Who is your favorite woman scientist?

There’s been a lot of fuss ’round here this week about the fact that The Scientist magazine picked five male science bloggers to identify their favorite science blogs, and what that says about the ways that women are excluded from the conversation even when they’re not badly under-represented (which they are).

That’s got people thinking about women in science in general, which is always a good thing in my opinion. PZ Myers reports that he asked his students to name a woman scientist and that many left the question blank.

Who would you name?
Who is the first woman scientist who comes to mind?
Do you have a “favorite” woman scientist?

I’ll post my answers in the comments this weekend.

This also reminds me of a question I’ve always enjoyed asking people. It goes like this “We used to have the Susan B. Anthony dollar, and now we have the Sacajawea dollar coin. These are the only women who have appeared on US currency. If you were in charge of choosing the next woman to be depicted on a coin or bill, who would you choose?”

Feel free to answer that one too.


  1. #1 OrneryPest
    September 21, 2007

    My favorite woman scientist was Hypatia of Alexandria, who was murdered by a mob of Christian thugs under the leadership of Saint Cyril.

  2. #2 AntonGarou
    September 21, 2007

    Mari Curie wins hands down.Her story was one of the stories that inspired my interest in science as a boy.

  3. #3 Thony C.
    September 21, 2007

    Having, as a historian of science, been involved in research work into the role of women in science my answers to the first two questions would be a fairly long list. My favourite woman scientist is Emmy Noether because she’s local and I walk past her place of birth almost everyday.

  4. #4 Valhar2000
    September 21, 2007

    My immediate answer to that question would have been Marie Curie, which I would have thought is obvious even to the meanest intelligence; how can anybody not know about her?. However, she isn’t just a female scientist who comes easily to mind; she did very exciting work.

  5. #5 Physicalist
    September 21, 2007

    Emmy Noether was the first name to spring into my mind, but perhaps she should be considered a mathematician rather than a “scientist.” Noether’s theorem is exceedingly cool (and profound), so I’m inclined to count her a favorite, though I know little about her life. I know a fair bit about the history of relativity theory and quantum mechanics, and that history is certainly dominated by men. (Marie Curie is, it seems, the great exception. When one looks at the photos of physics conferences from the early 20th century, M. Curie is the only woman one’s likely to see.)

  6. #6 Amy
    September 21, 2007

    Rosalind Franklin. She did all the work, and Watson and Crick took the credit. I admire her courage during a time when women scientists were overlooked and discouraged.

  7. #7 Pablo
    September 21, 2007

    Carolyn Bartozzi at Berkeley. She is also probably the smartest person I have ever met, and an absolute delightful person.

    OK, it’s a modern example, and she’s not necessarily my absolute favorite, but I am looking outside my sphere of colleagues and friends.

  8. #8 Caledonian
    September 21, 2007

    Regarding the currency:

    Sojourner Truth. First-rate thinker, first-rate speaker: explosive combination.

  9. #9 JanieBelle
    September 21, 2007

    Lene Hau. (It’s interesting that you should ask, as I was re-listening to her February appearance on TotN Science Friday just the other day.)

    She was recently able to take a beam of light, stop it, turn it into matter, move it elsewhere, and turn it back into light and let it go.

    Transporters anyone? It just doesn’t get any cooler than that.

  10. #10 ScienceMama
    September 21, 2007

    Historically, I would have to say Marie Curie. But as for current women scientists, I am really proud of Liz Blackburn at UCSF. She served for three years on the presidential council on bioethics and was “removed” for calling out the head of the council when he was clearly pandering to the president’s politics. She’s a heavy hitter when it comes to bioethics, she’s an outstanding scientist, and she’s definitely not one to back down. She’s kicking a** and taking names.

  11. #11 Todd
    September 21, 2007

    Sophie Germain (do mathematicians count?). Great mathematician, who was a colleague of LaGrange and Gauss and made significant contributions to number theory. Being slightly OCD about prime numbers, she contributed greatly to my obsession giving us the number named after her, which is any prime number p where 2p + 1 is also prime. Like 41. She also gave us the proof if x, y, and z are integers and x^5 + y^5 = z^5, then xyz is divisible by 5.

    It’s a shame her name is only known by mathematicians. Her story is as interesting as her work.

  12. #12 Melissa
    September 21, 2007

    Barbara McClintock, Nobel prize winner (Physiology and Medicine) for her work on transposable genetic elements in maize. As a plant scientist I may be a tad biased though.

