Pioneering Women Of Science

Updated: Mar 23

by Jeff Hulett, January 14, 2017

This list started as a compulsion. It is inspired by the movie Hidden Figures. It is dedicated to my wife, daughter, sisters and mom. It started by recognizing amazing women of science. Those that may have been overlooked by history. It was interesting how, after I started noticing, the more I became aware of their story. I felt compelled to notice them, to learn about them, to pay them respect.

These brilliant women of science often did not not receive the credit as they were due. In the case of Florence Nightingale, she is certainly well known for her Crimean war effort in medicine and nursing. Not as well known are her accomplishments as a rock star statistician and data visualizer. 

I also included men that were especially progressive encouraging women in science. 

I periodically add to the list via my curiosity exploration. For example, I so appreciate the story of Alan Turing and the British Nazi codebreakers. They truly helped save the world from Nazi tyranny. But did you know Turing was surrounded by an army of accomplished female codebreakers called WRENS? It was the individual and organizational brilliance of the WRENS that enabled codebreaking success and likely saved millions of lives.

The one thing I know for sure, this list is not close to completion. Honestly, it probably never will be complete. Please, let me know who should be added. Who is your favorite woman of science? I’m especially curious for the story about your favorite woman of science.

The pioneering women of science:

Henrietta Swan Leavitt - Astronomy

Katherine Johnson - Mathematics

Barbara Burks - Psychology and Statistics

Grace Hopper - Mathematics and Computer Science

Rosalind Elsie Franklin - Chemistry and Genetics

Florence Nightingale - Medicine and Statistics

Joan Violet Robinson - Economist

Women’s Royal Navy Service (Wrens) - Cryptography

Jill Bolte Taylor - Neuroanatomy

Ada Lovelace - Mathematics and Computer Science

Notable progressive men:

John Stuart Mill

William Graham Sumner

Henrietta Swan Leavitt (July 4, 1868 – December 12, 1921)

Leavitt was an American astronomer. A graduate of Radcliffe College, she worked at the Harvard College Observatory as a "computer", tasked with examining photographic plates in order to measure and catalog the brightness of stars. This work led her to discover the relation between the luminosity and the period of Cepheid variables. Though she received little recognition in her lifetime, Leavitt's discovery provided astronomers with the first "standard candle" with which to measure the distance to faraway galaxies. After her death, Edwin Hubble used Leavitt's luminosity–period relation, together with the galactic spectral shifts first measured by Vesto Slipher at Lowell Observatory, in order to establish that the universe is expanding (see Hubble's law).

Katherine Johnson (born August 26, 1918)

Johnson is an American mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics as a NASA employee were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. crewed spaceflights. During her 35-year career at NASA and its predecessor, she earned a reputation for mastering complex manual calculations and helped pioneer the use of computers to perform the tasks. The space agency noted her "historical role as one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist"

Johnson's work included calculating trajectories, launch windows and emergency return paths for Project Mercury spaceflights, including those for astronauts Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and John Glenn, the first American in orbit, and rendezvous paths for the Apollo Lunar Module and command module on flights to the Moon. Her calculations were also essential to the beginning of the Space Shuttle program, and she worked on plans for a mission to Mars. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Johnson was featured in the movie Hidden Figures

Barbara Burks (December 22, 1902—May 25, 1943)

Burks was an American psychologist known for her research on the nature-nurture debate as it pertained to intelligence and other human traits. She has been credited with "[ing] the statistical techniques which continue to ground the trenchant nature/nurture debates about intelligence in American psychology.

Burks was involved with Eugenics.  Burks’ use of the method of path analysis, which had been invented not long before by the geneticist Sewall Wright (1923), was decades ahead of its time .


From Sapolsky’s book Behave - “the more genomically complex the organism, the larger the percentage of the genome devoted to gene regulation by the environment.” A round house punch to to Eugenics.  

Though, as mentioned by Judea Pearl in the Book of Why, Burks use of Path analysis to drive causality was ground breaking and under appreciated. “To the best of my knowledge, the first person to explicitly represent a mediator with a diagram was a Stanford graduate student named Barbara Burks, in 1926. This very little-known pioneer in women’s science is one of the true heroes of this book. There is reason to believe that she actually invented path diagrams independently of Sewall Wright.

Grace Hopper (1906-1992)

The nickname ‘Amazing Grace’ was not bestowed upon Grace Hopper without merit. An intuitive mathematician and computer programmer, she spent her early years studying at some of the most prestigious institutions in America, ultimately becoming one of the first women to achieve a PhD in mathematics. When World War II descended, Hopper followed in her grandfather’s footsteps, leaving her job teaching math at Vassar College to join the US Naval Reserves. She was directed to Harvard University to learn to program the Mark I, the first functional computer. When technology had advanced to the Mark II computer, Hopper famously coined the term ‘debugging’ when the programming team removed a moth that was disrupting the computer’s processing. Grace endeavored to make computing accessible to the general public, first and foremost through the development of a comprehensive computer language, COBOL, which was based on English words rather than binary code. Twice she tried to retire but ended up continuing to work into her 80s, making her the US Navy’s oldest active-duty commissioned officer and earning her the Defense Distinguished Service Medal. She was also awarded many firsts including the first ever Computer Science Man-of-the-Year Award, the first female National Medal of Technology and the first American and first ever woman to be made a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. Her legacy remains in that modern-day computing is now commonplace and through the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference, which supports and commends women in the world of computing.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) - suffragist, advocating for equality of women, wrote The Subjugation of Women

William Graham Sumner (1840-1910)- very progressive on women’s issues - wrote Folkways

Rosalind Elsie Franklin (25 July 1920 – 16 April 1958

Franklin was an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer whose work was central to the understanding of the molecular structures of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), RNA (ribonucleic acid), viruses, coal, and graphite.[2] Although her works on coal and viruses were appreciated in her lifetime, her contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA were largely recognized posthumously.

Franklin is best known for her work on the X-ray diffraction images of DNA, particularly Photo 51, while at King's College London, which led to the discovery of the DNA double helix for which James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. Watson suggested that Franklin would have ideally been awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, along with Wilkins, but, although there was not yet a rule against posthumous awards,[6] the Nobel Committee generally does not make posthumous nominations

After finishing her work on DNA, Franklin led pioneering work at Birkbeck on the molecular structures of viruses. Her team member Aaron Klug continued her research, winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982

Florence Nightingale (12 May 1820 – 13 August 1910)

She was described by Edward Cook, one of her biographers, as a passionate statistician." A Compulsive collector of data in the tradition of Galton, she was also an enthusiastic admirer of the work of Quetelet, which inspired her pioneering work in medical and other social statistics. See Kendall and Plackett, 1977, pp.

Nightingale came to prominence while serving as a manager and trainer of nurses during the Crimean War, in which she organized care for wounded soldiers. She gave nursing a favorable reputation and became an icon of Victorian culture, especially in the persona of "The Lady with the Lamp" making rounds of wounded soldiers at night.

See Wikipedia. 

Joan Violet Robinson (31 October 1903 – 5 August 1983)

She was a British economist well known for her wide-ranging contributions to economic theory. She was a central figure in what became known as post-Keynesian economics.

As a member of "the Cambridge School" of economics, Robinson contributed to the support and exposition of Keynes' General Theory, writing especially on its employment implications in 1936 and 1937 (it attempted to explain employment dynamics in the midst of the Great Depression).

In 1933 her book The Economics of Imperfect Competition, Robinson coined the term "monopsony," which is used to describe the buyer converse of a seller monopoly. Monopsony is commonly applied to buyers of labor, where the employer has wage setting power that allows it to exercise Pigouvian exploitation and pay workers less than their marginal productivity. Robinson used monopsony to describe the wage gap between women and men workers of equal productivity.

In 1942 Robinson's An Essay on Marxian Economics famously concentrated on Karl Marx as an economist, helping to revive the debate on this aspect of his legacy.

In 1956 Robinson published her magnum opus, The Accumulation of Capital, which extended Keynesianism into the long run.

Zach Carter, in his book, The Price of Peace, said “Robinson would be the most accomplished economist of any gender ever passed over for the Nobel Prize.”  Also, Carter compared Robinson to R Franklin in terms of being overlooked in deference to other male scientists. 

Women’s Royal Navy Service (Wrens, WW2 Nazi code breakers)

“(Alan) Turing and a rapidly expanding circle of mathematicians, linguists, engineers, technicians, clerks, and chess players, assisted by an indispensable corps of Wrens (Women’s Royal Navy Service), were sequestered at a Buckinghamshire estate known as Bletchley Park for the duration of World War II.” - George Dyson, Darwin Among The Machines

About 8,000 women worked in Bletchley Park, the central site for British cryptanalysts during World War II. Women constituted roughly 75% of the workforce there.

Jill Bolte Taylor (born May 4, 1959)

Bolte Taylor is an American neuroanatomist, author, and inspirational public speaker.

Bolte Taylor began to study severe mental illnesses because she wanted to understand what makes the brain function the way it does and the cause between her dreams being distinguished from reality while her brother cannot disconnect his dreams from reality, making them a delusion. Dr. Taylor began working in a lab in Boston where they were mapping out the brain to figure out which cells communicate with which cells. On December 10, 1996, Dr. Taylor had a stroke — a blood vessel had erupted on the left side of her brain. She had been able to witness her own brain begin to shut down. Within a span of four hours, she could not speak, read, walk, write or remember anything from her past. Dr. Taylor compares her stroke to being like an infant again.

Bolte Taylor is the only brain scientist I'm aware that has actually traveled into their brain as an explorer. Dr. Bolte Taylor did this as a result of a stroke. Her first hand account of her experience is extraordinary. Her book is called My Stroke Of Insight.

Ada Lovelace (December 10, 1815 to November 27, 1852)

Lovelace was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron. She was an English mathematician and writer, chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage's proposed mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. She was the first to recognize that the machine had applications beyond pure calculation, and to have published the first algorithm intended to be carried out by such a machine. As a result, she is often regarded as one of the first computer programmers.

Research sources: 


  • The information is from Wikipedia, unless otherwise noted.

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