13 Woman Inventors who have Changed the World

For decades women have made mind-blowing contributions to science that have revolutionized the whole world. Unfortunately, most of the work of these amazing women remained unpublished and unrecognized. It would be not wrong to say that a person can barely name three to four women that have contributed to science in history because too often the books and academic courses neglect the women’s remarkable, groundbreaking work in science.  

Enough was done, now is the time to change that stereotype. In this blog, we will be sharing 13 female scientists whose inventions and discoveries have changed the whole world. 

These women have changed the perspective through which we see the world from determining the size of the earth to cracking the genetic code. 

Maria Merian

Maria was a German-born scientist. She has a keen interest in insects. She studied insects at a time when they were considered vile and disgusting and not worth studying. She was also one of the first naturalists of her time to observe insects directly, giving her remarkable insights into the way how they really lived. She was the leading entomologist of her time but since all of her work was in German not in Latin (the official language of science) so most of her work neither got attention nor got published at the time. 

     She also raised eyebrows when she founded her own, unofficial expedition to Suriname where she described many new insects and plants which was a highly unusual venture for a woman of the period to undertake. Even so, her impact and contributions to science are undeniable, many of her classifications are still valid today and her exquisite paintings of plants, animals, and insects have been widely admired throughout the centuries.

Mary Anning

 Anning belonged to a poor family, to make their living they hunted and sold fossils. It’s a skill that Mary learned from her father. Not only she finds fossils but also sketched them and then study them. Joseph her brother found a skull protruding from an eroding cliff face. It took Mary several months to carefully uncover a skeleton of the first Ichthyosaurus described as such in London. She was 12 years old. 

    Her other important discoveries include the first complete fossils of Plesiosaurus—as well as the complete fossil of a flying reptile, Britain’s first Pterodactylus. The majority of her finds ended up in museums like the Natural History Museum in London, but she remained unsung. She found fossils unfortunately others got the credit. She couldn’t participate in full scientific life and was unable to join the Geological Society of London due to her gender. Although her discoveries set the stage for Charles Darwin’s articulation of the theory of evolution a generation later. 

Marie Skłodowska Curie

She holds the title of winning the two Nobel prizes in two disciples chemistry as well as physics. Curie is one of the first names that comes to mind when thinking about women in science. She alongside her husband discovered radioactivity which changed the way people see the world. She also discovered two elements that are polonium and radium. The element curium is named in her honor.

    The world’s first studies that involves the treatment of tumors took place under her supervision and she founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and Warsaw, which to this day are leading medical research centers. During the First World War, Marie Curie started working to develop small, mobile X-ray units that could be used to diagnose injuries near the battlefront. in October 1914, the first machines, known as “Petits Curies” were ready. These machines worked on technology invented by Marie Curie that is similar to the technology of the fluoroscopy machine. 

Chien-Shiung Wu

Known as ‘The First Lady of Physics’ Wu went from fishing in a village in China to working on the Manhattan Project in the United States. She was a woman having a keen interest in physics. When she joined the Manhattan Project at the Substitute Alloy Materials (SAM) Lab at Columbia University she focused on radiation detectors. When the B Reactor at Hanford mysteriously shut down soon after it began operating, Wu helped identify poisoning by xenon-135 as the culprit.  She is believed to have been the only Chinese person that has worked on the Manhattan Project.

     She without any doubt was the first person to confirm Fermi’s beta decay theory. As a result of which she discovered how to produce large enough quantities of uranium to fuel the atomic bomb. Her experiment on radioactive atoms is known today as the Wu Experiment. She published the book ‘Beta Decay’ in 1965 which is still a standard reference for nuclear physicists. Wu’s contributions are not only confined to physics, but she also makes other significant contributions throughout her life and won several awards and honors. Research led by her helped answer important biological questions about blood and sickle cell anemia. She was also the first woman to serve as president of the American Physical Society.

Alice Ball

 Alice Augusta Bal has made an important discovery that changed how doctors treat leprosy, a chronic disease that causes skin lesions and nerve damage. In her short life, African American chemist Alice Ball has revolutionized the treatment for leprosy. Leprosy was a growing public health crisis for the people of Hawaii.  She holds the honor of being the first Black woman to earn a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii as well as teaching chemistry at the same institute. Her work revolved around the makeup of plants, specifically Hawaii’s native kava plant. The plant had long been used as a topical treatment for the skin at that time and Alice developed a method for injecting the oil of the plant as a treatment for leprosy. 

