These women helped to shape the modern world. Welcome to MsMojo and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the Top 10 Women who made World-Changing Discoveries.
For this list, we’re looking at women who were instrumental in breaking ground, either by discovery or invention, in the fields of medicine, technology, mathematics, physics, and more. We’re only ranking women from the 19thcentury however; classical female scientists will have to wait for another day.
#10: Katherine Johnson (1918-)
Launching a Man into Orbit
In the 1960s, the Space Race was a critical element in the international glaring match between the USA and the Soviet Union. With the successful space flight of Yuri Gagarin, the USSR had beat America into the heavens and the United States was desperate to follow up. Katherine Johnson, the genius human “computer,” was tasked to calculate the trajectory as well as the launch window for the Freedom 7 and Project Mercury flights of Alan Shepard and John Glenn. Later, she would be key in the Apollo 11 mission and moon landing of 1969. Additionally, she helped to develop a new one-star observation system, which became a means of navigation for astronauts. Her brilliance made launch to and a safe return from the stars possible.
#9: Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943-)
Jocelyn Bell Burnell was just a postgraduate student conducting research for her thesis when she co-discovered “one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th century" in 1967: radio pulsars. These rotating, tremendously dense, magnetized neutron stars are extremely useful for intergalactic observation. As they beam electromagnetic radiation, only visible when the beam is pointing towards Earth, they are essential for interstellar time keeping. Furthermore, they tangentially support the reality of gravitational radiation, energy transported via disturbances in spacetime, as projected by Albert Einstein in his general theory of relativity. Despite this monumental discovery, it was years before Burnell was credited properly for her discovery – the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics, based on her research, went to her advisor and another male astronomer.
#8: Hedy Lemarr (1914-2000)
Ever use Bluetooth? Do you like wireless internet and communications? If so, you have Hedy Lamarr to thank. The Hollywood star joined the war effort in at the beginning of the Second World War. In 1942, she (along with composer George Antheil) was awarded a patent for the “Secret Communications System,” an early form of frequency hopping and spread-spectrum to be developed into a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes that would prevent enemy interference and signal jamming. However, her patent was ignored by the U.S. Navy. It wasn’t until years later that her patent was “discovered” and used by the Navy in the 1960s and the principles of her research were ultimately used in the development of wi-fi and Bluetooth tech. In 2014, she was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
#7: Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-94)
Protein Crystallography, the Structure of Penicillin & More
In modern drug development, it is critical that structures at the cellular and molecular levels can be observed. It is necessary so that medicinal therapies can be targeted for consistent results. In the early to mid 1930s, along with her mentor John Desmond Bernal, Dorothy Hodgkin was able to devise a means to discern the diffraction patterns of proteins in wet conditions, providing a more reliable reading than dry samples. Later, she would go on to identify the structure of cholesterol, penicillin, vitamin B12, and insulin – the latter after over 30 years of work improving the techniques of X-ray crystallography. In 1964, her work earned her the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Her discoveries were integral for the treatment of diabetes, a topic on which she devoted much of the later part of her life, travelling the world to discuss its importance.
#6: Vera Rubin (1928-2016)
After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College, Vera Rubin applied to Princeton for her graduate studies but was denied on the basis that women were not allowed in their astronomy program. She completed her studies at Cornell University and while working at the Carnegie Institution in the mid-sixties, she began to study the rotation of galaxies. She observed that the outer reaches of spiral galaxies moved at the same speed as the center – contrary to Newtonian gravity. Furthermore, she determined that spiral galaxies should not hold but fall apart, and the fact that they did not meant something unseen was holding them: Dark Matter. While Dark Matter is still not entirely understood, her work has prompted new theories and pushed astrophysics towards truly revolutionary and strange horizons.
#5: Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-97)
The First Lady of Physics, Chien-Shiung Wu was barely into her 30s when she began to break ground on nuclear fission. During World War II, her work drew the attention of the US Government and she was recruited to join the Manhattan Project. It was she who identified the problems within B Reactor (the first ever large-scale nuclear reactor) as nuclear poisoning from xenon-135, an unstable isotope, in the mid-forties. To combat the problem, she contributed to developing the process of separating uranium metal into uranium isotopes. In 1956, she’d conduct the Wu Experiment, focusing on beta decay and to uncover if conservation of parity were true in weak interactions. Her findings (that the conservation of parity was violated) startled the physics community and paved the way for modern study in nuclear physics. While the theoretical physicists behind the experiment’s premise won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1957, Chien-Shiung Wu would only be awarded for her work with the Wolf Prize in 1978.
#4: Rosalind Franklin (1920-58)
DNA Double Helix
Rosalind Franklin was a chemist and X-ray crystallographer, who, along with PHD student Raymond Gosling, produced Photo 51 in the early 1950s, which determined the structure of DNA as a double-helix. This should have catapulted her into the annals of scientific history. However, without her consent, the image was shared with James Watson and Francis Crick by her associate Maurice Wilkins. Despite her work leading to such an important discovery, it was Watson, Crick, and Wilkins that won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1962 – four years after her untimely death at age 37. Knowing the structure of DNA has since become critical in our understanding of genetics, gene sequencing, biotechnology, and modern medicine.
#3: Lise Meitner (1878-1968)
Prior to World War I, Lise Meitner began to collaborate with Otto Hahn, and together they would make several discoveries. In 1926, she became the first woman to be a full professor of physics in Germany, and even when she was forced to flee Germany with the rise of Nazism, continued to work from Sweden. Working long distance with Hahn, he showed that the nucleus of uranium could be broken, but it was Meitner who was able to scientifically articulate what was happening as fission. Their work would go on to great and terrible results, helping to create the atom bomb, for which she was later sorry. When the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemmstry for their discovery was handed out, only Hahn was recognized.
#2: Marie Curie (1867-1934)
The first woman to win a Nobel Prize (and to this day, the sole person to win in two different categories) Marie Curie is one of the most influential scientists of all time. The whole Curie family was brilliant: her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie would further the understanding of radioactivity started by her parents, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 along with her husband. But perhaps most famous of the Curies are Marie and her husband Pierre, science’s original power-couple and developers of the theory of radioactivity (a word that she coined). Furthermore, she developed methods of isolating isotopes and discovered both polonium and radium. Her work helped to completely alter conventional notions within physics and chemistry, changing the modern world.
Before we unveil our number one pick, here are a few honorable mentions:
Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (1947-)
Identifying Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012)
Nerve Growth Factor
Katie Bouman (1989-)
First Photo of a Black Hole
Mary-Claire King (1946-)
Identifying the BRCA Gene
Ruby Payne-Scott (1912-81)
Discovered Type I & Type III Solar Burst Radio Emissions
#1: Ada Lovelace (1815-52)
First Computer Algorithm
From a young age, Ada Lovelace’s mother stressed a vigorous mathematical education to suppress any “insanity” she might have inherited from her father, famed poet and lothario Lord Byron. People began to take notice of her above average mathematical skills when she was 17, and she would ultimately incorporate the arts into her mathematics, calling her approach “poetical science.” She formed a close friendship with polymath Charles Babbage. When she was in her mid-20s, she translates one of his lectures and added detailed notes labeled A to G. In Note G, she devised an algorithm for his Analytical Engine – the first ever recorded for a programmable computer. Babbage’s Engine is now considered the first computer (although it was never completed), while Lovelace’s Note G have some calling her the first computer programmer. Lovelace furthermore believed machines could be harnessed to do more than calculate numbers. Sadly, dying at 36, she never got to explore the potential.