The Why Files The Why Files --

Women in science: What are the obstacles?

These overlooked women have made some big contributions  to science.Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Men love to wonder, and that is the seed of science." We really, really hate to argue with Ralph, but we're pretty sure women have made some important contributions to science, too.

Though unsung in their own day, women like Rosalind Franklin, who helped discover the structure of DNA, enjoy a certain amount of celebrity for their scientific advances. Hopefully, in time, more women will be as recognized and respected for their roles in laboratories, observatories and academia. Here are a few of our favorite women scientists from the past.

Painting of a seated women draped in robes surrounded by light.Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)
Hildegard von Bingen was a multi-talented German abbess in the 12th century who wrote two books about human health in a time when few people of either sex wrote, let alone concerned themselves with science. In addition to her music composition, preaching and poetry, she studied the relationship of the human body to the world as a whole. She was skilled in herbal healing and other medical lore. Her books detail more than 2,000 remedies and health suggestions. And Hildegard's interest in nature didn't end there. She also covered topics ranging from accounts of more than two hundred plants, precious stones, fish, birds, mammals, and reptiles to cosmology and the place of humanity in the world. Beuroner Kunstverlag, ca. 1920, courtesy of Saint John's Abbey

Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace (1815 - 1851)
Woman in flowing, antique gown stands at foot of stairs.With a name like that, you'd have to be the daughter of Romanic poet, Lord Byron. Ada Byron never knew her father (her parents separated when she was one month old) and was raised by her mother in hopes she would turn out to be his opposite. Ada was tutored in mathematics and music at a time when women were not encouraged to follow intellectual pursuits. As Ada moved through English society , she met Charles Babbage, famed professor of mathematics at Cambridge who invented a calculating machine called the Difference Engine. Ada and Babbage corresponded about mathematics, logic and, as the friendship grew, life. Photo: UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport

In 1834, Babbage drew up plans for a different kind of calculating machine, called the Analytical Engine. He reported on the developments in his research in Turin, Italy in 1841. An Italian in the crowd, Menabrea, wrote an article in French about what Babbage described. Babbage enlisted Ada to translate the article. She presented her translation of that article to Babbage and included suggestions about how he could make his Engine work. Those notes are her claim to fame. She correctly predicted that the Analytical Engine could be used to compose complex music, produce graphics and be used for practical and scientific use.

In her notes, Ada also suggested how Babbage's engine could calculate numbers. This plan is now widely recognized as the first computer program. In recognition, a software language developed by the U.S. Department of Defense was named "Ada."

Woman peers through lens, her face tight with concentration.Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941)
Annie Jump Cannon was hired by Harvard College Observatory in 1896 to catalogue variable stars and classify the spectra of southern stars for the bargain basement price of 50 cents an hour. Cannon exceeded all expectations by working for more than 40 years and discovering more than 300 variable stars. That alone was spectacular; however, Cannon's real specialty was classifying the characteristics of stars -- over 350,000 of them. Cannon created a mnemonic device to name all spectral classifications of stars still used today: Oh, Be A Fine Girl - Kiss Me. Photo: NASA

Cannon published information about 225,000 stars in the Henry Draper Catalog, which is still accepted as an international standard. Throughout her career she received many honors, including a doctorate from Oxford University (the first honorary degree awarded to a woman from that institution) and the Draper Award by the National Academy of Sciences. In 1923, she was voted one of the 12 greatest living women in America. Now, she is an award herself. The American Association of University Women presents the Annie J. Cannon Award each year to a woman beginning her astronomical career.

Grace Murray Hopper (1906 - 1992)
Woman in naval uniform and glasses stands with arms at her side.Rear Admiral. Ph.D. Physicist. Mathematician. Professor. Was there anything Grace Murray Hopper couldn't do? She began her career as a mathematics instructor at Vassar in 1931 with a salary of $800 dollars a year. Three years later, she completed her Ph.D. at Yale and became an associate professor--presumably for more money. With the outbreak of World War II, Hopper joined the Navy and was stationed at the Bureau of Ordinance Computation at Harvard University. During her time in the Navy she contributed to the efforts to calculate aiming angles for Naval guns in varying weather conditions and helped popularize the term "bug" for a computer glitch. Hopper joined the emerging field of computer science.Her most important contribution was a computer program that translates English language instructions into the language of the target computer in hopes, she said, that, "the programmer may return to being a mathematician." Photo: US Navy

Hopper holds honorary doctorates from over 30 universities, yet she always felt as though she had yet to prove herself to her colleagues. In frustration, Hopper was known to exclaim, "If you do something once, people will call it an accident. If you do it twice, they call it a coincidence. But do it a third time and you've just proven a natural law!"

She died on January 1, 1992 and was buried with full Naval honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

--Megan "Girls Rule" Anderson



Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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