well as those whose opportunities and work were denied and repressed.
Before the mid-19th century, women were excluded from formal scientific education and membership in professional guilds and societies, forcing their involvement to be largely restricted to domestic-based science, personally funded endeavors, hobbyists, or associated with other scientific teams or their husbands’ expeditions. Employed in supporting roles such as assistants, illustrators, correspondents, and collectors, women were directly involved in aspects of scientific work, but often denied credit for their contributions.
With the rise of women’s colleges as degree-granting institutions, women were afforded new academic opportunities to pursue careers in science. Although their first inroads were in the natural sciences, women went on to become influential in medicine, physics, mathematics, astronomy, and other areas of specialty.
Richmond examines these expanding roles through the stories of women scientists. She compares the experiences of women before the 1870s, who were without access to higher education, to the 1960s, when their influence evolved to inform public policy. She celebrates the achievements of intrepid early women scientists as she discusses pioneers like German-born naturalist and scientific illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian, who worked in the late-17th and early-18th centuries; physician and public health hero Sara Josephine Baker; and marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson; and others.
Richmond is joined by Grace Costantino of Smithsonian Libraries’ Biodiversity Heritage Library, who highlights featured works by women scientists in the library’s collection. An optional tour of the Natural History Museum’s rare books collection is available for sign up.
Explore an online exhibition curated by the Smithsonian Biodiversity Heritage Library focusing on the achievements of a wide range of early women in science.
Hidden Figures has recently revealed the previously untold stories of African American women mathematicians in NASA’s space program of the 1960s. Biologist and science writer Nathalia Holt sat down with Smithsonian magazine to talk about the “rocket girls” at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, who were also among the women who helped America win the space race,.
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