When it was time for me to move on to high school several decades ago, I discovered my all girls school in Malaysia was not equipped with laboratories.  Perhaps the expectation was low for girls going into science or was it a measure to cope with limited resources? Who knows? I had to do my A levels (high school) at my brother's school which did have labs!

I was fortunate.  My father supported the education of my siblings and I - it didn't matter whether we were boys or girls.  Mum was the one though, who occasionally had to ride herd over 3 very curious kids!

But Dad's view was not shared by other fathers who considered spending limited family resources on further education for girls a waste, even though Asians prized education. Nor was this common bias an exclusively Asian one.

When I was working in a research lab in the UK, I came across a clever English girl whose parents refused to let her leave home to study at a university unlike her brother. Money was not the issue as higher education was then free to British students. Then there was a talented laboratory worker whose employer was so impressed, she was offered a paid work release one day a week to study at a local college.  Her husband then gave her an ultimatum - the last I heard, she was working at a supermarket checkout.

Today women are well represented in some fields - particularly the health related ones. But the gender and pay gaps for other STEMM - science, technology, engineering, mathematics - fields are still wide according to a recent study by Australian researchers . It will take a long time for these gaps to close. In the case of physics - an estimated 258 years at the current rate!

So let us celebrate, through some wonderful jewelry designs, the achievements of these 8 remarkable women from the past. They ran counter to society's biases, faced many barriers, sacrificed a great deal and still left lasting scientific legacies. 

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)

The punchcard necklace shown above is by DissentPins  (Nick tells me he has more Women in Science pins coming up.)  

It celebrates Lady Augusta Ada Lovelace's work with the inventor of the world's first computer, Charles Babbage. She was the only legitimate child of the English poet, Lord Byron, who abandoned his family a month after her birth because she wasn't a boy.  Her bitter mother encouraged her interest in mathematics and even engaged tutors for her, if only to make sure she didn't turn out fickle like her father.

Ada eventually published the world's first paper on computer algorithm (program) in 1843.  It was never tested as Charles Babbage's Analytical Machine was never built. Unlike the other mathematicians of the day, only Ada foresaw the future potential of computers beyond just the computation of numbers.

 Mary Anning (1799-1847)

This colorful laser cut tiny dinosaur pendant necklace by RaffishStudio shows a plesiosaurus.

The first complete skeleton of the plesiosaurus was discovered by Mary Anning, an early paleontologist and fossil hunter combing the cliff bottoms at Lyme Regis in Dorset, England. The first ichthyosaur as well as other important marine fossils finds are also credited to her.  Her keen observations led to the discovery that coprolites, then known as bezoar stones, were actually fossilized dinosaur faeces.

Mary Anning had none of the advantages Ada Lovelace enjoyed.  She was not only female but was born poor and remained so for the rest of her life. Her family also faced discrimination being Dissenters or Nonconformists (Protestant Christians who did not belong to the established Anglican  Church of England). Her ill carpenter father died when she was 11. This then forced Mary and her family to find and sell fossils in earnest to wealthy collectors for a living.

It was a dangerous occupation as much of the fossil hunting was done in the winter months when landslides revealed fossils which had to be recovered quickly. She nearly died in a landslide in 1833 which killed her dog, Tray, shown in the portrait below.

Mary, despite her lack of an education, nonetheless read as much of the scientific publications as she could get hold of. She also taught herself by dissecting modern fish and cuttlefish to understand what she was finding.  Never accepted into learned societies of her day, Mary unhappily knew she was taken advantage of and was distrustful. With good reason. All the scholarly paleontology papers based on her finds and insights, never credited her.

No British scientist named a species after her during her lifetime. She was however, highly regarded by geologists and their society helped pay her expenses when she was dying of breast cancer. In 2010, 163 years after her death, the Royal Society named her as one of the top 10 British most influential women in science. 

Annie Jump Canon (1863- 1941)

This gorgeous astronomy inspired lampwork pendant by yidongcommerce is inspired by planets and stars.

Annie Jump Canon was one of the best among the many women astronomers first hired by astronomer and physicist, Edward Pickering, of the Harvard Observatory, to process astronomical data. He needed help to catalogue every star they could see in the sky by their brightness, position and color, using the then new, photographic technique.  Women were paid far less than men so he could employ more of them! Female astronomers were paid 25 - 50 cents per hour which was even less than the secretaries at Harvard made back then.

The women were collectively known as Harvard Computers. They were called that because their early work dealt with measurements and calculations - human calculators. They were regarded by the public as "out of place" because they weren't stay at home housewives.

Annie Jump Canon, who was deaf for much of her career after a bout of scarlet fever, was so fast she was able to classify more stars than anyone else - over 350,000 - in a lifetime. She "could classify three stars a minute just by looking at their spectral patterns and, if using a magnifying glass, could classify stars down to the ninth magnitude, around 16 times fainter than the human eye can see." Accurately too. She also discovered over 300 variable stars and 5 novas.

Her system of star classification called the Harvard Classification Scheme is still used today.  The American Astronomical Society gives out the Annie Jump Canon Award each year to a promising female North American astronomer.

Marie Curie (1867-1984)

This beautiful Marie Curie French coin ring was made by CelticCoinCraft from a 90% silver 100 Franc coin which was minted in 1984 to commemorate the famous physicist and chemist Marie Curie.  You can also get the ring on their website.

There are a lot of firsts associated with this Polish born, naturalized French physicist and chemist. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the only woman to win two Nobel prizes, and one of two scientists to win two Nobel prizes in different fields.

She ended up in France because Poland did not allow women in higher education. Even in France, she faced discrimination not just because she was female but also as a foreigner. Her daughter later pointed out the hypocrisy - Marie Curie was deemed unworthy of any French honor because she was an immigrant but suddenly becomes a French heroine when she won her international Nobel prizes!

Marie pioneered research into radioactivity - she invented that term - isolated radioisotopes and discovered two new elements, radium and polonium (named after her beloved Poland). She also oversaw the world's first studies in the treatment of neoplasms (tumors) using radioisotopes.  The unit of radioactivity is now called the curie.

During World War I, she developed mobile x-ray equipment to assist battlefield surgeons. An estimated million+ wounded soldiers were treated using her units, popularly known as petites Curies ("Little Curies").

She shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel. She was nearly omitted from that award until Pierre was alerted and lodged a complaint. Her husband was tragically killed in a traffic accident a few years after that. If there were any lingering doubts as to her stellar scientific capabilities, those were put paid when she won her second Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911, shared with no one else.

Pierre and Marie with Irene, the older of their 2 daughters
Her daughter, Irene, was the next  Curie to win the Nobel Prize in 1923. The Curie family bagged a total of 5 Nobel Prizes.

Marie died of aplastic anaemia most likely brought on by her long time exposure to radiation. The dangers were not known during her career so nothing was shielded nor did she wear protective clothing.  Her papers from the 1890's are so radioactively contaminated, they have to be stored in lead lined tins. Even her cookbook was contaminated.

Chien-Shiung Wu  (1912- 1997)

This beautiful atom pendant necklace complete with a birthstone charm is by MolecularMotifs.

If top female physicists are still uncommon today, Chinese American, Chien-Shiung Wu, was a rarity. This "First Lady of Physics", Queen of Nuclear Research" was also known as the "Chinese Madam Curie".  Like Marie Curie, she was an immigrant who did her best work in and for her adopted country.

This experimental physicist was born in China and raised by an incredibly progressive father who taught her a woman is measured by her merit and should not have to give up her female characteristics to succeed.

She arrived in the US in 1936 for her doctoral studies.  Imagine her surprise when she learned female University of Michigan students were not allowed to use the front entrance of the new student center.  That was just the first of many sexist barriers she encountered throughout her illustrious career in a male dominated field.

While at Columbia University, she became the world expert in the study of beta decay, a radioactive process in which an electron is emitted from an atomic nucleus. One use of beta particles is in the treatment of medical conditions such as eye and bone cancer.

She won many awards but the Nobel prize for Physics eluded her. This despite having designed the famous test known as the Wu experiment and leading the team who worked on it.  The 1957 prize went to Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang, the theoretical physicists who originated the idea of that in quantum mechanics, the law of conservation of parity - is broken. Parity in physics is the creation of a mirror image of something, both of which should behave in similar ways.  It was her expertise in beta decay and her experimental design which proved their theory.

She was also one of the many eminent scientists who worked on the Manhattan project.  There she helped develop the process for separating uranium into uranium-235 and uranium-238 isotopes by gaseous diffusion. She was conflicted with her involvement in the development of the atomic bomb, rarely mentioning it in her lifetime. But when her advice was sought by the Taiwanese government in 1962, she advised against the development of a nuclear program.

After leaving China, she never saw her parents again. Travel from the US to China was impossible during World War II and was prohibited for decades following the Communist takeover of China in 1949.  By the time she was able to visit in 1973, her parents were not only gone, so were their tombs. They were destroyed - some of her family including her brother also perished - during China's Cultural Revolution.

When she died, in accordance to her wishes, her ashes were buried in the courtyard of the Ming De school for girls which her beloved father founded and where she herself attended.

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

This beautiful Rosalind Franklin inspired DNA earrings is by DissentPins.

Rosalind Franklin was a British chemist and x-ray crystallographer who worked on DNA, RNA, viruses including the one which causes polio, coal and graphite. She is best known for her important contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA, crucial to the field of genetics. Widespread recognition of her work did not come about until well after her death. 

Back in the early 1950's, there was a frantic scientific race to determine the exact structure of DNA. Three teams were in competition - two British ones hoping to beat the celebrated American chemist, Linus Pauling, at Caltech, to the finish line.

There were strong personality clashes - Rosalind Franklin did not get on with her King's College, London colleague, Maurice Wilkins. He often complained about her to the other British team at Cambridge University, which comprised of American biologist James Watson and British physicist Francis Crick.

The melodrama made this race rather like a scientific soap opera. She finally left her nucleic acids and DNA research work behind and moved to a happier laboratory.

