Women Who Made Impressive Contributions In STEM History

8 Women Who Made

Impressive Contributions In STEM History

Celebrating Unsung STEM Heroines

Women have had a long and illustrious history in science, technology, engineering and mathematical fields. From the invention of Kevlar to the blueprint for the inaugural computer programme, female pioneers have been behind some of the greatest STEM discoveries.

This campaign looks at eight superheroines who fought for their work, their ideas, and often overcame the odds in the process. Each of the women has an incredible story worth discovering, and a legacy that has left a lasting impact on the world.

You can support women in the sciences by visiting any of these great platforms.

DevelopHerBCSWomen, ScienceGrrl, or The IET Women’s Network

“Life is not easy for any of us.  But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves.  We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this must be attained.”

 – Marie Curie, scientist and Nobel Laureate

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)

“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated”

Lovelace is recognised as the world’s first computer programmer.
While poring over the designs for Charles Babbage’s mechanical computer, dubbed The Analytical Engine, Lovelace reached a remarkable conclusion. If the machine could manipulate numbers to solve equations, it could also manipulate symbols, and thus could be instructed to do almost anything. While Babbage focused on producing flawless mathematical tables, Lovelace saw that the Analytical Engine could be programmed to create music or graphics.

To demonstrate the power of the Analytical Engine, she wrote a detailed description of how it could calculate an important series of numbers called Bernoulli Numbers. This invention is seen today as the world’s first computer program.

How Was Ada Drawn?

To do justice to Ada, we looked at a portrait of the scientist from circa
1840. In our reimagining, a red cape billows behind her and she holds a representation of the World Wide Web like a trident. We settled on flat colors with limited use of shadowing to give volume. “Each illustration begins with a pencil drawing,” says Marta Colmenero, illustrator on the campaign. “In the pencil drawing, I work out the arrangement, then start bringing it to life on the screen using a Microsoft Surface and Surface Pen.”

Did You Know?

Ada Lovelace was the daughter of poet Lord Byron.

Her mother, Lady Anne Byron, feared she would turn out like her irascible father, and enrolled her in maths classes

Lovelace was a character in the 1990 steampunk novel, The Difference Engine, written by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.

“Your best and wisest refuge from all troubles is in your science”

Hedy Lamar (1914-2000)

“I know why most people never get rich. They put the money ahead of the job. If you just think of the job, the money will automatically follow. This never fails.”

Considered by many the Angelina Jolie of 1940s cinema, Lamarr was disillusioned with the idea of starring in films while the Second World War raged. She and her neighbour, the composer George Antheil, filed a patent for a “frequency-hopping” system that would allow Allied torpedoes to travel unseen under the water without being intercepted by German intelligence. Though the patent was granted in 1942, the idea was never used during the war. It was, however, picked up by the Navy in 1957, and today is one of the principles behind Bluetooth, GPS and Wi-Fi.

How Was Hedy Drawn?

“We focused on geometrical shapes: the straight lines in Hedy’s hair, the 45-degree angles, offset by a more rounded, ‘realistic’ looking face. “She was my favorite to draw: just so beautiful and inspiring.” Says Marta Colmenero, illustrator on the project.

Did You Know?

Lamarr was a close friend of the
inventor Howard Hughes.

She was recognised by Hollywood in
1960 with a star on the Walk of
Fame, but it took fifty-four years
until the National Inventors Hall of
Fame stepped up and made her an
honoree inductee.

“All creative people want to do the unexpected”

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

“That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal; as time will show”

For a long time, the history books gave credit to two men for discovering the shape and form of DNA: Francis Crick and James Watson. But without Rosalind Franklin, they wouldn’t have had all the pieces needed to complete the puzzle.

Franklin captured an X-ray image of DNA, proving a long-held scientific belief that DNA was likely composed of two opposing coiled chains: a double helix, in other words. As fate would have it, Crick and Watson were given access to Franklin’s work. The photo, along with their existing research, gave them free rein to take credit for the structure of deoxyribose nucleic acid, their findings published in Nature magazine in 1953. A small footnote in Nature acknowledged Franklin for having “stimulated” aspects of the discovery, but Franklin died an unknown commodity outside the scientific community.

Did You Know?

Franklin decided she wanted to become a scientist at 15, and eventually got accepted at Cambridge University. However, her father objected to women going to college and refused to pay her tuition. Her aunt and mother were finally able to change his mind, and she enrolled at Cambridge’s all-female Newnham College in 1938.

“Franklin had a direct nature and was unwilling to be traditionally feminine. One reason she left Cambridge to work on coal was that her doctoral supervisor did not like her and believed women would always be less than men. When she was hired in 1951 at King’s College, London, to work on DNA, she clashed with researcher Maurice Wilkins, who had thought she was his assistant, not his equal.” (source: Mental Floss)

One can go as far as say that Franklin risked her health for the sake of research. In 1958, Franklin passed away (at the age of 37) from Cancer, which many believe to be caused by the constant radiation she has been exposed to.

“Science, for me, gives a partial explanation for life.”

Virginia Apgar (1909-1974)

“Women are liberated from the time they [are born].”

Apgar specialised in anaesthetics, with a focus on analysing the effects of these drugs on newborn babies and mothers.

Her proximity to the postnatal wards meant she was able to make a troubling observation: babies who were born blue in the face or struggling to breathe were being written-off as stillborn. Apgar reasoned that, in many of the cases, if treatment was delivered swiftly, the baby could be saved.

