Six female scientists who changed history
Hedy Lamarr (Hedwig Keisler)
1914 – 2000
Austrian and American film actress Hedwig Keisler, or Hedy Lamarr, was known in her heyday as “the most beautiful woman in the world”, but she was also the inventor of the precursor to the type of wireless communications used today in mobile phones, GPS and wi-fi.
Working with composer George Antheil, Lamarr developed a radio guidance system for torpedoes that used “frequency hopping” to stop transmissions being jammed or intercepted.
The pair patented a frequency-hopping device that worked like the roll from a self-playing piano, and donated their invention to the US Navy.
The Navy did not end up using the invention during the war, but the idea was revived in the 1950s and became the inspiration for spread-spectrum technology that is the basis of modern-day wireless communications.
Source: The Smithsonian
1866 – 1943
She was the first person in Britain to speculate in a scientific paper that lichens were symbiotic life forms and developed the theory that fungi reproduced using spores, a claim that was rejected at the time.
Potter conducted experiments in her kitchen and recorded in detail her observations of algal and fungal properties.
Source: The Scientist
1910 – 1994
Dorothy Hodgkin was one of just two girls at her school who were allowed to join the boys in chemistry class.
She then went on to Oxford University to research the relatively new technique X-ray crystallography.
The technique involves crystallising a substance, shooting X-rays at it and then doing complex computations on how the X-rays are diffracted to work out the three-dimensional shape of molecules.
Hodgkin’s most significant work was determining the structures of penicillin, insulin and vitamin B12, winning her the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1964.
Source: Nobel Media and Chemical Heritage Foundation
1920 – 1958
Rosalind Franklin helped us understand some of the most basic building blocks of our bodies, using X-ray diffraction to discover the shape of DNA.
She set up a laboratory where she took increasingly clear photos of DNA diffraction and spent a year doing mathematical analysis, inching towards the conclusion that it had a double-helix structure.
Without her permission, Franklin’s fellow researcher Maurice Wilkins showed one of her photos to James Watson and Francis Crick, who were also trying to determine the structure of DNA.
The other scientists published a series of articles about the discovery, only mentioning Franklin’s contributions in a footnote, and went on to receive the Nobel Prize, four years after Franklin’s death.
Source: UK National Library of Medicine
1878 – 1968
Meitner moved from her native Austria to Berlin to study, but as a woman and a Jew, she was excluded from the main labs and lectures and had to conduct her work in the basement, studying radioactive elements with fellow scientist Otto Hahn.
The pair worked out that when uranium atoms were bombarded with neutrons they split, releasing energy in what Meitner named “nuclear fission” — a discovery that eventually led to the invention of the atomic bomb and nuclear reactors.
Meitner was forced to flee Nazi Germany to Sweden in 1938, but she and Hahn continued to collaborate from a distance. Their discovery of nuclear fission won Hahn the Nobel Prize in 1944, although Meitner was overlooked by the Nobel committee.
She continued her research in Sweden into her 80s.
Source: The Smithsonian
Dr Frances Oldham Kelsey
1914 – 2015
Pharmacologist Frances Oldham Kelsey saved countless children from birth defects by blocking the approval of thalidomide by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Only a month after she started working for the FDA in 1960, Kelsey was tasked with reviewing an application for thalidomide, which was already in use in several other countries, including Australia, and was marketed as a morning sickness treatment for pregnant women.
As Kelsey reviewed the drug approval application, she became uncertain it was as safe as was being claimed.
She pushed back against pressure for the drug to be approved quickly, saying more research needed to be done.
The drug was never approved in the US, but approximately 10,000 children worldwide were born with deformities because of thalidomide use during pregnancy.
Kelsey’s story led to an amendment requiring stricter approval processes for FDA approval of new drugs and she was awarded the US’s highest civilian honour by president John F Kennedy in 1962.
Source: Chemical Heritage Foundation and US National Library of Medicine