To make a long story short, Watson and Crick, could not have proven, without her critical data, that DNA was a double helix. The pair were able to build "their correct model once Wilkins showed Franklin’s photograph #51 to Watson, and another celebrated scientist, Max Perutz showed Crick the 1952 Medical Research Council report" in which Franklin describes the correct crystallographic group spacing for DNA.

Photo #51

The 3-part 1953 Nature journal series, starting with Watson and Crick's proposal and ending with Franklin's own paper did credit her.  Her contributions include "establishing DNA's existence in two forms, A and B; working out the position of the phosphorous atoms in the molecule's backbone and, critically, taking the clearest photographs of its internal structure."  She was closer to figuring out the structure herself than many thought at the time.

Rosalind Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958. Her work with x-ray equipment may have contributed to her early death at age 37. Four years later, the 1962 Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine went to James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. Nobel prizes are never given posthumously.

Katherine Johnson (1918-2020)

These adorable astronaut earrings are by IJSY - they remind me of Katherine Johnson's contribution to aeronautics.

Katherine Johnson was an American mathematician who became more widely known after the publication of the book Hidden Figures and the release of the 2016 movie of the same name.  She was one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist during the space race at the time of the Cold War.

Along with Dorothy Vaughn (computer programmer and team leader) and Mary Jackson (the first fmale black aeronautical engineer) and others, these women started work at NASA as "computers" carrying out complex manual calculations before electronic computers were available and as programmers afterwards. 

In doing so, they overcame discrimination and racial segregation to became part of America's scientific and engineering history. What mattered most was the harnessing of the best minds and talent at NASA - not their gender, or race - which allowed the US to win that race and succeed in landing the first man on the moon.

Her achievements are remarkable considering the educational limitations when she was young.  A gifted student with a strong mathematical bent, she could not continue her education in West Virginia beyond the 8th grade because the county where she lived did not provide public schooling for African-Americans above that level.

Her parents - her mother was a teacher and her father worked in various jobs including as a handyman - transferred her to a high school in another community. She finished high school at 14 and completed her first degree at West Virginia State, a predominantly black university.

She became one of three African-American students and the only woman, selected to integrate the graduate school after the 1938 United States Supreme Court ruling came into force.  States which provided higher education to white students were then compelled to also provide it to black students.

At NASA, she developed a reputation for accuracy calculating trajectories and launch windows for the Mercury missions - Alan Shepard was the first American in space.  When NASA introduced IBM computers to calculate John Glenn's orbit around Earth, the astronaut refused to fly until Katherine Johnson herself had manually double checked the calculations.  These were very complex ones because they had to take in account the gravitational pulls of celestial bodies.

She went on to work on the Apollo program. Her backup procedures and navigation charts in case of electronic failures, helped bring home safely the astronauts on the aborted Apollo 13 mission. She created a one-star observation system so that the astronauts could accurately pin point their location.

Her work was also critical for the early part of the Shuttle Program and she was involved in the plans for the unmanned Mars missions.

Katherine Johnson died earlier this year at the ripe old age of 101. She had 6 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Two NASA facilities were named in her honor.

Not seen the movie?  Watch this Hidden Figures | Featurette : Achieving the Impossible.  There are some historical inaccuracies - the timeline is understandably compressed and the three women were not really close. See this video which covers what was fact or fiction in the movie.

Grace Murray Hopper (1906 - 1992)

This Grace Hopper inspired nanosecond necklace is by DissentPins.

Grace Murray Hopper was an anomaly.  There has never been and will probably never will be someone else with a PhD in mathematics from Yale University who also became a Rear Admiral in the US Navy.

During World War II, this American computer scientist was assigned to and became one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer - a 55 ft long and 8 ft high behemoth - one of the earliest computers. It was needed to carry out gunnery and ballistic calculations.

She believed in and went on to develop computer languages to make programming computers easier by using the English language rather than machine code. The best known one is COBOL which is still used today.

In 1947 while she and her team were working on the Harvard Mark II computer at Harvard University,  they discovered a real bug stuck in a computer relay.  Definitely a case of literal debugging!

Also known as an educator and lively speaker with a whole host of early war stories, Grace Hopper was famous for her wire visual aid to explain what a nanosecond is. Watch this short but delightful video of her doing so.

She once said, "Young people come to me and say "Do you think we can do this?" I say "Try it" ... I stir 'em at intervals so they don't forget to take chances."

She won many awards and accolades in her lifetime but my favorite is her 1969 win as the first recipient of the Computer Science Man of the Year award.

She tried twice to retire from US Navy but was recalled to active service to help with their computing issues and keeping them up to date with their computing technology. She developed a certifier, a kind of quality control program to make sure COBOL ran smoothly no matter what computer was used.

When she finally retired at age 80, she was the oldest active serving officer in the US Navy. She died of natural causes and was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

Grace Hopper was certainly gifted, a great communicator and enjoyed keeping her mind occupied. But what was she really like? Jay Elliot, once the Senior Vice President of Apple Computer, described her as appearing to be "All Navy but if you reach inside, there is a "pirate" dying to be released."

Before You Go:

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Original Post by THE BEADING GEM
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