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Important Women in Science

Jun 08, 2010

While it is fairly common knowledge that on the whole the role of women in all public fields, including science, was limited by society until very recently, there have always been exceptions throughout history. At certain times and in certain places in the world, women have found society amenable to their efforts in several disciplines, including that of science. While today's society still overlooks the contributions many of these women made in favor of their male counterparts, they did have a significant impact on selected fields of study during their day. Here are some examples of women who rose above worldwide marginalization to make significant contributions in several areas of science.

Merit Ptah (2700 BC)

The first woman acknowledged in the world of science earned her place thanks to her efforts in humankind's first great civilization. She is pictured on a tomb built in ancient Egypt, with an inscription which indicates she was a physician.

Trotula of Salerno (ca 11th Century)

Another female physician, Trotula of Salerno was widely credited with the development of theories and practices in women's health. Educated in Italy's more receptive culture, Trotula became known as the world's first gynecologist. Among the more radical theories she proposed to a conservative world were the concepts that both men and women had physical defects which could account for problems procreating, and the idea that women need not suffer severe pain during childbirth.

Trotula's work was recorded in several volumes and circulated widely through Europe and the Near East, although only two extant volumes survive. By the 16th century, women were no longer allowed to study at any European universities and a male dominated niche would cast doubt on whether the female Trotula had even existed. read more

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

Although the church is the most often cited source as far as the oppression of women and the quelling of their potential, convents and their inhabitants gave rise to some of the most important female scientists of the medieval period.

One of these abbesses was the German Hildegard of Bingen. A prolific writer, the bulk of Hildegard's work was in musical composition. However, she also took an interest in the physical world. Two of her works, Physica and Causae et Curae, contain the observations she made while focusing on the natural world. They discuss heavenly bodies, minerals, plants, and animals. They include suggestions on the healing properties of many of these subjects. read more

Margaret Cavendish (1661-1717)

Margaret Cavendish was unusual in that not only did she stand against the prevailing opinions against women in science in her day; she also posited theories contrary to the widely accepted positions of her male counterparts.

Cavendish is known as the only English woman in the 17th century to publish a book on natural philosophy, and in fact she authored several, all under her own name. This in itself was unusual, as most women of science in her century and those before and after would publish anonymously.

Her work led her into contact with notable natural philosophers such as Hobbes, Descartes, and Boyle, with whom she would engage in debate. Despite some holding high opinions of her, she was never admitted into the Royal Society. Cavendish is also one of the first people to speak out against the practice of animal testing. read more

Maria Winckelmann (1670-1720)

Across the channel, Germany had a more embracing view of women in science, as demonstrated by the large number of women who made careers in various fields in that country. Particularly of note were the contributions of women in the field of astronomy.

Maria Winckelmann was the most famous German female astronomer. Her father and uncle both strongly opposed traditional thought dictating the passage of knowledge on to boys only. Through their tutelage, Maria learned the prevailing theories of the cosmos which she studied.

Along with her husband, Winckelmann's work would prove important in fields of navigation as well as in calendars and almanacs. She became the first woman to discover a comet, although her husband retained naming privileges for himself.read more

These are, of course, just a few women of note in the history of the various fields of science. It is likely that, given the tendency of male counterparts to take credit for the work of their female colleagues, many hundreds of names will never be known in the annals.

Other Resources for Women in Science:

Women making Science History

Women in Science

Association for Women in Science

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