Despite the title of this piece, this is not going to be a very in depth article detailing how we remember things. Instead this article was sparked by a game of Pointless I was watching earlier today. In this show there was a round on Nobel Prizes, and a question which asked which woman won the first Nobel prize. The answer is Marie Curie, a truely remarkable woman who I had the pleasure to research at Primary School and still consider a role model. Though my love for her knows no bounds, out of 100 people asked for the show only 12 people knowing this fact.
This got me thinking, if the most influential woman in science – according to a poll by New Scientist in 2009 – can be forgotten by so many people; what other amazing female scientist have been pushed into obsurity? Before you begin thinking that this post will be a load of man bashing, it isn’t. We have an amazing amount to thank male scientists for; I just want to raise awareness of the work some female scientists have done for the cause.
Lets begin with my home-girl Marie Curie. Polish born and French-naturalised, Curie is most famed for her work along with her husband on Radioactivity – a term which she actually coined. She even discovered two elements, Radium and Polonium – which she named after her native country. However most of us will know about her due to the Marie Curie Cancer Trust. This Trust was set up by Curie as she began pioneering work into the treatment of neoplasms using radioactive materials – something that is still used today. Something that makes me love her even more than all of this. She funded her research using money won through her Nobel Prizes (She won two!), and gave a lot of the money to other research centres; never putting herself first but the pursuit of knowledge.
Another famous female scientist – who actually came second in the New Scientist poll – is Rosalind Franklin. Her work was never formally recognised during her lifetime, despite giving a valuable insight into the Helix structure of DNA. Infact, it is commonly believed that her own private papers convinced the later work of Crick and Watson that the backbones of DNA had to be on the outside. She was never credited within their work, something which has often been perceived as sexism owing to the social background of universities within the 1940’s and 1950’s – a time often seen as a return to the ‘traditional’ way of life. As a result her significant contribution to the world of Biology was not directly known until after her death in 1958.
Within this same vain, Florence Nightingale was a brilliant mathematician. Not only did she invent the pie chart – remember that it’s good pub quiz knowledge – but she also became the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society. Despite this, we only remember her as the Lady with the Lamp – a view in keeping with the traditional ideas of femininity. Her achievements in mathematics come second to the preservation of the female ideal and the view that we still hold of Victorian Britain.
While researching for this article I came across thousands of female scientists I have never even heard of, yet alone knew anything about. Sophie Germain was a French mathematician who in the 19th Century changed the way that Fermats Last Theorem was regarded for centuries afterwards. But she was cast aside, because she was a woman. Maria Montessori came up with an educational concept that is still utilised in a variety of public and private skills the world around. And it’s not just 19th Century women. Sally Ride was the first American woman in space, however Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to ever enter space in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya followed suit in 1982. Are their names remembered by people that were on this side of the Iron Curtain.
Researching this article has just made me realise what an amazing amount women contributed to the world of science, but can we remember everything? Everyone remembers where they were when man landed on the moon, but will anyone ever remember the contributions of women that helped this be the achievement for all human-kind?