Tribute to forgotten women scientists, mathematicians, programmers and paleontologists


In the case of the German astronomer Maria Kirch (1670 – 1720), her husband was largely to blame. Kirch discovered a comet in 1702 – the first woman to do so – but when his wife wrote to King Leopold I describing the find, he “omitted” to mention his wife.

Gottfried Kirch may have had a bad conscience. Just before his death, he revealed that his wife was the one who made the discovery.

Meanwhile, when French mathematician Sophie Germain (1776 – 1831) was denied entry to the École Polytechnique engineering academy, she assumed the identity of a male student, “Monsieur LeBlanc”. Germain then solved a theory called Fermat’s Last Theorem for a certain category of prime numbers, work still used in cryptography today.

In 1816, Germain won the prize of the French Academy of Sciences for his mathematical explanation of the vibration of an elastic surface. And when Siméon-Denis Poisson published his work on elasticity, he neglected to acknowledge Germain’s help.

Mathematician Dr. Louise Olsen-Kettle has collected the stories of forgotten women like Kirch and Germain, along with 19 others (although she told Cosmos, “I could put a lot more”).

Olsen-Kettle is the Vice-Chancellor’s Mathematics Women in STEM Fellow at Swinburne University in Melbourne. His presentation, The Mathilde effect, highlights the little-known contributions of women scientists, mathematicians, programmers and paleontologists.

The Matilda effect is named after suffragette Matilda Gage, who in 1870 was the first American woman to publish a study of American women in science. The term was coined by Margaret Rossiter to describe the systemic and gendered nature of the under-recognition of female scientists throughout history.

“The Matilda Effect spreads the [science, technology, engineering, and maths] the gender gap by reinforcing male stereotypes leading to fewer female role models, and a male-dominated culture leads to less recognition of female accomplishments,” says Olsen-Kettle.

A plaque to Sophie Germain / Credit: Flickr user Monceau under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A study published in Nature this year surveyed the teams and individuals behind nearly 40,000 journal articles between 2013 and 2016. The research found that women involved in research teams are significantly less likely to be credited with authorship, with the gender gap in attribution distributed across most scientific disciplines and almost all careers. steps.

The problem goes all the way to the top. Of the 219 Nobel Prizes in Physics awarded, only four have gone to women. In chemistry, 3.7% of prizes awarded went to women. Meanwhile, only two women out of 64 have received the Fields Medal for Mathematics.

Read more: Should the Nobel Prizes be cancelled?

And other forms of recognition are lacking. For example, less than 4% of Australian statues recognize women, according to Data of the advocacy group A Monument of One’s Own. In fact, there are more animal statues than women.

While Olsen-Kettle lays out the unique story behind each forgotten female scientist, there are common themes. Many women were excluded from full participation in their fields, or had their work claimed or credited to men.

She adds that often these women have suffered for their accomplishments.

“What really struck me about these stories was that most of them didn’t make much money or died poor, very poor. And a lot of them died young, for whatever reason, and there were a lot of marriage breakups.

In the case of Esther Lederberg (1922 – 2006), a pioneer in bacterial genetics, she implemented a revolutionary technique called replica plating. The technique involves replicating colonies of microorganisms from one Petri dish to another, allowing each to be tested independently.

Her first husband and his research team won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1958 for his work.

“You just can’t imagine the conversations they would have in bed,” Olsen-Kettle says.

Lederberg and her husband later divorced.

Another theme was that “Matildas” often did a lot of hands-on work. In the case of Klára Dán von Neumann (1911 – 1963) who did the coding in the 1940s ENIAC computer to make weather forecasts, or the work of Isabella Karle (1921 – 2017) developing methods of analysis X-ray diffraction data, without which her husband theories would not have become practically useful.

Eniac credits the Kirbster
ENIAC / Credit: Flickr user Kirbster

Olsen-Kettle says today, “if you write the code, implement it and run the program, and do all that hands-on work, you would be a co-author.”

The stories of women scientists are beginning to be shared and recognized through books, films and, in some cases, in the naming of new items. The film, hidden numbers pays tribute to the women who worked as “human computers” to calculate the orbital trajectories of NASA’s early space missions.

Of course, some women scientists, even those whose contribution may have been overlooked in the past, are slowly gaining recognition.

Nuclear scientist Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968) is immortalized in the periodic table as meitnerium (noting that of the 15 elements named after scientists, only two are for women).

Lise meitner credit aiea
Professor Lise Meitner / Credit: IAEA

Under “success stories”, Olsen-Kettle lists one of Australia’s best-known female engineers, green materials pioneer Veena Sahajwalla, who was recently awarded a 2022 Eureka Award for her work promoting understanding of science.

Australian radio astronomer Ruby Payne-Scott (1912 – 1981) has been recognized by CSIRO’s Payne Scott Awards support researchers who have taken extended parental leave to resettle and reconnect with their field.

Other local successes include the mineral chemist, Isabel Joy Bear (1927 – 2021) who, together with Richard Thomas, scientifically described the unique, earthy smell associated with rain, calling it “petrichor”. Also, mathematician Nalini Joshi, the first female professor of mathematics at the University of Sydney.

Olsen-Kettle says more and more children’s books celebrate the lives of these women. She even drew on the one she gave to her daughter, Good Night Stories for Rebellious Girls, by drawing up a shortlist.

“It’s really good for young women to read this, and maybe also to see the challenges they faced, and that they stayed there and persevered. Hopefully our girls don’t have a si big boulder in front of them. But I still think it’s important to see some of the amazing things that have been done,” she says.

Want to know more about women scientists in history?

You can watch the full Olsen-Kettle presentation here.

Cosmos also featured some of the extraordinary women on the Olsen-Kettle list. You can read more about entomologist Maria Merian, fossil collector and paleontologist Mary Anning, mathematician Emmy Noether, nuclear researcher Chien-Shiung Wu, ophthalmologist Patricia Bath, Rosalind Franklin and Nettie Stevens.


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