    Unfortunately, Alice died at the age of 24 due to some serious illness and was unable to publish her work.  Another chemist later published without giving Ball credit.  It was not until many years later that Ball’s contributions to the field of medicine were properly recognized. Although Alice’s treatment remained the best option for leprosy patients until the mid-1940s, today, Hawaii people recognize the impact of her work by celebrating ‘Alice Ball Day’ every four years on February 29.

Gerty Cori

 Gerty shares a Nobel Prize with her husband. She is the first woman to receive a Nobel for medicine.  Gerty was brought up in the Czech Republic where women were belittled in Science and Medicine. Cori’s family was very supportive which led her to pursue her career in medicine. She and her husband began medical research together. Their partnership resulted in the publishing of dozens of papers. Both worked together and discovered the Cori Cycle. Cori Cycle shows how the body uses chemical reactions to turn carbohydrates in muscle tissue into lactic acid, then re-metabolizes it.

     Their carbohydrate research led to the development of the treatment of diabetes. They discovered Glucose-1-phosphate which is a derivative of glucose and named it Cori ester. They also identified an enzyme Phosphorylase that breaks down glycogen in Cori ester. That’s how Gerty was able to explain how muscle glycogen is broken down into lactic acid. Solely Cori studied the Glycogen storage disease and became the first person that showed that a defect in an enzyme can lead to a human disease.

Barbara McClintock

“If you know you are on the right track, if you have this inner knowledge, then nobody can turn you off,” she once said. “No matter what they say.” McClintock became the only woman to win an unshared Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.  Barbara took her first course in genetics and was immediately fascinated by it. She discovered that the segment of the genetic code of maize could change positions in their chromosome causing their nearby genes to become active and inactive. 

     At that time scientists didn’t believe that genes can’t move like this until or unless they mutation. Others respond to her research in a critical way. She continued her research yet stop publishing papers. Later the geneticist realized the significance of genetic transposition and Barbara’s trailblazing work.  McClintock also studied corn’s hereditary characteristics, for example, the different colors of its kernels. She studied how these characteristics are passed down through generations and linked this to changes in the plant’s chromosomes. 

Dorothy Hodgkin

Dorothy becomes interested in Chemistry when she was just 10 years old. Her father’s friend use to bring her and helped her study ilmenite. Dorothy was a British chemist who invented X-ray crystallography which helps scientist to study the 3D structure of molecules. She was determined to identify the structure of Penicillin and Vitamin B12. This has led her to win Nobel Prize in Chemistry.  To this day, she remains the only British woman to have received a Nobel in the sciences.  She also identified the structure of Insulin which was a complex yet critical molecule and mystery at that time. It took her 35 years to confirm Insulin structure despite the fact she has worsening rheumatoid arthritis that required her to use a wheelchair. 

    She spent the rest of her life working on Insulin research and causing awareness through speeches about diabetes awareness. She was elected as the Fellow of the Royal Society in 1947, a foreign member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences in 1956, and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Boston) in 1958.

Rita Levi-Montalcini

Before Rita could finish her studies, the Jewish Italian woman was already facing many obstacles in her career from fascism and anti-Semitic laws. She convinced her father to let her study medicine. She was so dedicated to her studies that she built a laboratory in her bedroom. She made scalpels from sewing needles, using an ophthalmologist’s tiny scissors and a watchmaker’s forceps. With these tools and by taking help from the article she read by embryologist Viktor Hamburger she managed to dissect the chick embryos and study their motor neurons under a microscope.

    Rita with the help of her mentor suggested a theory that embryonic nerve cells proliferated, started to grow, and then died. The theory serves as the foundation for the modern concept of nerve cell death as part of normal development. She and her colleagues discovered the nerve growth factor (NGF). NGF is a protein that regulates the growth of cells and plays a very important role in the development of tumors.  Due to this discovery, she was granted the Nobel Prize in Medicine. By the time she died, Levi-Montalcini was the oldest living Nobel laureate and the first Nobel Prize winner to live to 100.

