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Women and Science (Part – 2)

 By Sudakshina Kundu Mookerjee

There have been several trail blazers in the history who have made outstanding contributions of women to Scientific studies. In the eighteenth century women had little opportunities for university education and yet some of the brilliant minds outshined their male counterparts.

We may begin with Gabriel Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet or simply Emilie du Châtelet (1706 – 1749) who was a French scholar of Mathematics and Physics. She translated Newton’s Principia in French. She met with an untimely death while giving birth to her child.

Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) was a renowned German Astronomer who discovered eight comets in her lifetime.

Mary Anning (1799-1847) was an English Palaeontologist. She was also a scholar of anatomy, geology and palaeontology. She excelled in scientific illustrations and was an authority on fossils.

Mary Farefax Sommerville (1780-1872) was born in Scotland. She experimented with magnetism and left invaluable writings on Astronomy, Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics.

Maria Mitchell (1818-1889), an American, was an authority on Astronomy. She was a naturalist and an educator. She discovered a comet that came to be known as ‘Miss Mitchell’s Comet’.

Although few of these women born in the eighteenth century Europe had left their indelible mark in the scientific world, yet women in general remained alien to this male dominated community till the Madam Curie became the first woman to receive recognition as a Nobel Laureate.

Marie Slodowska Curie:  The first woman ever to win the Nobel Prize in science, not one but twice in her life time – first time in Physics in 1903 and in Chemistry in 1929. She discovered the radioactive elements Polonium and Radium.

Madam Curie was born on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw, Poland. Her father was a teacher of Physics and Mathematics. She started her education in local schools but her father inspired her to scientific enquiry. Poland was then part of the Russian Empire and Marie, like many other young students of her time got involved in revolutionary movement and relocated to Cracow, which was then under the Austrian rule. Her father’s fortunes having suffered badly owing to a bad investment, Marie and her elder sister Bronislawa took turns in their higher studies, one worked while the other studied. Marie’s turn came in 1891 when she went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. There she earned Licentiateships in Physics and Mathematics.  Marie was awarded with the doctoral degree in 1903.

She met Professor Pierre Curie, the Head of the Physics Laboratory at the Sorbonne in 1894 and the couple were married on July 25, 1895. They had two daughters, Irene in 1897 and Eve in 1904. The responsibilities of motherhood did not deter Marie from her scientific pursuits. She was unwavering in her care for her daughters and according to Eve Curie, she even made dresses from them. But her domestic bliss was short lived as she lost her husband Pierre tragically in a road accident in 1906. She started her career as a Lecturer in Physics in École Normale Supérieure for girls in Sèvres in 1900 where she introduced the mode of teaching through experimentations. After Pierre’s death she succeeded in his place as the Head of the Professor of General Physics in the Sorbonne and became the first woman to hold such honour.

Madam Curie and Professor Pierre Curie were inspired by Henry Bacquerel’s discovery of radioactivity (1896) and pursued their research in the same field under trying circumstances and severe lack of infrastructural support. However they were undaunted in their tireless work with radioactive minerals and substances and discovered the radioactive elements polonium (1898) and radium for which Marie and Pierre were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903. After the death of her husband Marie carried on their research work and successfully produced Radium as a pure metal in 1910. She published her fundamental treatise on radioactivity in 1910. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in the year 1911 and her citation read “in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.”

Her discovery revolutionised the treatment of malignancy and became a watershed in the history of medicine. Marie Curie organised a mobile X-ray team during the First World War. She died on July 4, 1934, in Sallanches, France.

Madam Marie Curie shattered the glass ceiling and several outstanding women scientists left their mark in history. True most of these outstanding personalities belonged to the western world but India was also preparing the ground for female education and women were knocking at the closed doors of the newly founded Universities to stake their claim, thanks to the awakened spirit of the new generation of Indians.

Let us acknowledge the contributions to the scientific community by some of the women scientists of the western world before we pay our tribute to the pioneers of our own nation. Fortunately, the west started acknowledging their contributions but the struggle for getting a foothold in the male dominated world continued.

Lise Meitner (1878-1968) was an outstanding researcher in atomic Physics and is credited with the first theoretical explanation of the process of atomic fission. Unfortunately she was overlooked when Otto Han was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1945 although Lisa collaborated with him in the research for which he received the prestigious recognition. Although she was unjustly called the ‘mother of the atom bomb’ she had no role in designing the devastating weapon for mass destruction. She can rightly be credited with providing the explanation of an enigmatic scientific phenomenon that was unknown at her times. Lise was not only a woman she was born to Jewish parents and had to flee her country of birth Austria during the World War II, although she converted to Protestant Christianity. In her childhood, higher education to women were denied in Austria and Lise went to Berlin for her University education. Here she was indoctrinated into the wonderful world of atomic Physics by none other than Boltzman.

Irène Curie- Joliot (1897-1956) was the daughter of the famous scientist couple Marie and Pierre Curie. She was awarded the Nobel prize for Chemistry for her untiring work in radioactivity in 1935.

Barbara McClintock (1902-1992) was a Botanist who is remembered for her outstanding work in Genetic Engineering and was honoured with the Nobel Prize in 1983.

Dorothy Mary Crowfoot Hodgkin OM, FRS, Hon FRCS (1910 -1994) was a British Chemist and a Nobel Laureate. She pioneered the use of x-ray crystallography for studying Biological molecules and made it an essential tool for the study of structural biology.

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958), the English Chemist, has left her mark in determining the structure of the DNA. Unfortunately she has not received her due recognition.

While the twentieth century found more participation of women in scientific studies and their contributions to science started getting the due acknowledgement, India also started opening the gates to the women from late nineteenth century. This became apparent as many brilliant minds found the opportunity to prove their worth and inspire the younger generations of Indian women to come forward and pave the way to a world with more scientific temperament.


  1. Emilie du Chatelet – History of Scientific Women,
  2. Emilie du Chatelet, American Scientic Society,
  3. Learned modesty and the first lady’s comet: a commentary on Caroline Herschel (1787) ‘An account of a new comet’ by Emily Winterburn, www.
  4. Mary Anning (1799-1847); www.ucmp.berkeleyedu
  5. Mary Sommerville – Agnes Scott College;
  6. Maria Mitchell: Biography and Accomplishments, Brittannica;
  7. The Nobel Prize in Physics 1903, Marie Curie – Biographical, The Nobel Prize;
  8. The Nobel Prize in Physics 1911, Marie Curie – Biographical, The Nobel Prize;,
  9. Marie Curie;,
  10. Madam Curie: A Biography by Eve Curie
  11. Lise Meitner: Biography and Facts, Britannica;
  12. Dorothy Hodgkin: Biography and Facts, Britannica;
  13. Dorothy Hodgkin FRS – Scientist with disabilities;
  14. Rosalind Franklin: Biography, Facts and DNA, Britannica;
  15. Rosalind Franklin: A Crucial Contribution; Nature; B.V. Subbarayappa, Endeavour, Vol 6, Issue 4, 1982, Pp177-182

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