Women are massively under-represented in physics and other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects at all levels. A report by the Institute of Physics showed that 46% of schools in the UK had no girls continue to study physics after the age of 16, although girls were over twice as likely to study physics at A-level if they went to an all girls’ school. Girls made up just 20% of all those studying A-level physics in 2011. This is 6 in every class of 30. Only about 6% of physics professors in the UK are female, and only two women have ever won the Nobel Prize in Physics, this is 1%.
There are fewer female physicists because of discrimination against women. It’s possible that many great female scientists will never be known, as they would be more likely to have published anonymously or under male pseudonyms, but history is still full of examples of pioneering female scientists and mathematicians.
I will mention some of these women below, in a timeline of female physicists, chemists, and mathematicians. This is juxtaposed with a timeline of human rights and may be split across several parts.
The first part looks at women born before the 1840s.
Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE), Akkadian-Sumerian astronomer
Enheduanna was an Akkadian princess (now part of Iraq) and one of the first astronomers and mathematicians. Her father formed the Babylonian Empire from the Sumerian and Akkadian Empires, and she was appointed Priestess of the Moon Goddess in about 2354 BCE. This role required making accurate astronomical predictions. Enheduanna was also one of the first known authors and poets.
Tapputi (c. 1200 BCE), Babylonian perfumer (early chemist)
Tapputi was the first person in history to have recorded chemical experiments, which she performed in her role as a perfumer.
Aglaonike (c. 150 BCE), Ancient Greek astronomer
Aglaonike was the first known female astronomer in Ancient Greece. It’s thought that she could predict lunar eclipses, and was regarded as a sorcerer. She now has a crater on Venus named after her.
Cleopatra the Alchemist (c. 250), Egyptian alchemist (early chemist)
Cleopatra is a pseudonym for a female author whose real name has been lost. She published extensive records of her chemical experiments, including drawings of the apparatus used, but much of her work was destroyed in the 3rd or 4th century.
Hypatia (c. 370-415), Ancient Greek mathematician
Hypatia was the first well-documented female mathematician. She also wrote and taught philosophy and astronomy.
1215 - In Britain, King John signed the Magna Carta, which acknowledged that ‘free men’ are entitled to judgment by their peers.
Sophia Brahe (1556-1643), Danish astronomer and chemist
Brahe studied horticulture, astronomy, chemistry, and medicine but is best known for assisting her older brother Tycho Brahe, whose astronomical observations led Johannes Kepler to determine how planets orbit the Sun.
Maria Cunitz (1610-1664), German astronomer
Cunitz improved upon the Rudolphine Tables, mathematical tables that Johannes Kepler had published from Tycho Brahe’s observations. Cunitz published these tables along with a description of the scientific method in Urania Propitia in 1650.
Despite having published a book in her own name, she often had to correspond with other scientists via her husband, and 50 years after her death she was described by biographer Johan Kaspar Elberti as “so deeply engaged in astronomical speculation that she neglected her household”.
Cunitz is now considered one of the most notable female astronomers of the modern era, and has a minor planet and a crater on Venus named after her.
Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673), English natural philosopher
Cavendish wrote philosophy and science as well as science fiction, poetry, and plays. Her work anticipated some of the central views of Thomas Hobbes and David Hume, and she was an early advocate of the idea that matter is capable of thought.
Marie Crous (c. 1640), French mathematician
Crous introduced the decimal system to France, although she was not acknowledged at the time.
Elena Cornaro Piscopia (1646-1684), Italian mathematician
Piscopia was the first known woman to receive a PhD, and went on to lecturer in mathematics at the University of Padua.
Elisabetha Koopman Hevelius (1647-1693), Polish astronomer
Koopman was married to 52-year-old astronomer Johannes Hevelius when she was 16. Hevelius encouraged her interest in astronomy and in 1690, they jointly published Prodromus Astronomiae, a catalogue of over 1500 stars. Koopman now has a minor planet and a crater on Venus named after her.
Maria Margarethe Kirch (1670-1720), German astronomer
Kirch was an astronomer who produced calendars and almanacs, and was the first woman to discover a comet, although it was named after her husband Gottfried.
Maria Clara Eimmart (1676-1707), German astronomer
Eimmart was the daughter of Georg Christoph Eimmart, the founder of the first astronomical observatory in Nurnberg, and so she was able to train in astronomy and art. Eimmart made hundreds of astronomical drawings and paintings, including depictions of phases of the Moon and Venus, the Moons of Jupiter, and the rings of Saturn.
Jeanne Dumée (unknown-1706), French astronomer
Dumée began training to become an astronomer after becoming a widow at just 17. Dumée analysed the motion of the Earth in order to determine if the heliocentric system advocated by Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler was correct. She wrote Discourse on the Opinion of Copernicus Respecting the Mobility of the Earth in about 1680, where she showed that a geocentric view of the universe could not be correct.
Celia Grillo Borromeo (1684-1777), Italian mathematician
Borromeo was an Italian mathematician known for her discovery of the Clélie curve in 1728. This gives the formula for the curves that could be drawn on a rotating sphere.
1689 - In Britain, the English Parliament agreed the English Bill of Rights, which included the right to be free from torture and punishment without a trial.
Émilie du Châtelet (1706-1749), French mathematician and natural philosopher
Du Châtelet was the first to suggest that infrared radiation might exist, and improved on Newtonian mechanics, deriving a proof for the conservation of energy. In 1740, she combined the theories of mathematicians Gottfried Leibniz and Willem ‘s Gravesande to show that the energy of a moving object is proportional to the square of its velocity. This is an early form of the equation for kinetic energy.
