Feminine Brilliance

A Brief History of Women in the Sciences

Of all the great females in academia throughout time, my favorite would have to be Hypatia. She was the first woman to make a substantial contribution to the development of mathematics, which became the foundation of science. Four hundred years into the Common Era, Hypatia became head of the Platonist school at Alexandria. She was a philosopher, an inventor, a librarian, a scientist, a teacher, and so much more. Unfortunately, all of Hypatia’s work is lost except for its titles and some references to it. Most of this material seemed to have focused on astronomy and mathematics in particular. In addition to this, she compiled and edited countless scrolls and even tinkered around with astrolabes and hydroscopes in her short life. She was a truly amazing woman that contributed to so much in so many different ways. We were lucky to have had her before the Christians finally got to her. Her murder and the tragic arson of the Library were undoubtedly two of mankind’s greatest losses.

Maria Agnesi is credited with actually having written the first mathematics textbook. Since her work still survives, she is also said to be the first woman appointed as a mathematics professor at a university, although Hypatia did write and teach on the subject more than a millennium ago. In 1783, wanting to do the best job of communicating up-to-date mathematics to her younger brothers, Agnesi began to write a manual on the subject. The work was published in 1748 in two volumes. The first volume covered arithmetic, algebra, trigonometry, analytic geometry and calculus. The second volume covered infinite series and differential equations. Her work even included the methods of calculus of both Isaac Newton and Gottfried Liebnitz. This didn’t go unnoticed, her ability to bring together ideas from many different thinkers impressed the mathematicians and other scholars of the day so much that she began to earn her living as a professor. Nonetheless, by the time she died in 1799, she had given away everything she owned. Maria Agnesi was eventually buried in a pauper’s grave.

Although many brilliant women had come before her, Marie Curie was really the first famous woman scientist in the modern world. Her pioneering research into radioactivity gave way to scientific revolutions and medical revelations that have changed the world time and time again. She successfully demonstrated that radioactivity is not a property of an interaction between elements but is an atomic property. This is a big deal and she received international acclaim as a result of her work. In 1903 Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. Later, when her husband died, she was offered a national pension, but turned it down. A month after Pierre’s death, she was also offered his chair at the Sorbonne. That she willingly accepted. Two years later she was elected a full professor, becoming the first woman to hold a chair at the Sorbonne. Unfortunately, in the end, Marie Curie contracted leukemia, induced by exposure to high levels of radioactivity. Ultimately, she died of pernicious anemia in 1934.

Jane Goodall is a world renowned scientist and conservationist, as well as one of my favorite people of all time. She is an extraordinary human being who became the first person to truly study wild chimpanzees by sitting among them beginning in the 1960’s. These unconventional methods allowed her to bypass the more rigid procedures and uncover discoveries about our closest relatives’ behavior that have continued to shape scientific discourse to this very day. Her ethological fieldwork as a primatologist in the heart of Africa served as a critical turning point in our understanding of what it means to be human, as well as what it must be like to be a tool-using animal in the wild. She opened scientists up to the possibility of treating animals like people through the applied understanding that we are just apes. We share a common ancestor with the chimpanzees and she developed a relationship with them that has led her to a lifetime of research and preservation that work to this day to create a tremendous legacy that will go on to do great things forever…

I can’t wait to see what the next generation of great women thinkers will bring!!!

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