Women Scientists Who Did It First

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Women Scientists Who Did It First

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For the next few months, we're celebrating great women in science! This is the second installment of our series - see the first here - and we're highlighting women in history who overcame impressive obstacles to be the first in her field.

Why? To show all aspiring young girls that you, too, can do great good in the world through science. That without these women, the world would be a poorer place. And that with more women in science, there is more opportunity for creativity, invention, and progress. 

It's part of our larger #STEM4Good campaign. We hope you'll share our campaign and help us engage more girls in science this year.

Barbara McClintock

Barbara was born on June 16, 1902, in Hartford, Connecticut. Barbra's father was a physician, so it was no surprise she had an interest in science. She earned her Ph.D. in 1927, specializing in cytology, genetics, and zoology. Her long and impressive professional career began with the chromosomal analysis of corn. She co-published "A Correlation of Cytological and Genetical Crossing-over in Zea mays," establishing that chromosomes formed the basis of genetics. 

Once she returned from a fellowship in Germany, she learned Cornell, her alma mater, wouldn't hire a female professor. Obstacles like these were constantly standing in the way of female scientists, but it only made Barbara work harder. In 1944, Barbara became president of the Genetics Society of America. 

In the 1940s, she made the incredible discovery that two isolated genes, or controlling elements, could move along the chromosome to different sites, in effect changing the behavior of neighboring genes. She suggested that these movable elements were responsible for new mutations in pigmentation or other characteristics. Her mind proved to be ahead of her time because it wasn't until 1983 that she received Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine - 40 years after her research. She was the first woman to be the sole winner of this award. 

Alice Ball

Alice Ball, born on July 24, 1892, became a chemist who would claim title to many firsts. She became the first woman and first African American to graduate with a masters in chemistry from the University of Hawaii, and she eventually became that same university's first female professor. In her studies, she focused on pharmaceutical chemistry and studied chaulmoogra oil and its chemical properties in treating leprosy (also known as Hansen Disease). 

Between the years of 1866 and 1942, any person diagnosed with leprosy in Hawaii was arrested and sent to a leprosy camp on the Hawaiian Island of Molokai. At that time, leprosy was incurable with no reliable treatment options. Those afflicted were exiled to the camp to prevent the spread of the disease and were essentially considered dead to society. While chaulmoogra oil in its natural form had been used as a topical treatment for the disease - with mixed results - Ball changed the landscape of leprosy treatment by isolating the active esters from the oil and making them injectable. Her research developed a successful treatment for those suffering from the disease.

The “Ball method” continued to be the most effective method of treatment until the 1940s, and as late as 1999, one medical journal indicated the “Ball Method”  was still being used to treat Hansen disease patients in remote areas. Because of Ball's research, patients were no longer moved to Molokai and had the ability to be treated in their homes. 

During her research, Ball became severely ill and died at the early age of 24. She never received credit for her work during her lifetime, and after her death, the chairman of the University of Hawaii Chemistry Department garnered the recognition. Researchers, however, have learned of her critical contributions and brought her accomplishments to light. We remember Alice as a brilliant woman who helped thousands of lives through her discoveries in medicine. 

Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper was born in New York City on December 9, 1906. She studied math and physics at Vassar College. In 1934, Grace earned her Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University, becoming the first woman to earn such a degree from Yale. She taught as a professor at Vassar College until World War II compelled her to join the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1943. As part of her naval duties, she worked with the Mark II and Mark III computers at Harvard where she discovered a moth to have shorted Mark II. She is sometimes given credit for coining the term "computer bug." 

In 1952, her team created the first compiler (renders worded instructions into code that can be read by computers) for computer languages. Common Business Oriented Language, or COBOL, was a widely adopted language and used around the world. Grace retired from the Navy in 1966, but her pioneering computer work was still needed and she was recalled to active duty. She would remain with the Navy for another 19 years before retiring in 1986 at 79 as a rear admiral and the oldest serving officer in the service. 

She was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1991, making her the first female recipient of the honor. In 2016, Grace was posthumously honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama. Her legacy continues to encourage young women to learn how to program. 

Rita Levi-Montalcini

Rita Levi-Montalcini was born into a wealthy Jewish family in 1909 in Turin, Italy. While her parents were educated and cultured - her father was an electrical engineer and mathematician, and her mother was a painter - her father was also rather Victorian in his command of the family and believed higher education would distract his daughters from their roles as mothers and wives. Despite this, Rita's curiosity and drive led her to graduate from the University of Turin with a degree in medicine and surgery in 1936, where she then began her research on nerve cells. 

In 1938, with the rise of Nazi Germany, Benito Mussolini instituted laws in Italy that barred people with Jewish heritage, like Levi-Montalcini, from working at universities or in most professions. With little support from the outside world, Rita continued her studies in hiding, turning her bedroom into a laboratory and using sharpened sewing needles as surgical instruments. Moving underground with her family as the war encroached, Rita continued to trace and study nerve growth hormones in chicken embryos. After publishing her research at the end of the war, she was invited to visit Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Rita ended up staying and working for the university until 1977, where she worked with biochemist Stanley Cohen to discover the nerve growth factor, a protein that promotes nerve growth in nearby developing cells. 

It took some time for the scientific community to realize the importance of their discovery, which, in time, offered possible treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, infertility, and cancer. For their discovery of nerve growth factor, Rita Levi-Montalcini and Stanley Cohen won the 1986 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

Rita also directed the Research Center of Neurobiology in Rome, the Laboratory of Cellular Biology, and the Institute of Cell Biology of the Italian National Council of Research. She also made time to found the European Brain Research Institute in 2002 and serve as its president. She died at her home in Rome in 2012 at the age of 103.

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