Women have been historically underrepresented in the world of science, so much so that many have not been given the credit they deserve for their truly groundbreaking discoveries.
Probably the most well-known of these women is Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920 –1958). Franklin was an English chemist whose work led to the discovery of the molecular structures of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). But her role in this revolutionary finding would go largely unrecognized until after her death. In fact, even though Franklin herself obtained the very first image of DNA fibers using X-ray crystallography and she had several working papers describing the structural qualities of DNA in progress, her yet-to-be-published discovery was shared with others (unbeknownst to her). And in 1953, American biologist James D. Watson (born April 6, 1928) and English physicist Francis Crick (1916 – 2004) took credit for the discovery of the three-dimensional double helix structure of DNA in their published article "Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” in the 171st volume of Nature. Although they included a footnote acknowledging that they were "stimulated by a general knowledge" of Franklin's unpublished contributions, it was Watson and Crick who went on to receive a Nobel Prize in 1962. Rosalind Franklin continued to work on projects related to DNA in the last five years of her life but died tragically from ovarian cancer at the age of 38 in 1958.
A similar set of events occurred when Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997), a Chinese-American female experimental physicist, upended a law of physics but her findings were credited to two male theoretical physicists, Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, who initially approached Wu to help disprove the law of parity (the quantum mechanics law that held that two physical systems, such as atoms, are mirror images that behave in identical ways). Wu's experiments using cobalt-60, a radioactive form of the cobalt metal, overturned this law which led to a Nobel Prize for Yang and Lee in 1957, although Wu was excluded. Despite this snubbery, Wu’s expertise has since garnered her the nicknames of "the First Lady of Physics", "the Chinese Madame Curie", and the "Queen of Nuclear Research.” Wu died of a stroke in 1997 in New York.
Although much progress in women’s rights took place following the 1950s when Franklin’s and Wu’s discoveries were largely overtaken by male scientists, a similar set of events happened when Jocelyn Bell Burnell (born July 15, 1943), an Irish astrophysicist, discovered the first radio pulsars as a 24-year-old postgraduate student in Cambridge on November 28, 1967. While analyzing data printed out on three miles of paper from a radio telescope she helped assemble, Bell noticed a signal that was pulsing with great regularity and strength. Because of its unknown nature, the signal was nicknamed "LGM-1" (for "Little Green Men") for a short time. It was later identified as a rapidly rotating neutron star (neutron stars are remnants of massive stars that went supernova) and is now known as PSR B1919+21, located in the constellation of Vulpecula.
Despite having been the first to ever observe a pulsar, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, was largely excluded from the initial accompanying accolades associated with this discovery. In fact, her supervisor, Antony Hewish would go on to earn a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974 (along Martin Ryle) while Bell Burnell was excluded. In recent years, Bell Burnell has publicly discussed the ways her status as a woman scientist may have contributed to this omission, “Arguably, my student status and perhaps my gender were also my downfall with respect to the Nobel Prize, which was awarded to Professor Antony Hewish and Professor Martin Ryle. At the time, science was still perceived as being carried out by distinguished men.”
Today, these women have largely been credited for their discoveries and most recognize how their findings were initially overtaken by men. Their reclaimed status, however, is not always so publicly visible. Occasionally we need reminders that some fields, especially those focused in the sciences, are largely male-driven. And as a result, sometimes the work of women goes overlooked. And these three women aren’t the only ones who have had their discoveries credited to men. Take, for example, Lise Meitner (1878 –1968) an Austrian physicist whose work led to the discovery of nuclear fission for which her male colleague, Otto Hahn, alone won the 1944 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Or Esther Lederberg (1922 – 2006), an American microbiologist, whose very own husband took credit for their co-developed method of transferring bacterial colonies (a process called replica plating known as The Lederberg Method still in use today) and earned him a Nobel Prize for physiology in 1958. And unfortunately, the list goes on and on.
As we think about the importance of women in history, it is certainly essential to examine how historical shifts can change our understandings of the past. Because of our missteps in the past, today, we recognize the importance of women scientists more so than ever before. And as a result, young women everywhere are growing up with more female scientists as role models.
From the Bio Archives: This article was originally published March 28, 2016.