  13. #13 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    September 21, 2007

    Emmy Noether, contributed greatly to physics by the theorem here rightly mentioned as “cool and profound”.

  14. PZ asked for discussions on why there were so few well-known women scientists on his test. For that reason I would have offered Hypatia of Alexandria as an example of a woman in science along with discussing why, historically there haven’t been many that are well-known (Hypatia was skinned alive by a Christian mob in a church).

    However, I agree with Amy that Rosalind Franklin is also a very good example.

    I suggest the situation surrounding Dr. Franklin is, unfortunately, typical. In the movie Race for the Double Helix, Watson and Crick are portrayed as eager young men determined to win the “race”, even if it meant using other scientist’s efforts (e.g. Rosalind Franklin’s)without their consent.

    At the risk of being labeled an arrogant male, I will tell you about the similar situations I, personally, have dealt with. Multiple times, I have been in a position to suggest or actually choose between male and female candidates to be technical leaders. Often the women candidate is obviously more qualified, but the male candidate tends to be more eager. I have begged women to accept responsibility. I have threatened women to accept the responsibility (“If you don’t accept, X will get the job instead.”). For good or bad, I have found that women are more conservative in pushing their limits.

    For what it is worth, I am generally inclined to think women make better managers than men. Women tend to focus more on facilitating (nurturing?) as opposed to winning. However, those willing to push limits (ethically or otherwise) are the ones who get awarded Nobel Prizes.

  15. #15 sciencewoman
    September 21, 2007

    Mathematicians definitely count.

    I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t know some of the names mentioned here. But I should. And I’ll make sure that Minnow knows more of these names than I do if she decides to go into science (or even if she doesn’t).

    those willing to push limits (ethically or otherwise) are the ones who get awarded Nobel Prizes.

    This is definitely true in the scientific sense at least, but I don’t know that women are less likely to *want to* push scientific limits. There’s just been a lot of stuff keeping us from doing so. And don’t forget that the composition of the Nobel committee can have a big impact on who gets the nod. The list of outstanding women scientists above strongly supports the argument that we should stop judging who are the “best” scientists by who gets the Nobel.

    Plus, they don’t give one in -ology.

  16. #16 k
    September 21, 2007

    Beatrice Tinsley.

  17. #17 Grimmstail
    September 21, 2007

    The first scientist that sprang to mind for me was (of course?) Marie Curie. But as far as favorites go I would have to say the astronomer Maria Mitchell.

  18. #18 tmm
    September 21, 2007
  19. #19 ecogeofemme
    September 21, 2007

    I have a “Top 10 Favorite Scientisits” list, which is comprised of those currently working in my field . It’s very fluid, usually changing after I’ve been to a meeting or read a really cool paper. But it always has women.

  20. #20 ScienceWoman
    September 21, 2007

    yep, I’m with the crowd that thought of Marie Curie first. I don’t know why – maybe it’s that we’re exposed to her earlier in life than we are to other women scientists.

    But my favorite women scientists are a little less well known. I’m quite partial to ScienceGrandma, for instance, along with my female collaborators.

    Somewhere in between there’s Jane Lubchenko. She’s an ecologist at Oregon State University who studies marine upwelling ecosystems. I was first exposed to her at an AAAS meeting during the time when she was president of the society. That was impressive, and then I heard her speak and was even more impressed. Later I found out that she was also a pioneer of spousal hires and part-time tenure track positions. She and her husband shared a position for years so that they could both have time with their kids. For more, read a bio. Successful scientist, great communicators, dedicated mother. That’s my kind of woman.

    But keep your favorites coming. We could all use more role models and heroines.

  21. #21 Pablo
    September 21, 2007

    There are many, many great women scientists doing great things that I could list as possibilities. Susan Solomon at NOAA, for example, has done great pioneering work in climate change (and wrote a great book about the failed attempt to reach the south pole) and Maryanne Fox is a chemist and Chancellor of UCSD. These are just to name a couple.

  22. #22 makita
    September 21, 2007

    The first woman scientist that comes to my mind is Barbara McClintock. I don’t know why. Her papers were incredibly dense (for me), but there you go. The first that came to mind. What I find so remarkable is that it took 50 years (or more) before she was awarded the Nobel prize for her work on mobile genetic elements. Her research was on mobile genetic elements in maize (corn), and she got a Nobel prize. I wonder whether her work remained unrecognized for so long because she was a woman, or because she had trouble bringing her work (in which she was likely way ahead of her time) down to the level of mere mortals.
    I currently have a number of favorite woman scientists within my field.

