12 Women Scientists Everyone Should Know

woman scientist
Woman scientist, about 1920. Courtesy Library of Congress

How Many Women Scientists Can You Name?

Surveys show that the average American or Briton can only name one or two women scientists – and many can’t even name one. You can find many more women scientists in my list of 80+ Women Scientists, but here are the top 12 you really should know for scientific and cultural literacy.

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Marie Curie

Marie Curie in Nobel Prize portrait, 1903
Marie Curie in Nobel Prize portrait, 1903. Getty Images / Hulton Archive

She's the one woman scientist most people can name.  

This “Mother of Modern Physics” coined the term radioactivity and was a pioneer in its research. She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize (1903: physics) and the first person – male or female – to win Nobels in two different disciplines (1911: chemistry).

Bonus points if you remembered Marie Curie's daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, who with her husband won a Nobel Prize (1935: chemistry).

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Caroline Herschel

Caroline and William Herschel
Caroline and William Herschel. Lithograph 1896. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

She moved to England and began to help her brother, William Herschel, with his astronomical research. He credited her with helping discover the planet Uranus, and she also discovered fifteen nebulae in the year 1783 alone. She was the first woman to discover a comet, and then discovered seven more.

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Maria Goeppert-Mayer

Maria Goeppert Mayer
Maria Goeppert Mayer. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The second woman to win the Physics Nobel Prize, Maria Goeppert-Mayer won in 1963 for her studies of the nuclear shell structure.  Born in what was then Germany and is now Poland, Goeppert-Mayer came to the United States after her marriage and was part of secret work on nuclear fission during World War II.

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Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale at Scutari Hospital, 1855
Florence Nightingale at Scutari Hospital, 1855. Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

You probably don’t think “scientist” when you think of Florence Nightingale – but she was more than just another nurse: she transforming nursing into a trained profession. In her work in English military hospitals in the Crimean War, she applied scientific thinking and established sanitary conditions, including clean bedding and clothing, seriously reducing the death rate.  She also invented the pie chart.

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Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall at the UN General Assembly, 2005. Michael Nagle/Getty Images

Primatologist Jane Goodall has closely observed chimpanzees in the wild, studying their social organization, tool making, occasional deliberate killings, and other aspects of their behavior.

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Annie Jump Cannon

Annie Jump Cannon
Annie Jump Cannon. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Her method of cataloging stars, based on the temperature and composition of the stars, plus her extensive data for more than 400,000 stars, has been a major resource in the field of astronomy and astrophysics. 

She was also considered in 1923 for election to the National Academy of Sciences, but even though she had support of many of her colleagues in the field, the Academy was not willing to so honor a woman.  One voting member said that he could not vote for someone who was deaf. She received the Draper Award from the NAS in 1931.

Annie Jump Cannon discovered 300 variable stars and five novae that had not been known before, while working with the photographs at the observatory.

In addition to her work in cataloging, she also lectured and published papers.

Annie Cannon received many awards and honors in her life, including being the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford University (1925).

Finally made a faculty member at Harvard in 1938, appointed William Cranch Bond Astronomer, Cannon retired from Harvard in 1940, 76 years old.

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Rosalind Franklin

DNA Molecule
Getty Images / Lawrence Lawry

Rosalind Franklin, a biophysicist, physical chemist and molecular biologist, played a key role in discovering the helical structure of DNA through x-ray crystallography.  James Watson and Francis Crick were also studying DNA; they were shown images of Franklin’s work (without her permission) and recognized these as evidence they’d been needing. She died before Watson and Crick won a Nobel Prize for the discovery.

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Chien-Shiung Wu

Chien-shung Wu, 1958
Chien-shung Wu, 1958. Smithsonian Institution @ Flickr Commons

She helped her (male) colleagues with the work that won them a Nobel Prize but she herself was by-passed for the award, though her colleagues acknowledged her important role when accepting the award.  A physicist, Chien-Shiung Wu worked on the secret Manhattan Project during World War II.  She was the seventh woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

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Mary Somerville

Mary Somerville
Mary Somerville. Stock Montage/Getty Images

Though known mainly for her mathematics work, she also wrote on other scientific topics. One of her books is credited with inspiring John Couch Adams to search for the planet Neptune. She wrote about “celestial mechanics” (astronomy), general physical science, geography, and molecular and microscopic science applied to both chemistry and physics.

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Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson
Rachel Carson. Stock Montage / Getty Images

She used her education and early work in biology to write about science, including writing about the oceans and, later, the environmental crisis created by toxic chemicals in water and on land.  Her best-known book is the 1962 classic, Silent Spring.

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Dian Fossey

Lowland gorilla orphan at Dian Fossey Center, 2006
Lowland gorilla orphan at Dian Fossey Center, 2006.

Primatologist Dian Fossey went to Africa to study the mountain gorillas there. After focusing attention on poaching that was threatening the species, she was killed, likely by poachers, at her research center.

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Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead with children of Manus Island, circa 1930s
Margaret Mead with children of Manus Island, circa 1930s. Fotosearch / Getty Images

Anthropologist Margaret Mead studied with Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict. Her major field work in Samoa in 1928 was something of a sensation, claiming a very different attitude in Samoa about sexuality (her early work came under harsh criticism in the 1980s). She worked for many years at the American Museum of Natural History (New York) and lectured at several different universities.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "12 Women Scientists Everyone Should Know." ThoughtCo, Oct. 22, 2017, thoughtco.com/women-scientists-everyone-should-know-3528328. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, October 22). 12 Women Scientists Everyone Should Know. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/women-scientists-everyone-should-know-3528328 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "12 Women Scientists Everyone Should Know." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/women-scientists-everyone-should-know-3528328 (accessed January 19, 2018).