15 Famous Female Scientists Who Changed the World

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From leading-edge discoveries in astronomy, chemistry, and medicine, to inventing revolutionary devices, these women have made an indelible impact on our understanding of the world.

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The contributions and discoveries of the world's greatest scientists have the power to transform how people understand the world around them. From curing diseases to inventing devices and answering age-old questions, their impact is immeasurable. Among this esteemed group are a number of prestigious women whose work in fields like astronomy, chemistry, and medicine ranks among the top discoveries of all time.

Take inspiration from these 15 famous female scientists who changed the world:

Famous female scientists in history 

Throughout the history of science, women have played an important role in discovering and developing elements, tools, and treatments that save and improve lives. The most famous female scientists were trailblazers who made their marks in physics, chemistry, and space flight and paved the way for the generations of women who followed in their footsteps. Let's meet a few of them. 

1. Dorothy Hodgkin

British chemist Dorothy Hodgkin fell in love with science as a child after learning about crystals at the age of 10. As a student in England, she studied chemistry and researched how to use X-ray crystallography. This decision proved advantageous, as she used this technology to determine the atomic structures of biomolecules like penicillin, B12, and insulin (a major breakthrough in the treatment of diabetes). She also used X-ray technology to treat World War I soldiers. Perhaps even more notable, she performed her work while suffering from the effects of rheumatoid arthritis, a condition she developed as a young woman. 

2. Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson graduated from college—with honors—at the same age most people graduate from high school. She later applied to a program at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and earned a spot as one of the agency's human computers. One of Katherine's most important jobs was calculating the trajectory of the first American manned spaceflight in 1961 and the Apollo moon landing in 1969. While NASA began using computers for the task in 1962, astronaut John Glenn refused to go into flight until Katherine checked the computer's calculations by hand.



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3. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

When Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin became the first woman to receive a PhD from Harvard's Radcliffe College, no one knew how much her doctoral dissertation would change the world of science. Her conclusion that stars are composed mainly of hydrogen and helium contradicted the prevailing theory of the time, and some of the day's leading scientists openly questioned her findings. It would take more than a decade for another scientist to reach the same conclusion. In the meantime, Payne-Gaposchkin became the first woman to lead a department at Harvard, and her work encouraged other universities to accept more female students into their science programs.

4. Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner is one of only two women to have an element named in her honor—the element with the atomic number 109 is called meitnerium. (The other is curium, named after Marie Curie.) She was the first physics professor in Germany and the first scientist to include the term 'nuclear fission' in a published paper. During her career, she discovered what causes the Auger Effect, explained how nuclear fission works, and uncovered the element protactinium. Meitner faced significant discrimination as a woman in science and was denied the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which was awarded only to her collaborator Otto Hahn for the discovery of nuclear fission in 1944.

5. Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper, also known as "Amazing Grace," was known for her pioneering work in the development of computer programming languages. She started her work in computing during World War II when she joined the Navy as a reserve officer and worked on the Harvard Mark I computer program. She went on to develop the first compiler, as well as the programming language COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language). She was also one of the first female officers in the United States Navy, where she served in the Navy Reserve until she retired at the age of 79. 



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6. Chien-Shiung Wu

Physicist Chien-Shiung Wu went from a fishing village in China to working on the Manhattan Project in the United States. Dubbed the "First Lady of Physics," she was the first person to confirm Fermi's beta decay theory. As a result, she discovered how to produce large enough quantities of uranium to fuel the atomic bomb. Her experiment on radioactive atoms is known today as the Wu Experiment. She also examined the way red blood cells change to cause sickle-cell anemia.

7. Alice Augusta Ball

During her short lifetime, Alice Augusta Ball made an important discovery that changed how doctors treat leprosy, a chronic disease that causes skin lesions and nerve damage. The trailblazing chemist was the first Black woman to earn a master's degree from and teach chemistry at the University of Hawaii. Her work revolved around the makeup of plants, particularly Hawaii's native kava plant. The plant had long been used as a topical treatment for the skin, and Ball developed a method for injecting the oil of the plant as a treatment for leprosy. 

After Alice Ball's untimely death in 1916 at the age of 24, her research on the treatment of leprosy was taken up by another scientist who published a paper on the subject. He failed to credit Ball for her original work and instead presented her findings as his own. It was not until many years later that Ball's contributions to the field of medicine were properly recognized.