  23. #23 makita
    September 21, 2007

    Dang! Only do I go and look at the comments and see that someone beat me to it! It’s good to know that McClintock came up rather quickly on the list.

  24. #24 PeteK
    September 21, 2007

    Emilie du Chatelet, Lise Meitner,Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin,etc.

    In biology, and evolutionary psychology, which is supposed to be sexist, Leda Cosmides, Margie Profet, Bobbie Low, Laura Betzig, Helen Fisher, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, Susan Blackmore, Margot Wilson

    Yes, women are probably the most repressed “minority”, even though they constitute half the population. Half of people are female, so half of the scientists should be female. Is this the case? If not, what are the reasons? Is it culture and upbringing, or biological differences? Or both? Or neither? Bloggers should be judged a by the content of their posts, rather than on their gender – or “race”, age, favourite relish, etc

  25. #25 Jason
    September 22, 2007

    Sadly, Marie Curie.

    Why ‘sadly’? Because unfortunately if you had instead asked me “Name two female scientists”, Marie Curie would still be the only name I could come up with off the top of my head 🙁

    (Think I might spend a bit of time on Wikipedia doing some research on women scientists as penance)

  26. #26 Mike
    September 22, 2007

    My favourite woman scientist is Jenny Clack who works on early tetrapods and our ancestors’ transition from water to land, about which we’ve learned a great deal in the last couple of decades, much of it due to her finds and analysis. Her book, Gaining Ground, is excellent.

  27. #27 Alvaro
    September 22, 2007

    neuroanatomist Marian Diamond, for her amazing research on adult neurogenesis and environmental enrichment, and public education efforts

  28. #28 Thony C.
    September 23, 2007

    As we shall be celebrating the three-hundredth anniversary of her death next month I have to mention Maria Clara Eimmart 27.05.1676-28.10.1707 who was an astronomer in Nuremberg. Those of you who can read German can get the basics on her life here

  29. #29 Far Away
    September 23, 2007

    Maud Menten, as of Michaelis-Menten
    see :

    and the contemporary Mary Clair King

  30. #30 Rettaw
    September 24, 2007

    Lise Meitner was the first name to appear even thought I was trying to remeber the name Marie Curie, Emmy Nöther coming in soon after that.
    That’s about the entire list of historical female names I can tell you if I don’t get time to google for a bit.

  31. #31 Tara C. Smith
    September 24, 2007
  32. #32 Anonymous
    September 24, 2007

    Going anonymous only because my votes clearly identify my field (biological anthropology). I would choose Barbara Smuts, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Beverly Strassmann off the top of my head. Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey are obvious oldies but goodies. Leslie Aiello, Donna Baird… even people like Margie Profet, Elaine Morgan and Rose Frisch, who ultimately were wrong but pushed male scientists to start paying attention to fields they were largely ignoring. These are the women, and this is the research, everyone should know about.

  33. #33 Drugmonkey
    September 24, 2007

    My wife. The superwoman. The rock of my family who was recently nursing #3 while typing maniacally on the keyboard responding to idiot reviews for her subsequently accepted C/N/S paper. (I shoulda snapped a pic for Facebook on that one) The one where she had to navigate the psycho PI, kick the “I wanna be higher up in the author list” contributing postdocs into line, get the data out of the 1yr ago “see ya” postdoc who really should have finished the paper anyway and then rein in the crazy, “let’s do a whole ‘nother paper’s worth of experiments for things the reviewers didn’t even ask about” responses from the other contributors.

  34. #34 Veo Claramente
    September 24, 2007

    Laurie Glimcher. Immunologist extraordinaire at Harvard who also takes time to try and make the NIH funding system more supportive of women who are primary caregivers.

    Congrats on the move Sciencewoman!

  35. #35 Boble
    September 24, 2007

    My favorite woman scientist is Xiaowei Zhuang:
    She is a rising star and she did great work in interdisciplinary study, from Physics to Biology and to Chemistry, and even to Nano Science. Surely she is still in her early era of academic career(remember she is still very young), but I am expecting more great things from her.

    Mari Curie definitely came to my mind first but I decided to choose one woman scientist that is still active in research and I think this should be more inspirational.

