Special Report

The Most Influential Women in Science

Source: PDTillman via Wikimedia Commons

Gerty Cori
>Profession: Biochemist
>Lived: 1896-1957
>Birthplace: Prague, Czech Republic
>Most noted accomplishment: First American woman to win a science Nobel Prize

Gerty Cori and her husband, Carl Ferdinand Cori, both with medical degrees and with similar research credentials, emigrated to the United States where they became citizens and worked together studying how sugar is processed by the human body. Despite their intellectual equality and shared research, Cori held lesser academic posts and was excluded from many honors awarded to her husband. She was, however, awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, along with her husband, in 1947, for their work in understanding of how sugar is metabolized, making her the third woman and the first American woman to win the prize.

Source: Ben Gabbe / Getty Images

Sylvia Earle
>Profession: Oceanographer and explorer
>Birthplace: New Jersey
>Most noted accomplishment: Exploration of the oceans

In pursuing her Ph.D in botany, Sylvia Earle wrote her thesis on ocean algae. Since then, she has spent her life studying, exploring, and writing about the ocean, leading numerous oceanic expeditions around the world, and making groundbreaking discoveries about the ocean and ocean life. An early user of scuba equipment, Earle also helped design a submersible undersea rover able to reach a depth of 3,000 feet. She, herself, has descended 1,250 feet, setting the world’s untethered diving record. Throughout her career Earle had held many scientific posts, including serving as the first female chief scientist for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Geographic’s first female explorer in residence, writing books, and making films about ocean conservation.

Gertrude Elion
>Profession: Biochemist and pharmacologist
>Lived: 1918-1999
>Birthplace: New York City
>Most noted accomplishment: Leukemia treatment

Gertrude Elion struggled to get a foothold in science after earning a master’s degree in biochemistry from New York University. She worked as a secretary and lab assistant before earning a true partnership with researcher George Herbert Hitchings, with whom she worked for 30 years. Together they discovered treatments for a number of diseases, including leukemia, gout, malaria and meningitis, by diverging from the traditional approach to medicine, which was, essentially, trial and error. Instead, using their own “rational drug design” techniques they studied the differences between normal human cells and cancer cells, viruses and bacteria, and then devised medications that targeted the disease cells. After Hitchings retired, Elion’s continued research opened the door to the later development of drugs to treat AIDS. Soon after, in 1988, she, along with Hitchings and Sir W. James Black, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Henrietta Leavitt
>Profession: Astronomer
>Lived: 1868-1921
>Birthplace: Massachusetts
>Most noted accomplishment: Standardizing the measurement of stars’ brightness

With a degree from Radcliffe College, Henrietta Leavitt began her career as an astronomer by volunteering at the Harvard Observatory. Seven years later, she became a permanent staff member, working on a project to measure the brightness of stars. Using reference stars and photographs of stars from around the world, Leavitt devised a new kind of analysis to standardize the determination of stellar magnitude. She further distinguished herself by finding patterns in the luminosity of pulsating stars, referred to as variable stars, and, from the resulting calibrations, astronomers were able to determine the distance of stars, opening up scientific understanding of the size of the universe and the existence of other galaxies. While doing her research, Leavitt discovered 2,400 variable stars, more than doubling the number previously known.

Source: Brews ohare via Wikimedia Commons

Inge Lehmann
>Profession: Seismologist
>Birthplace: Denmark
>Most noted accomplishment: Discovered the inner core of the Earth

>Lived: 1888-1993

Inge Lehmann spent her entire career as head of the Seismological Department of the Royal Danish Geodetic Institute, where she managed seismic stations in Denmark and Greenland. Studying seismograph data and the movement of seismic waves, Lehman postulated the existence of a solid inner core within the Earth’s liquid outer core — existence that was verified in the 1970s. She also discovered a discontinuity, or boundary region, between the outer and inner cores, and a second discontinuity within the Earth’s upper mantle. Both discontinuities were subsequently named after her. In addition to her research, Lehmann was a cofounder of the Danish Geophysical Society, which she chaired for a number of years.

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