Today we are celebrating “International Women’s Day” and I’d like to talk about the achievements of women in STEM, presenting a couple of female scientists who made it, struggling in a world dominated by men.
Despite being overshadowed by their husbands or close colleagues, judged badly and criticised for not being in compliance with the “female” stereotypes and their scientific discoveries often being stolen or underestimated, they lead the way in their field.
Regardless of their social, economic and ethnic background they are inspirational figures that should urge us to keep fighting for our rights, our freedom of expression and self-determination.
Mary Anning (1799-1849)
Mary was born into poverty, but became the greatest fossils finder of her era, influencing the new science of paleontology despite not being acknowledged by her peer colleagues. Several books and articles are talking about her using anedoctes and stories, but very little is known about her real life, and many people are unaware of her contributions to science.
Mary Anning has been credited with the first discovery of ichthyosaur fossils, but perhaps her most important find, from a scientific point of view, was her discovery of the first plesiosaur.
It was only when the famous French anatomist, Georges Cuvier realized that this was a genuine find, that Mary became a legitimate and respected fossils expert in the eyes of the scientific community.
In spite of this recognition, the majority of Mary’s finds ended up in museums and personal collections without credit being given to her as the discoverer of the fossils. As time passed, Mary Anning was forgotten by the scientific community and most historians, due to the lack of appropriate documentation of her special skills.
“I beg your pardon for distrusting your friendship. The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of every one.” Letter to a friend.
Dr Praticia Bath (1942-present)
Grown up in Harlem, she is a renewed retired ophthalmologist who pioneered laser eye surgery. She is the first African American woman to complete a residency in ophthalmology (1973) and the first faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute.
Her research led to the development of a community ophthalmology system, which increased the amount of eye care given to those who were unable to afford treatment. In 1976, Bath co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, which established that “eyesight is a basic human right.”
In 1981 she began work on what she would call a “Laserphaco Probe.” The device employed a laser as well as two tubes, one for irrigation and one for aspiration. The laser would be used to make a small incision in the eye and the laser energy would vaporize the cataracts within a couple of minutes. The damaged lens would then be flushed with liquids and then gently extracted by the suction tube. With the liquids still being washed into the eye, a new lens could be easily inserted. Additionally, this procedure could be used for initial cataract surgery and could eliminate much of the discomfort expected, while increasing the accuracy of the surgery.
In 1993, Bath retired from her position at the UCLA Medical Center and became an honorary member of its medical staff. That same year, she was named a “Howard University Pioneer in Academic Medicine.” Among her many roles in the medical field, Bath is a strong advocate of telemedicine, which uses technology to provide medical services in remote areas.
“Do not allow your mind to be imprisoned by majority thinking. Remember that the limits of science are not the limits of imagination.”
Mary Leakey (1913-1996)
She was a British paleoanthropologist who discovered the fossilized “Proconsul” skull, an extinct ape that is now recognized to be ancestral to humans. The fossil, believed to be more than 18 million years old, was the first species of the primate genus to be discovered from the Miocene era.
In 1959 while his husband Louis was resting, recovering from a flu, Mary discovered the partial skull of an early human ancestor. Early analyses of the artifact showed that this species was equipped with a small brain but massive teeth and jaws, and muscles so large they had to be anchored to a ridge at the top of the skull. It was later determined that Zinjanthropus boisei was nearly 2 million years old, showing how long the species had been in Africa.
Mary developed a system for classifying the stone tools found in Olduvai. Although she did the major part of the work and actual findings, her husband Louis took the credit and became famous.
In 1960, the Leakey team made its next major discovery: fossils of Homo habilis, a species that is believed to be between 1.4 and 2.3 million years old, and to have originated during the Gelasian Pleistocene period. Their find also provided evidence that the species were adept in making stone tools, making them the earliest known experts in that field.
Even in her early teenager years she proved to have an unconventional rebel spirit. During her school days in a Catholic convent she was expelled twice. Once for causing an explosion in a chemistry laboratory and another for refusing to recite poetry.
“I quite liked having a baby – I think I won’t put it more strongly than that. But I had no intention of allowing motherhood to disrupt my work as an archaeologist.”
Esther Lederberg (1922-2006)
Esther was an American microbiologist who discovered the bacterial virus lambda, the transfer of genes between bacteria by specialized transduction, developed the technique of replica plating and founded and directed the now closed “Plasma Reference Center” at Standford University. Her husband Joshua used the replica plating technique and won the Nobel prize il 1958.
At 31, Joshua was already a full professor whereas Esther, who was two years older, remained an associate investigator. In an interview that followed his 1953 Eli Lilly award in Bacteriology, Joshua affirmed that this prize should have been shared with his wife.
Despite that, on the occasion of his Nobel Prize, Joshua did not mentioned Esther in either of his speeches, when he received the award and during the gala dinner.
“She did pioneering work in genetics, but it was her husband who won a Nobel prize.” Obituary from The Guardian.
Wangari Maathai (1940-2011)
She was a famous Kenyan environmental scientist and activist, educated in the USA, studying biology at the University of Pittsbourgh. After that she returned to her home country working as research assistant to a professor of zoology at the University College of Nairobi.
Later she became a senior lecturer in anatomy (1975), chair of veterinary anatomy (1976), and associate professor (1977).
In addiction to her work, she became involved in a number of civic organizations, such as unions, environment conservation projects, human and women rights associations, and she became the Kenya Red Cross Society director in 1973.
Her involvement in politics during the 90’s costed her loosing her job, and the end of her marriage, with her ex-husband making allegations of adultery.
Maathai was the first woman in central or eastern Africa to earn a Ph.D and the first woman head of an university department in Kenya, and last first, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Price for her political activism.
“It was easy to persecute me without people feeling ashamed. It was easy to vilify me and project me as a woman who was not following the tradition of a ‘good African woman’ and as a highly educated elitist who was trying to show innocent African women ways of doing things that were not acceptable to African men.”
“African women in general need to know that it’s OK for them to be the way they are, to see the way they are as a strength, and to be liberated from fear and from silence.”