    Her studies led scientists to battle many disorders of neural degeneration, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. NGF is also a potential therapeutic target in cancer; it could help treat multiple sclerosis and it could also be a factor in various psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and autism. Rita also founded and was the first director of the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome. She founded the European Brain Research Institute in 2002. 

 Melitta Bentz

Being a housewife, Bentz was dissatisfied with the method of making coffee. She updated brewing for the modern world. She noticed that coffee at that time brewed too long, and the machine left gritty grounds. Bentz then devised her own solution which result in her patent pour-over-coffee filter. Using a blotting paper, she found in her son’s notebook she invented her first device which was a brass pot with a top punctured with holes covered with blotting paper. She started her business by producing coffee filters at home. Bentz’s sons made deliveries with a handcart and her husband set up the display in shop windows to show the public how the new system can be used. Later she modified the device so that coffee can be directly poured into a jug or pot. 

    Bentz received a patent for her invention and started a business that still exists today. Today the Melitta Group employs more than 4,000 people across the world. The company reported its revenue in 2017 as 1.5 billion euros, or about $1.8 billion. She along with her sons also founded Melitta Aid, a social fund for company employees that still exists today.

Gertrude Elion

Gertrude is an American Pharmacologist who got her Noble Prize for Medicine in 1988. While volunteering in a chemistry lab that could only offer her a dishwashing job, she managed to save some money for her graduate work at New York University. At University she was the only woman in her chemistry classes. Her discovery of Azathioprine was extremely important to the field of medicine as it has made it possible for people with compromised immune systems to receive organ transplants without rejecting them.

    She made discoveries regarding drug treatment. Elion alongside her colleague George Hichings together went on the path of beating trial-and-error drug development and revolutionized drug making with ‘rational drug design’. Elion and George we able to successfully interfere with cell growth resulting in a number of drug development for example Leukemia, Gout, Malaria, Herpes, and many other diseases. She also developed an AZT, an antiretroviral drug that can be used for the treatment of AIDS. Even after her retirement, she continued supervising the lab that involves overseeing the development of AZT. The first drug for treating AZT.

Ada E. Yonath

Yonath belongs to a poor family that lived in Jerusalem. After her father passed away she taught other students maths and chemistry and even cleaned the chemistry lab in exchange for tuition. Her childhood in poverty made her accustomed to hard work and taught her to consider that science itself is a luxury.  Yonath was curious since childhood. She decided to focus on one of the mysteries of that time living cells: protein biosynthesis. She then began with ribosomes, where protein synthesis occurs. These were still an enigma to scientists because they had yet to determine ribosomes’ molecular structure. At that time structure of the ribosome was impossible to determine and Yonath was considered a dreamer or a fool for even trying.

    Ada Yonath started her project and end up successfully mapping of ribosome’s structure which consists of hundreds and thousands of atoms. Using x-ray crystallography. Her trailblazing work has important applications in the production of antibiotics.  Her findings not only aid in the development of more efficient antibacterial drugs but could also give scientists new weapons in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria – a problem that has been called one of the most pressing medical challenges of the 21st century. Yonath has gone on to demonstrate how more than 20 antibiotics function, facilitating the way for new products to be developed based on the structure of antibiotics bound to the ribosome.

Lise Meitner

Lise was considered special in her era not because she was one of few women who were allowed to work in science but because she was also a foremost nuclear scientist in Germany. She alongside working with her colleague realized that uranium was undergoing nuclear fission, splitting in half and releasing some of its tremendous store of nuclear energy.

    Meitner was the second woman to obtain a doctorate degree from the University of Vienna. Meitner and her coworker Otto Hahn discovered the isotope of protactinium. She began her research on nuclear fission while being the first woman to teach as a full physics professor at the University of Berlin. Hahn later received the Nobel Prize for this work, but never acknowledge Meitner’s contribution. Her discovery of recognition of the explosive potential of the process motivated Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein to contact President Roosevelt, leading to the establishment of the Manhattan Project. She was, Albert Einstein once said, Germany’s own Marie Curie. Element 109 was named meitnerium in her honor.

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