  36. #36 Daniel Harper
    September 24, 2007

    So many names and still no Lynn Margulis? I say this in spite of her descent into HIV-denial in her later years — her work on the endosymbiont hypothesis was brilliant.

  37. #37 David
    September 24, 2007

    Easy, Emmy Noether, her theorem on the connection between symmetries and conservation laws is perhaps the most profound thing in all of classical physics. If I ever had a daughter she’d be called Emmy.

  38. #38 robert
    September 25, 2007

    No mention yet of Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin – crystallographer, mentor of Margaret Thatcher (no-one is perfect) and 1964 Nobel Prize winner? She was a real inspiration when I was a boy; I even got to meet her in later life. She had quite as much charisma as any grand old man – just a joy. Georgina Ferry has written a nice biography, which highlights her many achievements as well as the problems she had to overcome. She was, however, an appalling old school soggy liberal/communist fellow traveler, which must have done a lot for her in her dealings with Thatcher

  39. #39 Jenn
    September 25, 2007

    No developmental biologists around?

    My number one would be Christiane Nuesslein-Volhard, winner of the 1995 Nobel prize in medicine. She recently started a foundation to help young mothers in science in Germany. Check it out:

  40. #40 Lab Rat
    September 26, 2007

    Mildred Dresselhaus.

    We need more female physicist role models.

  41. #41 Stagyar zil Doggo
    September 26, 2007
  42. #42 Holly Stick
    September 26, 2007

    Hi there, I just happened to visit your website from Deltoid, and it just happens that a friend had posted this link today on a forum I frequent. More women physicists.

  43. #43 Sandra Kiume
    September 27, 2007

    Nobel laureate neurobiologist Linda Buck is among my favourites.

  44. #44 Chris
    September 27, 2007

    Lisa Randall, she’s so dreamy!

  45. #45 Chachi
    September 27, 2007

    Catherine Keever. Her dissertation work on old field succession in the North Carolina Piedmont was published in Ecological Monographs in 1950 and her work influenced ecological thought in the 1950s and 60s. My first ecology instructor described her as a pioneer in the field, especially at a time when there were very few women ecologists – and his old field succession unit in class sparked my interest in ecology/evolution.

  46. #46 Tracy
    October 2, 2007

    How about Rachel Carson? I don’t know much about her scientific work, but she was very influential in getting people to consider the ecological effects of their actions and purchases.

  47. #47 Sminthia
    October 2, 2007

    My current favorite is Abbie Lathrop. She was a retired schoolteacher who began raising mice in 1900. She published ten papers with Leo Loeb on the genetics and endocrinology of mammary tumors. Her mice were also progenitors of many of the lab mice used today, including C57BL/6, the first mouse to have its genome sequenced. She wasn’t trained as a scientist, but she displayed amazing powers of observation and attention to detail.

  48. #48 Sarah Dixon
    October 2, 2007

    Jane Goodall, she has spent her life not only studying chimpanzees and thus initiating a lot of discussion about what it means to be human, also she is totally dedicated to promoting their welfar. For me, you can’t separate your work and the wider political impacts and issues involved, and that is something I wish more people, including scientists, would take on board.

  49. #49 geciktirici
    December 23, 2007

    Marie Curie

  50. #50 kozmetik
    December 23, 2007

    Emmy Noether, contributed greatly to physics

  51. #51 Sicilian
    December 29, 2008

    Wow! I only knew of two before I read this, Marie Curie first to mind and Jane Woodall after I read the post also came to mind.
    Now I have a few more names under my belt.

  52. #52 saradee
    December 29, 2008

    I got into one of the biggest fights ever with my (ex)boyfriend of a decade or so because he, as a scientist trained at T.H.E. world’s most prestigiouis uni, couldn’t name many female scientists because… “Women haven’t truly contributed anything historically to intellectual advancement.”

    Rarely does one get a tiny peek inside what another person thinks so unfiltered, and believe me, that went on his permanent record. Nevermind any PC reasons as to the factors that went into such a conclusion by him, just focus on the fact that he ultimately married another (female) scientist. Who is just like him.

    Except she’s foreign, a minority, and bringing in bigger funding, press, and writing more papers than he could scarcely dream.

    And I am reminded that, as any type of feminist: What is harder to overcome, them or US?

  53. #53 Mark Mabanglo
    May 13, 2010

    Xiaowei Zhuang (Harvard) and Yizhi Jane Tao (Rice), two Chinese women scientists who are at the forefronts of virology. They are my inspiration as a budding scientist.

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