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Female Scientists Whose Work Was Disregarded

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

For centuries, science was an almost exclusively man’s world; even when women excelled, their work was devalued and sometimes poached and passed off as the discovery of a male colleague.

Vera Rubin

Dark matter makes up about 84 percent of the material in the Universe. It’s made up of invisible particles that whiz around the cosmos. Astronomy.com describes dark matter as affecting “how stars move within galaxies, how galaxies tug on each other, and how all that matter clumped together in the first place. It is to the cosmos like air is to humans: ubiquitous, necessary, unseen but felt.”

We know about it because of the work of Vera Rubin.

One night in 1968, Dr. Rubin and her colleague Kent Ford were studying the Andromeda Galaxy from the Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona. Something seemed out of order. Stars at the edges of the galaxy were moving in a way that seemed to violate Newton’s Laws of Motion. The anomaly could only be accounted for by vast quantities of invisible matter that held stars in their orbits around the cores of galaxies.

The Palomar Observatory was a boys-only venue for star gazing, until 1965 when Dr. Rubin was granted access to the telescopes. The only bathroom in the place was for “MEN.” Rubin drew a picture of a woman in a skirt and stuck on the bathroom door.

In 1933, the Swiss astronomer, Fritz Zwicky, had postulated the existence of what he called “missing mass” as a force the kept galaxies from flying apart. However, other astronomers dismissed his theory.

As Rubin studied more galaxies, she found the same puzzles in the rotation of stars as she had observed in the Andromeda Galaxy. With this she produced the evidence that Zwicky lacked that proved the existence of this mysterious substance. Dark matter is now accepted as an astronomical orthodoxy although scientists have yet to determine exactly what it is.

Dr. Rubin received some honours for her work, such as the U.S. National Medal of Science, but she was ignored by the Nobel Prize committee. However, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences did find reason to award the 2011 physics prize to three men for their discoveries in the related field of dark energy.

Dr. Vera Rubin died in 2016 at the age of 88 and Nobel prizes cannot be awarded posthumously.

Vera Rubin with astronaut John Glenn.

Vera Rubin with astronaut John Glenn.

Lise Meitner

The 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was handed to Otto Hahn “for his discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei.” The breakthrough led to the development of nuclear power and also nuclear weapons.

Hahn had worked in Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for 30 years alongside his colleague, the Austrian physicist Lise Meitner.

Dr. Meitner was born into a Jewish family in 1878, but converted to Protestantism. In 1938, she fled to Sweden to escape Hitler’s murderous death camps. However, through letters she collaborated with Hahn in his laboratory experiments.

When Hahn and another colleague hit a roadblock in their research, he wrote to Meitner “Perhaps you can come up with some sort of fantastic explanation.” Meitner met with them secretly in Copenhagen where she suggested a different approach to their experiments. This solved the problem.

Essentially, Lise Meitner unravelled the puzzle of splitting uranium atoms in a process she called “fission.” Otto Hahn published their findings in an academic journal but neglected to name Lise Meitner as a co-discoverer. Consequently, her contribution to science was ignored by the Nobel committee.

Lise Meitner in 1946.

Lise Meitner in 1946.

Rosalind Franklin

James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1962. They received the honour for their work in discovering the structure of DNA.

Missing from the accolades was Rosalind Franklin whose work in X-ray crystallography made the understanding of the double helix of DNA possible.

At King’s College, London she and her student Raymond Gosling “took pictures of DNA and . . . one of their X-ray diffraction pictures . . . known as Photograph 51, became famous as critical evidence in identifying the structure of DNA. The photo was acquired through 100 hours of X-ray exposure from a machine Franklin herself had refined” (Biography.com). That was in May 1952.

Rosalind Franklin in 1955.

Rosalind Franklin in 1955.

Meanwhile, at Cambridge University, Watson and Crick were struggling to understand the make-up of DNA. They got a copy of Photograph 51 and the data it provided immediately unlocked the mystery. But there was skulduggery involved, as reported by Matthew Cobb of The Guardian: Rosalind Franklin’s “report was not confidential, and there is no question that the Cambridge duo acquired the data dishonestly. However, they did not tell anyone at King’s what they were doing, and they did not ask Franklin for permission to interpret her data (something she was particularly prickly about).”

Watson and Crick published their findings in April 1953 in Nature. They included a footnote saying they were “stimulated by a general knowledge” of Franklin’s work, although it was central to their discovery.

Late in 1956, Rosalind Franklin was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died in April 1958 at the age of 37, never having been given the full credit she deserved for her groundbreaking work.

Chien-Shiung Wu

The world of particle physics is one in which phrases such as “beta decay at ultracold temperatures” and “theoretical prediction of parity violation” are bandied about. So, it’s wise for those with a mere college education not to venture into attempts to explain the concepts.

Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee are Chinese physicists who shared the Nobel Physics Prize in 1957. The two men were acknowledged for their innovative work in particle physics.

Physicsworld.com says “some physicists argue that the Chinese-American physicist Chien-Shiung Wu should have shared the prize for providing the experimental evidence for Lee and Yang’s theoretical prediction of parity violation.” But Dr. Wu was a woman, which, as we’ve seen, seems to be regarded as a disqualification for scientific honours

Magdolna Hargittai has written extensively on the roles of women in science. In an article for Physicsworld.com she notes that “Not only is Wu highly respected―she is known to some as the ‘First Lady of Physics’ or the ‘Chinese Marie Curie’―but there is a general opinion that it was an injustice that she did not receive the Nobel Prize for Physics . . .”

Chien-Shiung Wu in 1963.

Chien-Shiung Wu in 1963.

Bonus Factoids

  • Tim Hunt is an English biochemist and winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine. He could also qualify for a prize in sexism if one existed. The self-confessed chauvinist told a conference of science journalists in 2015 “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls . . . three things happen when they are in the lab . . . You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.” He apologized for his remarks, but many saw them as confirmation of an institutional bias against women in science.
  • Cornell University’s Professor Margaret Rossiter is a science historian. She campaigns to expose the prejudice against women in science, which she calls The Matilda Effect.
  • “A Battle for Ultimate Truth.” San Diego Supercomputer Center, undated.
  • “Sexism in Science: Did Watson and Crick Really Steal Rosalind Franklin’s Data?” Matthew Cobb, The Guardian, June 23, 2015.
  • “Rosalind Franklin.” Biography.com, June 15, 2020.
  • “How Vera Rubin Confirmed Dark Matter. Sarah Scoles, Astronomy.com, October 4, 2016.
  • “Vera Rubin: The Astronomer Who Brought Dark Matter to Light.” Tim Childers, Space.com, June 11, 2019.
  • “Overlooked for the Nobel: Chien-Shiung Wu.” Hamish Johnston, Physicsworld.com, October 2, 2020.
  • “Credit Where Credit’s Due?” Magdolna Hargittai, Physicsworld.com, September 13, 2012.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 09, 2021:

It is good that you brought this disparity to light. Many brilliant women have added to our discoveries in the field of science and elsewhere. They have not received the credit due in comparison to men in science. Hopefully, with time, this will improve.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on January 09, 2021:

Miebakagh. I wish that sexism in science was in the past, but it's not. A study published in Nature showed that there remains a gender bias against female scientists in the scientific community. Here's a link to the report.

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-019-0686-3....

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on January 09, 2021:

Rupert, thanks for sharing. Nowadays, all these has come to an end, and women scientists are being honoured as the men.

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