Famous Women Mathematicians and Scientists

Portrait of Emilie du Chatelet by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (source)

Portrait of Emilie du Chatelet by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (source)

Historically, women interested in science and mathematics have faced challenges that their male counterparts did not face. These challenges vary from generation to generation, but they are still with us to some degree. However, there are women throughout history who have overcome those challenges and can hopefully inspire us today. I hope this list will grow, but these are some of my favorites.

18th Century

Emilie du Chatelet (1705 – 1749) – French mathematician & Voltaire’s lover. Emilie was a brilliant mind and a coquette. She enjoyed social activities, but worked tirelessly when a problem captured her attention.

Laura Bassi (1711 – 1778) – Italian physicist and the first women professor of physics in Europe. She was the only woman appointed to an elite group of scholars by Pope Benedict XIV known as the Benedettini.

Maria Agnesi (1718 – 1799) – Italian mathematician, sometimes called “mathematician of God,” Maria was a genius who was put on display in her father’s salon regularly from a young age, where she astounded learned men with her poise and knowledge. But her only desire was to be of service to God, which she was only able to do after her father’s death.

Maria Angela Ardinghelli (1730-1825) – Italian scientist and translator. Maria Angela acted as a correspondent between Neopolitan scholars and the Paris Academy of Sciences.

Caroline Herschel – 18th Century Astronomer (1750 – 1848) – Receiving very little education in her childhood, she worked for and learned under her brother Sir William Herschel until his death, and became an imminent astronomer in her own right.

19th Century
Sophie Germain (1776 – 1831) – French mathematician who spent her teenage years studying mathematics secluded in her home in Paris because of the French Revolution.

Mary Somerville (1780 – 1872) – Scottish mathematician, overcame significant odds to attain her expertise in mathematics. Her parents opposed her and she resorted to reading math texts by candlelight after the household was a sleep. When her candles were taken away, she went over in her mind the texts she had memorized.

Ada Byron Lovelace (1815 – 1852) – English mathematician, was the daughter of Lord Byron, although he played no role in her life. Sometimes called the first computer programmer, her great accomplishments began when she began working with Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Analytical Engine.

Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911) – American industrial and environmental chemist. She was the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later MIT’s first female instructor.

Sonya Kovalevsky (1850 – 1891) – Russian mathematician who made a marriage of convenience in order to leave Russia and study abroad. She still faced obstacles, but worked with some of the most famous names in mathematics, Gauss was one, and eventually became one of the first women to attain a Ph. D. in Europe and through private funds was able to teach at a university.

20th Century
Marie Curie (1867 – 1934) – Polish/French physicist/chemist as a two time Nobel Prize winner was probably the first woman in the modern era to be fully recognized for her contributions to science, but it didn’t come easily and it almost didn’t happen.
Part 1 – early life and marriage to Pierre
Part 2 – scientific discoveries and Nobel Prize

Clara Immerwahr (1870 – 1915) – was the first women to be awarded a Ph.D. in chemistry from a German University. She committed suicide after her husband developed and assisted in the deployment of gas warfare during WWI.

Harriet Boyd Hawes (1871 – 1943) – American female archaeologist known primarily for the excavation of Gournia on Crete.

Tatyana Ehrenfest-Afanasyeva (1876-1912) – Ukrainian mathematician who collaborated with her husband Paul Ehrenfest on statistical mechanics among other topics. She also did individual work on topics such as randomness, entropy and geometry.

Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968) – Austrian physicist whose work on nuclear fission was not credited to her, rather to her German partner who necessarily took credit at first, but later didn’t acknowledge her considerable role in the discovery. He won a Nobel Prize for which she should have been included.

Emmy Noether (1882 – 1935) – German mathematician whose mathematical research provided the basis for much of Einstein’s work on relatively. She worked much of her life without pay, but gradually built a reputation which prompted many of her colleagues to work diligently to find her a position when it became necessary for her to leave Germany in 1934 because she was Jewish. Alas, there is no Nobel Prize for mathematics!

Gerty Radnitz Cori (1896 – 1957) – First American woman to receive a Nobel Prize, which was awarded in Physiology and Medicine to in 1945. She and her husband were ideally suited partners who persisted in collaborating even when Gerty wasn’t given the recognition she deserved simply because she was a woman.

Irène Joliet-Curie (1897 – 1956) – The daughter of Pierre and Marie Curie. Working with her husband she discovered artificial radioactivity and won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935.

Barbara McClintock (1902 – 1992) – Won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1983 for her discovery of genetic transposition and “jumping” genes.

Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909 – 2012) – Won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1986 for her discovery of Nerve Growth Factor. As a Jewish woman, she had to work in a home built laboratory during World War II.

Gertrude Belle Elion (1918 – 1999) – Won a Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1988. She was the first woman inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for her discovery of drugs to treat cancer, viruses, and auto-immune diseases.

Rosalyn Yalow (1921-2011) – American medical physicist and Nobel Prize winner. She won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1977 for her work in radioimmunoassay techniques.

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