The Fable of the Bees discussed the division of labour and the ‘invisible hand’ seventy years before Adam Smith. In the preface to her translation, du Châtelet argued that women should be allowed to be educated to the same level as men, and that by denying women an education, society was preventing them from partaking in the arts and sciences. Du Châtelet now has a crater on Venus named after her.
Émilie du Châtelet devised an early form of the equation for kinetic energy. Image credit: Maurice Quentin de La Tour/Public domain.
Laura Bassi (1711-1778), Italian natural philosopher
Bassi was the second woman to receive a PhD, and the first known female Professor in Europe. She helped introduce Newtonian mechanics to Italy, published 28 papers on physics, and was among the 25 scholars chosen to advise Pope Benedict XIV. Bassi now has a crater on Venus named after her.
Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799), Italian mathematician
Agnesi is known for writing the first book that discussed both differential and integral calculus, Analytical Institutions for the Use of Italian Youth. The French Academy of Sciences stated that this was “the most complete and best made treatise [on mathematics]”, and Pope Benedict XIV appointed Agnesi Professor of Mathematics at the University of Bologna in 1750. Agnesi now has a crater on Venus named after her.
Nicole-Reine Lepaute (1723-1792), French astronomer
Lepaute helped construct an astronomical clock that was approved by the French Academy of Science in 1753. She calculated the timing of a solar eclipse, compiled a number of star catalogues, and worked with fellow mathematician Alexis Clairault to predict the return of Halley’s Comet. She now has an asteroid and a crater on the Moon named after her.
Caroline Herschel (1750-1848), German astronomer
Herschel caught typhus as a child, which stunted her growth. Her parents assumed this meant that she wouldn’t marry, and should remain a house servant. Luckily, Herschel’s older brother William Herschel, who is best known for discovering Uranus, had higher hopes for her, and gave her the opportunity to train with him.
William trained Caroline in astronomy, and she later discovered a new galaxy, an asteroid, and at least five new comets. She also compiled a star catalogue and a catalogue of nebula. The Royal Astronomical Society presented her with a Gold Medal in 1828. They would not present another woman with this award until 1996, when they presented it to Vera Rubin.
Herschel was one of the first two women to be given honorary membership of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835, along with Mary Somerville. Herschel now has an asteroid and a crater on the Moon named after her.
Sophie Germain (1776-1831), French mathematician
Germain was one of the pioneers of elasticity theory. She also worked on number theory, providing a foundation for mathematicians working on Fermat’s Last Theorem. Germain corresponded with fellow mathematicians Joseph Louis Lagrange, Adrien-Marie Legendre, and Carl Friedrich Gauss.
Germain did not give her real name at first, so they wouldn’t know she was a woman. When she disclosed her true identity to Gauss, he replied: “when a woman, because of her sex, our customs and prejudices, encounters infinitely more obstacles than men in familiarising herself with [number theory’s] knotty problems, yet overcomes these fetters and penetrates that which is most hidden, she doubtless has the most noble courage, extraordinary talent, and superior genius”.
Mary Somerville (1780-1872), British astronomer
Somerville was one of the first women to be named an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835, along with Caroline Herschel. She became famous for translating mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace’s The Mechanism of the Heavens into English, and went on to publish three books of her own: On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, Physical Geography, and Molecular and Microscopic Science.
These directly influenced natural philosopher James Clerk Maxwell, and astronomer John Couch Adams, who predicated the location of the planet Neptune due to a discussion in her first book. Somerville now has a crater on the Moon named after her.
1789 - In France, the National Assembly agreed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
1791 - In the US, Congress agreed the Bill of Rights.
Elizabeth Fulhame (c. 1794), British chemist
Fulhame published An Essay on Combustion in 1794. Here she detailed experiments on oxidation-reduction reactions and catalysis, as well as theories on combustion. This is considered by some to be a precursor to work by Jons Jakob Berzelius, who is thought of as one of the founders of modern chemistry. Fulhame also experimented with silver salts on fabric. These are light-sensitive and were later used for photography.
Anna Volkova (1800-1876), Russian chemist
Volkova was the first woman known to graduate as a chemist, and the first female member of the Russian Chemical Society. She is regarded as the first modern female chemist, and now has a crater on Venus named after her.
Ada Lovelace (1815-1851), British mathematician
Ada Lovelace was the only legitimate child of Lord Byron, and was tutored by Mary Somerville, who introduced her to the mathematician Charles Babbage. Lovelace was the first to consider the concept of an operating system or software in 1842, while translating and annotating a critique of Babbage’s ‘analytical engine’, an early form of computer.
Lovelace wrote an algorithm for the analytical engine to compute Bernoulli numbers, which would have worked had the machine been built.
Lovelace’s notes ended up being longer than the original text, and natural philosopher Michael Faraday praised her work. Lovelace is now known as the first computer programmer.
Ada Lovelace was the world’s first computer programmer. Image credit: Science & Society Picture Library/Public domain.
Maria Mitchell (1818-1889), American astronomer
Mitchell was taught astronomy by her father, and she set up her own school to teach girls science and mathematics when she was 17. In 1847, she discovered a comet, and she became the first female Professor of Astronomy in the United States in 1865.
1821 - In the US, some married women were allowed to own property during the incapacity of their spouse.
1833 - The British Parliament abolished slavery in the British Empire.
1839 - In Britain, the Custody of Infants Act made it possible for divorced mothers to be granted custody of their children.
Originally published on my blog www.TheStarGarden.co.uk.