International Day of Women and Girls in Science: Unsung pioneers who changed the world

Esther M.Zimmer Lederberg

Esther Miriam Zimmer Lederberg (1922 – 2006) was an American microbiologist, who discovered bacterial virus Lambda phage and the bacterial fertility factor F (F plasmid). Like many woman scientists of her time, Esther Lederberg was not given credit for her scientific contribution because of her gender. While her husband, her mentor and another research partner won 1958 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering how genetic material is transferred between bacteria, Esther wasn’t even mentioned in the citation, even though her work significantly contributed to the discovery.

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Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Cecilia H. Payne

Cecilia H. Payne  


Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900 – 1979) was a British-born American astronomer who was the first to propose that stars are made of hydrogen and helium. Cecilia Payne was born in 1900 in Buckinghamshire, England.  In 1919, she got a scholarship to study at Newnham College, Cambridge University, where she initially studied botany, physics, and chemistry.

Inspired by a lecture by Arthur Eddington, an English astronomer, she dropped out to study astronomy. Studying astronomy at Cambridge in the 1920s was a lonely prospect for a woman. Cecilia sat alone, as she was not allowed to occupy the same rows of seats as her male classmates. The ordeal did not end there. Because of her gender, Cecilia was not awarded a degree, despite fulfilling all the requirements in 1923. (Cambridge did not grant degrees to women until 1948.)

Finding no future for a woman scientist in England, she headed to the United States, where she received a fellowship to study at Harvard Observatory. In her Ph.D. thesis, published as Stellar Atmospheres in 1925, Cecilia showed for the first time how to read the surface temperature of any star from its spectrum. She also proposed that stars are composed mostly of hydrogen and helium. 

In 1925, she became the first person to earn a PhD in astronomy. But she received the doctorate from Radcliffe College, since Harvard did not grant doctoral degrees to women then. She also became the first female professor in her faculty at Harvard in 1956. Cecilia contributed widely to the physical understanding of stars and was honoured with awards later in her lifetime.

Stephanie Kwolek (1923 2014)

Stephanie Kwolek was an American chemist, who gave us the bulletproof vests. A pioneer in polymer research, she invented Kevlar, an ultrastrong and ultra-thick material which finds use in hundreds of household and industrial appliances – including oven gloves, optic fibres, tyres, walking boots and bulletproof vests.Stephanie Kwolek was born in Pittsburgh, New Keningston, to Polish immigrant parents. Stephanie Kwolek was first interested in fashion design, taking inspiration from her mother, who worked as a seamstress. But her mother felt that Kwolek was “too much of a perfectionist” to work full-time in fashion.

So, she went on to get a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry in 1946 from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, intending eventually to go to medical school. To save up money for medical school, she applied for a job with the DuPont chemical company and got through immediately. While it was intended to be a temporary job, it turned out to be a place where she spent the next 40 years in. She invented many fibres and products in those years.

Kwolek is best known for her work with aramids, a type of polymer that can be made into strong, stiff, and flame-resistant fibre. In 1965, DuPont began searching for a next-generation, high-performance, lightweight fibre which could replace the steel wire in vehicle tires and ensure better fuel economy. That’s when Kwolek came up with Kevlar, a fibre, five times stronger than steel, and resistant to fire.

Kevlar is today used from bulletproof vests to tennis rackets, sneakers, and even snare drums. Kwolek gave away the patent to DuPont, which in turn honoured her with a Lavoisier Medal, an award DuPont gives to employees for outstanding contributions.

Through the invention of Kevlar, she is credited with helping to save the lives of thousands of servicemen and women from around the world.

Gerty Cori

Gerty Cori

Gerty Cori   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement


Gerty Cori (1896-1957) was an Austrian-American biochemist, known for her discovery of how the human body stores and utilises energy. In 1947, she became the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and the third woman to win a Nobel.

Gerty Theresa Cori was born in Prague in 1896.  She received the Doctorate in Medicine from the German University of Prague in 1920 and got married to Carl Cori the same year.

Immigrating to the United States in 1922, the husband-wife duo joined the staff of the Institute for the Study of Malignant Disease, Bualo, N.Y. Working together on glucose metabolism in 1929, they discovered the ‘Cori Cycle’ the pathway of conversion of glycogen (stored form of sugar) to glucose (usable form of sugar).

In 1936, they discovered the enzyme Phosphorylase, which breaks down muscle glycogen, and identified glucose 1-phosphate (or Cori ester) as the first intermediate in the reaction. The Coris were consistently interested in the mechanism of action of hormones and they carried out several studies on the pituitary gland.

In 1947, Gerty Cori, Carl Cori and Argentine physiologist Bernardo Houssay received the Nobel Prize in 1947 for their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen. Although the Coris were equals in the lab, they were not treated as equals. Gerty faced gender discrimination throughout her career. Few institutions hired Gerty, despite her accomplishments, and those that did hire, did not give her equal status or pay.

