Have you heard of astronauts such as Sally Ride or famous NASA scientists such as Katherine Johnson, some of whose work was chronicled in the recent movie Hidden Figures? There are quite a few inspiring women both inside and outside of typical history textbooks. For Women’s History Month, we’re looking back at some of the most inspiring women in American Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) history.
Maria Mitchell (1818–1889): Astronomer
At 12 years old, Maria helped her father record an eclipse, and nothing dimmed her passion for astronomy after that. By 17, she had started her own school of science and mathematics for girls. But her real claim to fame didn’t come about until 1847 when she spotted a comet in her telescope. Her observation earned her the title of the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. That first was followed by another when she was hired by Vassar College in 1865 and become the first female astronomy professor in the United States. She never stopped studying astronomy and made several trips to follow solar eclipses and her love of studying the sun.
Elizabeth Blackwell M.D. (1821–1910): Medical Doctor
In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell was the first American woman to receive a Doctor of Medicine degree (MD) when she graduated from Geneva Medical College in New York. She went on to be a champion of women in medical fields, advocating for women to receive medial education. She published many books on the subject, including Medicine as a Profession for Women in 1860 and Address on the Medical Education of Women in 1864 and also founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. Blackwell paved the way for women in medical careers in America and served to inspire many after her to not only become educated in medical fields, but to continue to advocate for those women who came after them.
Nettie Stevens (1861–1912): Cytologist
Nettie Stevens was one of the most important scientists for the development of both cytology (the study of plant and animal cells) and genetics. After earning both a bachelors and masters degree in Biology at Stanford, Stevens went on to complete doctoral work at Bryn Mawr. She discovered X and Y chromosomes, which led to the study of modern genetics. Her study paved the way for a heritable characteristic to be firmly linked with a specific chromosome.
Florence Seibert (1897–1991): Biochemist
In 1923, Florence Seibert graduated with a doctorate in Biochemistry from Yale University. Though she taught at many colleges and universities throughout her life, she is best known for the research she conducted while she was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research with tuberculosis (TB) proteins led her to develop the system that is still used to identify tuberculosis in patients today.
Barbara McClintock (1902-1992): Geneticist
Barbara McClintock discovered her passion for studying genetics while completing her undergraduate work at Cornell University and went on to earn a graduate degree and complete post-doctoral work. While at Cornell working with maize (corn) cells, she discovered “jumping genes,” genes that could move within and between chromosomes. Because her discovery was not supported by the prevailing theories of the time, her work was originally ignored, that is, until technology caught up with her discoveries and proved them correct. By sticking with her theories, she won the Lasker Prize in 1981 and, subsequently, the Nobel Prize in 1982.
Grace Hopper (1906–1992): Military Officer, Mathematician, Computer Programmer
When Grace Hopper retired from the US armed services in 1986, she was the oldest serving officer. Not only was Hopper a military leader, she was also one of America’s brightest mathematical and programming minds for many years. After graduating from Vassar college in 1928 and earning Masters and Doctorate degrees from Yale in subsequent years, Hopper helped build Mark I during World War II, one of the world’s earliest computers. She continued her work with Mark II and Mark III and inspired generations of women to both become programmers and to serve their country.
While the women above were some of the first prominent American women in STEM, they certainly were not the last. There are many American women completing inspiring work in STEM fields today. Take Dr. Ellen Stofan, the chief scientist at NASA, the NASA datanauts, or Dr. Karen Panettta, an Engineering professor who encourages girls to get involved with STEM through Nerd Girls. All of these women and more can help encourage women and girls (and men too) to be interested in and support STEM fields of study. Women STEM role models aren’t just part of our history, they’re also making history every day.