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8. Marie Skłodowska Curie

Marie Curie, who discovered the radio-active elements radium and polonium and coined the term 'radioactivity', ranks among the world's best known female scientists. She shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics in recognition of her work, making her the first woman to earn the award. After her husband's untimely death, she continued working with radiation and won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911—the only woman with such an honor and the first person to win two Nobel Prizes in different scientific fields. In addition to her scientific work, Marie Curie was a strong advocate for women's rights and education. She founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and Warsaw, which remain leading centers of research to this day.

Famous female scientists today 

Today's scientific community looks different than when Marie Curie's husband had to insist her name be added to the Nobel Prize for their joint research. As they lead research teams and make ground-breaking discoveries, these women continue building on the work of their predecessors and encourage more women to enter the field.

9. Wally Funk 

Wally Funk is an American aviator and astronaut. She is best known for being one of the Mercury 13, a group of women who underwent rigorous physical and psychological testing in the early 1960s as part of a private program to determine whether women could meet NASA's standards for spaceflight. Despite performing as well as or better than the male astronauts who were selected for NASA's space program, the Mercury 13 were ultimately excluded from spaceflight due to their gender. Wally Funk went on to become a successful aviator, flight instructor, and advocate for women's rights in aviation.Funk became the oldest person to fly in space in 2021 at the age of 82 when she broke the record previously held for 23 years by John Glenn.

10. Jane Goodall

Although Jane Goodall loved animals as a child, she never intended to become a scientist. Her lack of formal training was advantageous when she was sent to the Gombe Stream Game Reserve to observe chimpanzees in their natural habitat. Without the constraints of conventional methods of studying animals, Goodall developed her own techniques, including living among the chimpanzees she was studying, and connecting with them on a personal level. Through her work, she learned that chimpanzees make and use tools, form strong bonds between mothers and infants, engage in warfare, and demonstrate compassion. Goodall is now one of the world's leading primatologists and a lifelong advocate for conservation.

11. Cynthia Kenyon

Cynthia Kenyon's work gave the world new insight into how people age. The American molecular biologist was the first person to study the expression profiles of genes, and her innovative 1993 study of gene mutation in roundworms proved that aging is a genetic process. Kenyon's discoveries have opened up new avenues for research into the mechanisms of aging and age-related diseases and have helped to establish the field of biogerontology as a promising area of scientific inquiry. She's currently serving as Vice President of Aging Research at Calico Life Sciences.



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12. Nina Tandon

Nina Tandon is an American biomedical engineer and entrepreneur who is known for her work in the field of tissue engineering. Her research focuses on developing new techniques for growing human tissues and organs in the laboratory, with the goal of creating replacement tissues for patients who have suffered from injuries or disease. One of Tandon's notable achievements was co-founding a biotechnology company called EpiBone, which is developing a technology to grow bone tissue from a patient's own cells. The company's technology has the potential to revolutionize the field of bone grafting, which is currently limited by a shortage of donor tissue and a risk of rejection by the patient's immune system.

13. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi

Although Françoise Barré-Sinoussi loved science, she often skipped classes at the University of Paris to work at the Pasteur Institute. She is best known for her work on retroviruses, specifically the discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Her research led to the creation of diagnostic tests and treatments for HIV/AIDS patients, and she continues to advocate for more research and better access to life-saving medications. Barré-Sinoussi won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2008.

14. Kiara Nirghin

At the age of 16, Kiara Nirghin won the 2016 Google Science Fair. Her motivation for the project came from a personal experience with a deadly disease caused by drought. Using waste materials such as avocado and orange peels, Nirghin developed a polymer that has the ability to store hundreds of times its weight in water. This low-cost and biodegradable solution helps plants to retain moisture during droughts, thereby increasing their chances of survival and reducing food insecurity in areas with limited water resources. Beyond her scientific achievement, Nirghin is also breaking stereotypes and encouraging more women to pursue careers in science.



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15. Mae Carol Jemison

Engineer Mae Carol Jemison started her scientific career in medicine, working as a doctor in the Peace Corps and private practice. After the Challenger explosion in 1986, she changed gears and became an astronaut. On September 12, 1992, she became the first African American woman to travel in space. As a science mission specialist, she examined how spaceflight affects things like motion sickness, bone loss, and fertilization. In addition to her groundbreaking achievement as an astronaut, Jemison is also an accomplished engineer, physician, and entrepreneur. She has received numerous awards for her contributions to science and technology and has been a strong advocate for increasing diversity in STEM fields.

Learn more

Follow in the footsteps of these famous female scientists by exploring topics like Introduction to Chemistry: Reactions and Ratios from Duke University, An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python (Part 1) from Rice University, or AI for Medicine from Deeplearning.AI.

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