Janaki Ammal

Janaki Ammal in younger days

Janaki Ammal in younger days   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement


Janaki Ammal (1897 – 1984) was an Indian botanist, who has a flower – the pink-white Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal – named after her. She undertook an extraordinary journey from a small town in Kerala to the John Innes Horticultural Institute at London. She was born in Thalassery, Kerala, in 1897.

Her family encouraged her to engage in intellectual pursuit from a very young age. She graduated in Botany in Madras in 1921 and went to Michigan as the first Oriental Barbour Fellow where she obtained her DSc in 1931. She did face gender and caste discrimination in India, but found recognition for her work outside the country.

After a stint at the John Innes Horticultural Institute at London, she was invited to work at the Royal Horticulture Society at Wisley, close to the famous Kew Gardens. In 1945, she co-authored The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants with biologist CD Darlington.

Her major contribution came about at the Sugarcane Breeding Station at Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Janaki’s work helped in the discovery of hybrid varieties of high-yielding sugarcane. She also produced many hybrid eggplants (brinjal). She was awarded a Padma Shri in 1977.

Nancy Grace Roman (1925 – 2018)

Nancy Grace Roman was an American astronomer famously known as the Mother of Hubble, due to her efforts in making the Hubble Space Telescope a reality. She was the first Chief of Astronomy in the Office of Space Science at NASA and the first woman to hold an executive position at NASA. In her role, she successfully managed numerous astronomy-based projects.

Nancy Grace Roman was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1925. She obtained a degree in astronomy from Swathmore College in Pennsylvania in 1946, and then a doctorate in the same subject from the University of Chicago. In 1959, after working at the United States Research Laboratory, Roman joined National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

While at NASA, Roman proposed that detecting planets around other stars might be possible using a space-based telescope, and even suggested a technique to build such a telescope. This laid the foundation for the building of the Hubble Space Telescope.Throughout her career, Roman was an active public speaker and educator, and an advocate for women in the sciences. Before joining NASA, Roman had discovered that stars made of hydrogen and helium move faster than stars composed of other heavier elements. Roman’s other observations and discoveries about stars and structure of the galaxy provided the first clue to its formation and laid the foundation for later work.

In May 2020, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope was renamed the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope in recognition of her enduring contributions to astronomy.

Chien-Shiung Wu

Chien Shiung

Chien Shiung   | Photo Credit: Smithsonian Institution


Chien-Shiung Wu (1912 - 1997) is a Chinese-American physicist who is known for the Wu Experiment that she carried out to disprove a quantum mechanics concept called the Law of Parity Conservation. But the Nobel Committee failed to recognise her contribution, when theoretical physicists Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, who worked on the project, were awarded the Prize in 1957.Chien-Shiung Wu was born in a small town in Jiangsu province, China, in 1912.

She studied physics at a university in Shanghai and went on to complete Ph.D from the University of California, Berkeley in 1940. In 1944, during WWII, she joined the Manhattan Project at Columbia University, focussing on radiation detectors.  After the war, Wu began investigating beta decay and made the first confirmation of Enrico Fermi's theory of beta decay.

Her book Beta Decay, published in 1965, is still a standard reference for nuclear physicists. In 1956, theoretical physicists Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang approached Wu to devise an experiment to disprove the Law of Parity Conservation, according to which two physical systems, such as two atoms, are mirror images that behave in identical ways.

Using cobalt-60, a radioactive form of the cobalt metal, Wu’s experiment successfully disproved the law. In 1958, her research helped answer important biological questions about blood and sickle cell anaemia. She is fondly remembered as the "First Lady of Physics", the "Chinese Madame Curie" and the "Queen of Nuclear Research."

Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement


Lise Meitner (1878 - 1968) was an Austrian-Swedish physicist, who was part of a team that discovered nuclear fission. But she was overlooked for the Nobel Prize and instead her research partner Otto Hahn was awarded for the discovery.

Lise Meitner was born on November 7, 1878, in Vienna. Austria had restrictions on women education, but Meitner managed to receive private tutoring in physics. She went on to receive her doctorate at the University of Vienna. Meitner later worked with Otto Hahn for around 30 years, during which time they discovered several isotopes including protactinium-231, studied nuclear isomerism and beta decay.

In the 1930s, the duo was joined by Fritz Strassmann and the team investigated the products of neutron bombardment of uranium.In 1938, as Germany annexed Austria, Meitner, a Jew, fled to Sweden. She suggested that Hahn and Strassmann perform further tests on a uranium product, which later turned out to be barium.

Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch explained the physical characteristics of this reaction and proposed the term ‘fission’ to refer to the process when an atom separates and creates energy. Meitner was offered a chance to work on the Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb. However, she turned down the offer.

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 3:03:13 AM |

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