Historically women have not had the opportunities to be educated, and to be inquisitive about the world around them, let alone become scientists! With the burden of nurturing babies, and looking after their families, and with the culture of obeying the family and society elders had made them succumb to whatever the hand fate had dealt them.
But late 19th century and early 20th century changed all that. Many women came into science and even if they did not hold prominent positions, they have contributed immensely by staying in the back ground, or in the shadows of male scientists who were their husbands, fathers, sons or even colleagues – mostly working silently without any rewards or recognition. Of course, now in the 21st century things are a bit different, but I will say from my experience that it is a lot harder for women to survive in a male dominated competitive scientific research world than it is for their gender counterparts.
Here is an interesting article about gender bias in science: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_science
Here are some of my favourite women scientists, of course since I have a Physics grounding, most of these scientists are famous for their contribution in Physical Sciences:
1. Maria Goeppert Mayer: A German-American lady, she developed a mathematical model for the structure of nuclear shells, for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963, which she shared with Hans D. Jensen and Eugene Wigner. In her early years she most often worked unpaid, or did voluntary work in other universities and labs, till she became a full professor at UC San Diego (that too after she won the Nobel)! Oh, what a great lady!
. 2. Marie Curie: A Polish-French lady, known as Madam Curie, had conducted some pioneering research in radioactivity, for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, which she shared with her husband Pierre Curie and colleague Henri Becquerel. The story goes that Marie’s name was NOT included in the nominations, when a friend alerted Pierre, he complained to the Royal Swedish Academy and Marie’s name was included as an ‘after thought’. In 1911, Madam Curie won Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the isolation and discovery of radioactive elements Radium and Polonium. She is the only woman who has won 2 Nobel prizes, that too in two different sciences! Also in her honour, the international standard unit of radiation is known as Curie. Madam Curie did not have a very easy life, she worked very hard, alongside her husband Pierre, who died in an accident unfortunately; brought up 2 daughters (Juliet and her husband Fredric won the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for synthesis of new radioactive elements. This has made the Curies the family with the most Nobel laureates to date.) Madam Curie died in 1934 due to complications and blindness arising from exposure to high radiation levels. Oh what a great lady!
3. Jocelyn Bell Burnell: A northern Irish lady, who was responsible for discovering radio-emitting pulsars. The paper announcing the discovery of pulsars had five authors. Her supervisor Antony Hewish’s name was listed first, Bell’s second. Hewish was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974, along with Martin Ryle, without the inclusion of Bell as a co-recipient! Imagine the unfairness! It is said that it was Bell who pointed the anomalies in the experimental data and proposed the existence of radio emitting pulsars to Hewish!! In 1968, soon after her discovery, she married Martin Burnell who was a government worker, and his career took them to various parts of England. She worked part-time for many years while raising her son. Now apparently she has a visiting professorship at Oxford. Oh, what a great lady!
4. Hedy Lamarr: An Austro-Hungarian-American lady, Hedy was known for her beauty and elegance. She became a famous MGM face in the 1940s. Together with her neighbour in California, George Anthiel, Lamarr developed the ‘Secret Communications System’ which was designed to help counter the Nazis. Lamarr had learned about torpedoes from her first husband Mandl, who was Hitler’s friend; and with Antheil discussed how radio-controlled torpedoes could be intercepted by broadcasting a particular interference signal which would ultimately get the torpedo off course. They achieved this feat by manipulating the radio frequencies at irregular intervals during reception or transmission. Unfortunately, during her lifetime, Lamarr’s invention was not given due recognition. Today, the work done by Lamarr and Anthiel is the basis for the modern spread-spectrum communication technology (Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum or FHSS). It is the main idea behind RFID tag singulation, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi connections, and CDMA. Oh, what a great lady!
5. Caroline Herschel: A German astronomer, and sister of famous astronomer William Herschel, and aunt to another astronomer John Herschel. She worked for William throughout his career, and has independently discovered several comets. She has said in her memoir, “I did nothing for my brother but what a well-trained puppy dog would have done; that is to say, I did what he commanded me.” At the age of ten, Caroline was struck with a disease that stunted her growth. Her her mother felt it was best for her to train to be a house servant!! After her father’s death she joined William in England and helped him with his astronomical observations, cataloguing different types of nebulae and stars. (The Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars (CN) is an astronomical catalogue first published in 1786 by William Herschel. It was later expanded into the General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars (GC) by his son, John Herschel.) After her death in 1848, her contribution to astronomy was recognized when an asteroid 281 Lucretia (discovered 1888) was named after her second given name Lucretia, and a crater on the Moon is named after her. Oh, what a great lady!