Many of the most important discoveries within the field of science have been achieved by accomplished women across several time periods. Despite the social obstacles they faced, these women were able to overcome significant challenges and put forth groundbreaking research that fundamentally changed the way we understand a wide variety of scientific fields of study. In honor of International Women’s Day, we explore the achievements of a few of these notable women in the field of science. They broke barriers and opened doors for future generations of women to enter and contribute to various fields within science.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell
As the first woman in America to receive a medical degree, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell championed the participation of women in the medical profession and ultimately opened her own medical college for women. Additionally, she was the first woman on the Medical Register of the General Medical Council. Dr. Blackwell was born near Bristol, England on February 3, 1821 and originally set out to be a schoolteacher. Her interests eventually shifted to medicine, and she endured a great deal of prejudice when applying to medical school. She was rejected from all but one school, becoming the first woman to attend medical school in the US. After graduating from medical school, Dr. Blackwell returned to New York City where discrimination against female physicians meant few patients and difficulty practicing in hospitals and clinics. Dr. Blackwell nonetheless was able to persevere and opened a small clinic to treat poor women. In 1857, she opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children with her sister Dr. Emily Blackwell and colleague Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. In 1868, Dr. Blackwell opened a medical college in New York City. Her main efforts and ideas were intended to support and encourage women hoping to pursue careers in medicine. In fact, her contributions are still celebrated to this day through the Elizabeth Blackwell Medal, which is awarded each year to a woman who has made significant contribution in promoting women in medicine.
Dr. Marie Curie
Dr. Marie Curie was a Polish-French physicist and chemist who is famous for her groundbreaking research on radioactivity. Not only was she the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, but she was the only woman in history to win a Nobel Prize twice. She was also the only person to ever win the Nobel Prize in two different scientific fields. Dr. Marie Curie earned her Doctor of Science degree in 1903. In this year, she earned her first Nobel Prize in Physics for developing the theory of radioactivity alongside Dr. Henri Becquerel and her husband, Dr. Pierre Currie. Following the tragic death of her husband in 1906, she took his place as Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences, the first time a woman had held this position. During this time, Dr. Curie continued her scientific breakthroughs and earned her second Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 for discovering the elements polonium and radium. She developed methods for the separation of radium from radioactive residues in sufficient quantities to allow for its characterization and the careful study of its properties, especially those that were therapeutic. Dr. Curie actively promoted the use of radium to alleviate suffering. During World War I, assisted by her daughter, Irene, she personally devoted herself to this remedial work. Dr. Curie, who was considered quiet, dignified, and unassuming, was held in high esteem and admiration by scientists throughout the world. Dr. Curie’s work is reflected in the numerous awards bestowed on her. Dr. Curie died in Savoy, France, after a short illness, on July 4, 1934.
Dr. Gerty Theresa Cori
Dr. Gerty Theresa Cori was a biochemist from Prague who was the third woman in history to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Science. She is remembered for the groundbreaking work that she and her husband conducted regarding the process in which our cells convert food into energy. Her work and research on what is now named “The Cori Cycle” led to the development of treatments for diabetes. As a result of this groundbreaking work, Dr. Gerty Theresa Cori was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1947. She was the first U.S. woman to ever achieve this award. Her research illustrated for the first time the process in which glycogen is moved from muscles to the liver and back to the muscles as needed to provide energy for physical activity and exertion. It was only after earning her Nobel prize for this work that she began to earn the recognition she deserved from universities and peers. She worked at the Washington University School of Medicine with her husband as a research assistant for 16 years. Months before her Nobel Prize Win, she was finally promoted to full professorship. Following this, she built on her earlier research and discovered the existence of the glucose-1 phosphate, which earned her significant praise and was later renamed the “Cori ester”. Dr. Gerty Theresa Cori ultimately passed away in 1957 after a decade-long battle with myelosclerosis, a rare bone marrow cancer.
Dr. Patricia Goldman-Rakic
For decades, the prefrontal cortex of the human brain was thought to be too complex to navigate. Dr. Patricia Goldman-Rakic successfully challenged this idea when she pioneered our modern understanding of the frontal cortex of the brain. It was through her research that later scientists were able to learn more about disorders like schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, ADHD, cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia. She was able to accomplish such a feat by adopting a multidisciplinary approach to studying the brain, which allowed her to understand the circuitry of the frontal cortex in ways never thought possible. In doing so, she was able to find the links between the prefrontal cortex and working memory. This discovery was especially significant because until then, working memory and long-term memory were thought to be synonymous, which we now know is false. Outside of her accomplishments studying the brain, she is also celebrated for her mentorship of women in science. The incredible work she did helped advance her career, where she ultimately was named as the prestigious Eugene Higgins Professor of Neuroscience at the Yale University Medical School. She unfortunately passed away in 2003 due to injuries she sustained after being struck by a car. However, her memory lives on through the Goldman-Rakic Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Cognitive Neuroscience, which was created to honor her by awarding outstanding scientists each year.
To learn more about these outstanding contributors to science, you can read more at the following pages: