32 Women Who’ve Changed Life As We Know It
On this final day of Women’s History Month, let’s take a moment to honor some of the women who have made indelible contributions to our understanding of the world and who continue to inspire people of every gender, race, and ability to achieve in the face of daunting odds.
Margaret E. Knight – The Brown Paper Bag (1868)
Knight invented a machine that folded and glued paper into the flat-bottomed paper bag still ubiquitous today. A man named Charles Annan stole her design and patented it, but Knight sued him for patent interference. She secured her patent in 1871 and went on to establish the Eastern Paper Bag Co.
Mary Anderson – Windshield Wipers (1903)
Anderson, was an established real estate developer, rancher, and wine grower. On a visit to New York City in 1902, she noticed a trolley operator driving with the front windshield open because the sleet kept icing it over. A year later, Anderson patented her design for the first spring-loaded windshield wiper. Car manufacturers spent two decades balking at the idea, until Cadillac adopted it, and the rest is history.
Elizabeth Magie – Monopoly (1904)
Inspired by the writings of economist and social reformer, Henry George, Magie created The Landlord’s Game,the precursor to Monopoly, to demonstrate the negative effects of land monopolism. It was patented in 1904, then revised and re-patented in 1924. Unfortunately, her status as the game’s inventor was not uncovered during her lifetime.
Caresse Crosby a.k.a. Mary Phelps Jacob – The Modern Bra (1914)
Fed up with the restrictive armor of whalebone corsets while getting ready for a ball, Crosby used two silk pocket handkerchiefs, a pink ribbon, and some thread to fashion a simple bra, which would become the model for her “backless brassiere” patented in 1914. Lighweight, soft, and comfortable, Crosby’s design brought an end to the dreaded monobosom.
Alice Ball – Leprosy Treatment (1915)
At the age of 23, this African-American chemist developed the most effective treatment of leprosy during the early 20th century. She figured out how to make the oil of the chaulmoogra tree injectable and absorbable by the body. Her untimely death at age 24 resulted in another chemist, Arthur Dean, taking credit for her work. He was eventually outed by Ball’s advisor and mentor, Dr. Harry T. Hollmann.
Emmy Noether – Noether’s Theorem (1920)
Described by Albert Einstein as the most important woman in the history of mathematics, Noether developed a mathematical principle that explains the connection between symmetry and conservation laws. Noether’s Theorem became the foundation of quantum physics and helped Einstein formulate his general theory of relativity.ADVERTISEMENT – CONTINUE READING BELOW
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin – Composition of Stars (1925)
In her doctoral thesis at Radcliffe, this astronomer and astrophysicist proposed that stars were composed of hydrogen and helium—a radical notion at the time, which was soundly rejected by those believing that the Sun and Earth were composed of the same elements. She was also the first to connect the spectral classes of stars to their temperatures.
Irène Curie – Artificial Radioactivity (1935)
Curie took after her mother, Marie, becoming the second woman in history to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of artificial radioactivity, which she achieved jointly with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie. The ability to transform one element into another was rapidly adopted in the medical field, where the use of radioactive materials in medicines was fast expanding.
Hedy Lamarr – Radio Guidance System for Allied Torpedoes (1942)
In addition to her seminal work as a film star, Lamarr was a self-taught inventor who came up with the idea for a frequency-hopping signal that could not be tracked or jammed. She commissioned composer and pianist George Antheil to help her develop the system, which synchronized a self-playing piano with radio signals. It was patented in 1942. An update of their design was used on Navy ships during the Cuban missile crisis.
Rear Admiral Grace Hopper – Programmer of the Harvard Mark I (1944)
A computer science pioneer, Hopper was one of the first people to program the Harvard Mark I. While a Senior Programmer at Remington Rand, she worked on the first large-scale computer, the UNIVAC, and lead the team that invented COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language), a user-friendly programming language still in use today.
Rosalind Franklin – The Double Helix Form of DNA (1951)
A chemist and X-ray crystallographer, Franklin played a pivotal role in the discovery of the molecular structures of DNA and RNA. She applied her expertise in X-ray diffraction techniques to reveal the helical structure of DNA and observed that DNA fibers would change in length when wet or dry.
Patsy Sherman – Scotchguard (1952)
Sherman had been assigned to develop a material that could be used for jet fuel hoses, but a fluorochemical rubber spill in the laboratory resulted in her discovery of Scotchguard, a repellent for oil, water, and other solvents, which ultimately became the most widely used soil removal product in the U.S.
Katherine Johnson – Orbital Mechanics of Manned Spaceflights (1950s)
During her 35-year career at NASA, this African-American mathematician was known for her abilities to manually process the complex calculations that sent the first Americans into space. Johnson’s work was instrumental in launching the Space Shuttle Program and is still used in plans for a mission to Mars. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. She’s featured in the 2016 film Hidden Figures.
Mary Jackson – Supersonic Pressure Tunnel (1958)
NASA’s first African-American female aerospace engineer (also celebrated in Hidden Figures), Jackson analyzed wind tunnel data and conducted aircraft flight experiments to improve the aerodynamics of planes. She’d earned the most senior title in NASA’s engineering department when she chose to relinquish that salary and status to manage the Federal Women’s Program and the Affirmative Action Program, where she advocated for women in science, engineering, and mathematics careers at NASA.
Marie Van Brittan Brown – Home Security System (1969)
Van Brittan Brown and her husband, Albert, invented the home security system in response to the rising crime rates and slow police responses in their Queens neighborhood. The radio-controlled wireless system operated a camera that would send images of entry points to a monitor or TV screen inside the residence. It was patented in 1969 and is still in use today.
Vera Rubin – Dark Matter (1960)
This astronomer’s pioneering research proposed that 90 percent of the universe’s mass has never been seen. Her discovery of the galaxy rotation problem revealed the existence of dark matter, prompting what The New York Times described as a “Copernican-scale change” in cosmological theory.
Maria Goeppert Mayer – Nuclear Shell Model (1963)
Mayer developed a mathematical model of the atomic nucleus that describes its structure in terms of energy levels, which made her the second woman in history (after Marie Curie in 1903) to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. Her model explained why certain numbers of nucleons make for stable atomic configurations. During World War II, she worked on isotope separation for the Manhattan Project. After her death in 1972, an award was created in her name to honor young female physicists launching into promising careers.ADVERTISEMENT – CONTINUE READING BELOW
Jocelyn Bell Burnell – Radio Pulsars (1967)
As a post-graduate, Burnell discovered radio pulsars, highly magnetized neutron stars that give off a beam of electromagnetic radiation, effectively pulsing their light at the Earth as they spin. The 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics recognized this discovery, and yet Burnell was not a recipient because of her student status at the time.
Stephanie Kwolek – Kevlar (1971)
In 1965, Kwolek created a liquid crystalline polymer solution that could be melt-spun into a fiber five times stronger than steel by weight and could be made even stronger when heated. Modern Kevlar, introduced in 1971, is now used in more than 200 products, from fire fighter boots, parachute lines, and airplanes to bridge reinforcements, hurricane safe rooms, armored cars, and bullet-proof vests.
Barbara S. Askins – Photographic Emulsions (1978)
Askins, a chemist who worked for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, won the National Inventor of the Year award in 1978 for her invention of a process that intensified underexposed photographic negatives, revealing detail in images from deep space. Her method was also used in the medical field to improve X-ray images, which meant that doctors could decrease the amount of radiation exposure for patients during tests.
Temple Grandin – Humane Treatment of Livestock, Autism Spokesperson (1980)
Professor of animal science at Colorado State, Grandin is internationally renowned both for her groundbreaking work in animal husbandry as well as her advocacy for people with autism. She was one of the first scientists to show that animals are sensitive to environmental details in handling facilities. She also invented a therapeutic, stress-relieving device designed to calm people with autism spectrum disorders.
Flossie Wong-Staal – HIV-1 Mapping (1983)
Wong-Staal was the first to clone HIV, proving that HIV is the cause of AIDS. She also completed genetic mapping of the virus, which made it possible to develop blood tests for HIV. As Chief Scientific Officer at iTherX Pharmaceuticals, she continues to develop new drugs to fight AIDS and other diseases.
Rachel Zimmerman – Blissymbol Printer (1984)
At the age of 12, Zimmerman invented the Blissymbol Printer, which helps people with physical disabilities communicate via symbols that get translated into written language. What began as a project for a school science fair ended up competing at the World Exhibition of Achievement of Young Inventors. Zimmerman now works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she develops innovations combining space technology and assistive intelligence.
Olga D. González-Sanabria – Long Cycle-Life Nickel-Hydrogen Batteries (1987)
Director of Systems Management and the highest ranking Hispanic at NASA Glenn Research Center, González-Sanabria played a critical role in the development of the long cycle-life batteries that power the International Space Station. She has since won the NASA Medal for Outstanding Leadership and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal.
Sally Fox – Organic Cotton Breeder (1989)
Fox revolutionized the textile industry through her work as a pollinator trying to breed more pest-resistant plants. She created two naturally colored cottons that earned the plant equivalent of a patent and launched a $10 million company called Foxfibre Colorganic. Foxfire cotton supplies the granddaddies of the garment industry, including Levi’s, Land’s End, Esprit, and L. L. Bean among others.
Mary-Claire King – BRCA Gene (1990)
After years of research seeking a genetic marker indicating the presence of breast cancer in families, King identified what she called the BRCA Gene, proving that the disease can be inherited. Her discovery was received with deep skepticism at the time given that scientists believed cancer was viral. King is also credited with proving that humans and chimpanzees share 99 percent of the same genes. She has applied her research in genomic sequencing to accurately identify victims of human rights abuses, namely children stolen from their families during Argentina’s military dictatorship in the 70s and 80s.
Ann Tsukamoto – Stem Cell Isolation (1991)
Tsukamoto and her colleagues were the first scientists to identify and isolate blood-forming stem cells. Patented in 1991—the first of 12 patents related to her research—Tsukamoto has furthered the understanding of the circulatory systems of cancer patients, inching the field ever closer to a cure. Her current work with Stem Cells, Inc. involves the isolation of liver and neural stem cells as they pertain to a variety of diseases.
Adriana Ocampo – Chicxulub Impact Crater (1996)
Planetary geologist and Science Program Manager at NASA, Ocampo’s numerous research expeditions to the Chicxulub Crater in the Yucatán Peninsula have resulted in the widely accepted theory that the impact that formed the crater also triggered the extinction of more than 50 percent of Earth’s species. She has worked on NASA’s Juno Mission to Jupiter, the New Horizons mission to Pluto, and the OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sample mission. Ocampo was named one of the 50 Most Important Women in Science by Discover Magazine.
Patricia Billings – Geobond (1997)
A sculptor and inventor, Billings combined her passions in an effort to preserve her plaster of Paris sculptures. She devised a mixture of concrete and gypsum that is fire-proof, non-toxic, and indestructible, which was immediately recognized for its use as a non-carcinogenic ingredient in construction materials. Patented in 1997, Geobond International continues to manufacture the leading building plaster in the U.S. currently used in place of asbestos.
Ruzena Bajcsy – Robotics and AI (2000s)
Founder and director of the University of Pennsylvania’s General Robotics and Active Sensory Perception Laboratory and now Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Berkeley, Bajcsy has conducted leading research in machine perception and AI. Her innovative advancements in robotics and computer vision landed her a seat on the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee from 2003-05. With more than 225 journal articles, 25 book chapters, and 66 technical reports to her name, she was awarded the 2009 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science.
Nergis Malvalvala – Gravitational Waves (2015)
An astrophysicist best known for her role in the first direct observation of gravitational waves in 2015, Malvalvala has also made great strides in the understanding of “exotic quantum states of light,” which have applications in experimental physics. Her experiments with laser cooling macroscopic objects have laid the groundwork for observing quantum behavior more easily. Winner of the 2014 LGBTQ Scientist of the Year award, she has since been honored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York as a Great Immigrant Award recipient.
Donna Strickland – Laser Beam Intensity (2018)
The third woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics (and the first since Mayer in ’63), Strickland and two other physicists have significantly advanced the science of lasers. Along with Dr. Gerard Mourou of France, Strickland devised a technology for creating short, powerful laser pulses which magnify laser beam intensity. The technique, called Chirped Pulse Amplification, has been used in corrective eye surgeries and as a cancer targeting therapy.