5 Women Scientists Who Influenced the Theory of Evolution

Scientist Jane Goodall studies the behavior of a chimpanzee during her research February 15, 1987 in Tanzania
Jane Goodall. Getty Images

The many brilliant women have contributed their expertise and knowledge to further our understanding of various science topics often do not get as much recognition as their male counterparts. Many women have made discoveries that reinforce the Theory of Evolution through the fields of biology, anthropology, molecular biology, evolutionary psychology, and many other disciplines. Here are a few of the most prominent women evolutionary scientists and their contributions to the Modern Synthesis of the Theory of Evolution.

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Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin. JW Schmidt

(Born July 25, 1920 - Died April 16, 1958)

Rosalind Franklin was born in London in 1920. Franklin’s main contribution to evolution came in the form of helping discover the structure of DNA. Working mainly with x-ray crystallography, Rosalind Franklin was able to determine that a molecule of DNA was double stranded with the nitrogen bases in the middle with a sugar backbone on the outsides. Her pictures also proved the structure was a sort of twisted ladder shape called a double helix. She was preparing a paper explaining this structure when her work was shown to James Watson and Francis Crick, allegedly without her permission. While her paper was published at the same time as Watson and Crick’s paper, she only gets a mention in the history of DNA. At the age of 37, Rosalind Franklin died of ovarian cancer so she was not awarded a Nobel Prize for her work like Watson and Crick.

Without Franklin's contribution, Watson and Crick would not have been able to come up with their paper about the structure of DNA as soon as they did. Knowing the structure of DNA and more about how it works has aided evolution scientists in countless ways. Rosalind Franklin's contribution helped lay the groundwork for other scientists to discover how DNA and evolution are linked.

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Mary Leakey

Mary Leakey Holding a Mold from a 3.6 Million Year Old Footprint
Mary Leakey Holding a Mold from a 3.6 Million Year Old Footprint. Bettman/Contributor/Getty Images

(Born February 6, 1913 – Died December 9, 1996)

Mary Leakey was born in London and, after being kicked out of school at a convent, went on to study anthropology and paleontology at University College London. She went on many digs during summer breaks and eventually met her husband Louis Leakey after working together on a book project. Together, they discovered one of the first nearly complete human ancestor skulls in Africa. The ape-like ancestor belonged to the Australopithecus genus and had used tools. This fossil, and many others Leakey discovered in her solo work, work with her husband, and then later work with her son Richard Leakey, has helped fill in the fossil record with more information about human evolution.

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Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall. Eric Hersman

(Born April 3, 1934)

Jane Goodall was born in London and is best known for her work with chimpanzees. Studying the familial interactions and behaviors of chimpanzees, Goodall collaborated with Louis and Mary Leakey while studying in Africa. Her work with the primates, along with the fossils the Leakeys discovered, helped piece together how early hominids may have lived. With no formal training, Goodall started out as a secretary for the Leakeys. In return, they paid for her education at Cambridge University and invited her to help research chimpanzees and collaborate with them on their early human work.

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Mary Anning

Portrait of Mary Anning in 1842. Geological Society/NHMPL

(Born May 21, 1799 – Died March 9, 1847)

Mary Anning, who lived in England, thought of herself as a simple “fossil collector”. However, her discoveries became much more than that. When only 12 years old, Anning helped her father dig up an ichthyosaur skull. The family lived in the Lyme Regis region that had a landscape that was ideal for fossil creation. Throughout her life, Mary Anning discovered many fossils of all types that helped paint a picture of life in the past. Even though she lived and worked before Charles Darwin first published his Theory of Evolution, her discoveries helped lend important evidence to the idea of change in species over time.

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Barbara McClintock

Barbara McClintock, Nobel Prize-winning geneticist, is shown surrounded by people, holding her coat open.
Barbara McClintock, Nobel Prize-winning geneticist. Bettman/Contributor/Getty Images

(Born June 16, 1902 – Died September 2, 1992)

Barbara McClintock was born in Hartford, Connecticut and went to school in Brooklyn, New York. After high school, Barbara attended Cornell University and studied agriculture. It was there she found a love of genetics and began her long career and research on parts of chromosomes. Some of her biggest contributions to science was discovering what the telomere and centromere of the chromosome were for. McClintock also was the first to describe transposition of chromosomes and how they control which genes are expressed or turned off. This was a large piece of the evolutionary puzzle and explains how some adaptations may occur when changes in the environment turn the traits on or off. She went on to win a Nobel Prize for her work.

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Scoville, Heather. "5 Women Scientists Who Influenced the Theory of Evolution." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/women-scientists-and-theory-of-evolution-1224854. Scoville, Heather. (2020, August 27). 5 Women Scientists Who Influenced the Theory of Evolution. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/women-scientists-and-theory-of-evolution-1224854 Scoville, Heather. "5 Women Scientists Who Influenced the Theory of Evolution." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/women-scientists-and-theory-of-evolution-1224854 (accessed June 3, 2023).