The Overlooked Contribution Of Women In Science

In our very own university, the first woman to graduate received her degree in 1898, a sluggish 66 years after Durham was founded. Even in the 1930’s only one quarter of the student population at Durham was female. Not only has it been a struggle to enter the world of higher education, but gaining recognition for scientific breakthroughs proved just as slow a process. Out of the 391 people awarded Nobel Prizes for science since 1901, only 31 have been awarded to women- a mere 8%! This article will bring attention to some of the women that deserve greater recognition.

A massively recognised name in science is Marie Curie, who worked with her husband Pierre on the forefront of science in the 1890s – 1910s. They discovered the rare, radioactive elements Polonium and Radium, and between them published 32 scientific papers. For their contributions to science they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, jointly with Henri Becquerel. You may be thinking this story is a terrible example of a woman overlooked in science, however, it is not as peachy as it seems. The Nobel Prize was initially awarded to just Pierre and Becquerel, entirely dismissing the fact Marie Curie had dedicated her life to these groundbreaking discoveries. If it weren’t for the intervention of Magnus Mittag-Leffler, mathematician and advocate of woman’s rights, Marie Curie wouldn’t have received the first of her two Nobel Prizes. In addition, despite her incredible achievements of winning two Nobel Prizes and becoming the first female professor at the University of Paris, she was rejected membership by the French Academie des Sciences.

Whilst Marie Curie did achieve the Nobel Prize eventually, there are many women who arguably have been overlooked during the nominations. The Chemistry Nobel Prize of 1932 was awarded to Irving Langmuir, who impressively helped develop Langmuir-Blodgett troughs, which are widely used devices in Chemistry labs. Langmuir certainly deserved the prize, but what about Blodgett? Katharine Blodgett worked with Irving Langmuir, yet the Nobel Prize was solely awarded to him.

Just as Marie Curie worked with her husband to get them both recognition, Esther and Joshua Lederberg worked together in the field of genetics. They discovered a species of bacteriophage, and aided understanding of bacterial mechanisms of DNA transfer. Their research was worthy of a Nobel Prize, and indeed such a prize was awarded in 1958, but it was only in the name of Joshua Lederberg. There was no mention of Esther.

The idea of sexual inequality within academia may seem pre-historic to us today. I know for me, as a Chemistry student at Durham uni, it seems obscure. However, some may say the battle isn’t over and the issue definitely still exists. For example, the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (founded in 1660) is yet to have a female president. Luckily, today there is a greater awareness of the problem, people are now starting to hear about the women who were so often forgotten, and statistics regarding gender inequality are changing.