She devised the “Apgar Score” in response. When a child is delivered, they would be judged on their heart rate, breath, muscle tone, reflexes and skin colour. Each category carried a score of either 0, 1, or 2. Once these scores were totted up, children in danger could be easily identified and sent off for immediate treatment.

“Nobody, but nobody, is going to stop breathing on me!”

The “Apgar Score” gave nurses the teeth to act swiftly and gave babies a fighting chance. In part because of Apgar’s simple system, deaths of newborn babies dropped from one in 30 in 1950 to one in 500 in America today.

Did You Know?

Apgar was known to carry a catheter with her, an instrument to keep someone’s airways open, in the event someone stopped breathing on her watch.

She published the book, Is My Baby All Right? A Guide to Birth Defects, which is still available to order today

Katsuko Saruhashi (1920-2007)

“I [want] to highlight the capabilities of women scientists. Until now, those capabilities have been secret, under the surface.”

Katsuko Saruhashi came to prominence in the 1950s when she concluded that carbon dioxide (CO2) – produced by humans and big industry – was killing marine life. She brought this fact to the world’s attention, then armed scientists with a system for measuring it – the Saruhashi Table is still used today.

In the 1960s, she turned her attention to nuclear waste. The United States had been testing nuclear weapons on islands 4,500 kilometres from Japan. Saruhashi discovered that in the space of 18 months, radioactive water had turned up on Japanese shores. Her research helped tighten ocean laws governing nuclear experimentation.

Did You Know?

Saruhashi graduated from the capital’s Imperial Women’s College of Science in 1943, later becoming the first woman to complete a doctorate in chemistry at the University of Tokyo in 1957.

Saruhashi was honoured in a “Google Doodle” in March 2018

She would go on to found the Society of Japanese Women Scientists and set up an award in her name.

Subsequently referred to as “Saruhashi’s Table”, the innovations she developed for gauging the concentration of carbonic acid in water has since become a global standard.

The Saruhashi Prize has been awarded to female Japanese scientists since 1981.

Saruhashi’s important contributions – and the positive geopolitical consequences of her intervention – saw her become the first woman elected to the Science Council of Japan.

Stephanie Kwolek (1923-2014)

“I hope I’m saving lives. There are very few people in their careers that have the opportunity to do something to benefit mankind.”

Of all the inventors on this list, perhaps no one has saved as many lives as Stephanie Kwolek.

Why? Well, Kwolek discovered Kevlar in 1965.

At the time, she was a DuPont employee working to find a lightweight material that could reinforce car tires. She spent her time experimenting with liquid solutions that she melted at temperatures reaching 200°C and “spun” into thin, fibrous strands – a process broadly similar to making cotton candy.

Kwolek discovered that, by lowering the temperature, she was able to spin something incredibly strong, stiff and light: Kevlar.

It’s a buttermilk-coloured yarn that’s five times stronger than steel and has reinforced police jackets since entering mass production in 1971.

Did You Know?

Kevlar’s laboratory name is poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide

Kwolek stayed at DuPont until 1986, regularly fielding phone calls from police officers saved in the line of duty thanks to her discovery.  

Kevlar is not only used in bulletproof vests, but in about 200 other products, including boats and even airplanes.

Emilie Du Chatelet (1706-1746)

“Love of learning is the most necessary passion… in it lies our happiness. It’s a sure remedy for what ails us, an unending source of pleasure.”

Emilie Du Châtelet had complementary gifts: an ability to comprehend complex science, and an ability to describe that science to the masses.

She is famous for translating the works of Newton, whose science was new, ground-breaking and almost entirely alien to the French people of the time.  

At 42, du Châtelet fell pregnant in an era when childbirth was incredibly dangerous and at an age where her odds of survival were slim to none. She worked long days and nights to complete her magnum opus before she died: 

a complete translation of Newton’s Principia, adding in extensive notes and a summary section where she cleaned up Newton’s obtuse prose and gave clear, digestible, bite-sized bits of information. She managed to complete the work before her untimely death, and today, du Châtelet’s translation remains the definitive French-language version.

Did You Know?

Newton had laid the claim that kinetic energy (energy created when something moves) was down to the size (mass) of an object and the speed (velocity) at which it was moving. The equation? A simple mv (mass x velocity).

But, carrying on the work of her friend Willem Gravesande, du Châtelet was able to prove that velocity mattered more than mass, and that the correct equation was mv2.

Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922-1999)

Marie was a very private person in life. We could not find any direct quotes from Marie herself.

Marie Van Brittan Brown worked odd hours as a nurse and was often home alone in Queens, New York in the 1960s. Fearing for her safety, she decided to take matters into her own hands by inventing the world’s first home security system.

Working with her husband Albert, Marie drilled four discreet peep holes through her door, then installed a camera attached to a motor that could move between the four holes at the behest of the homeowner.

This was rigged up to a monitor in Marie’s bedroom, and a microphone was installed so that Marie could address door-knockers without having to get out of bed. If the intruder was welcome, a button could be pushed that opened the door remotely. If not, a separate button pinged the emergency services.

The husband and wife duo filed a patent in 1966 and this early blueprint is still inspiring inventors today.

Did You Know?

Marie stayed loyal to Queens until her death in 1999

Norma Brown, her daughter, patented an anti-rape device in 1998

SWAAY Studios

Meet the branded content arm of SWAAY.

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed

Listen To Our Podcast


Privacy Policy

© Copyright SWAAY Media 2017. All Rights Reserved.
Sign up for our Newsletter