Behind Every Great Man is a Great Woman

Updated: May 14, 2019

Written By: Madeleine Salem


Neil Armstrong and the first moon landing. Watson and Crick and the double-helix DNA model. Charles Babbage and computer programming.


You're probably very familiar with these pioneering scientific breakthroughs and the men they are accredited to. History has immortalized these men as geniuses and scientific revolutionaries, recognizing them as the sole figureheads of their particular discoveries, but it has also erased the names of the women who made those discoveries possible. This is due, in part, to a phenomenon known as the Matilda Effect.


Luckily, the accomplishments and contributions of these remarkable women are finally being brought to light, and the women are finally receiving the recognition they deserve. The movie Hidden Figures (2016) features Katherine Johnson, the woman who performed the calculations mapping the path to the moon; Dorothy Vaughan, whose computer programming expertise helped NASA for many years; and Mary Jackson, who made history as NASA's first female, black engineer, as its main protagonists. Students all over the country learn as early as high school about Rosalind Franklin and her x-ray crystallography work that revealed the double-helix structure of DNA to Nobel Prize winners Watson and Crick in their biology books. Ada Lovelace's creation, the very first computer programming algorithm, is what allowed Charles Babbage's analytical engine to function. Her work is finally being acknowledged widely. While there has been substantial progress in recognizing women in STEM throughout the centuries, there are so many others whose names and accomplishments have been lost between the pages of our history books. It's time we stop adhering to the age-old saying that "behind every great mean is an even greater woman." It's time we cast a spotlight on the ladies who were cast into the shadows of their male colleagues - not just as contributors to major STEM breakthroughs, but as geniuses and scientific revolutionaries in their own right.


Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner was an Austrian scientist whose work was integral to expanding humanity's knowledge of chemistry. She and her partner, Otto Hahn, among other achievements such as the discovery of the element protactinium, used uranium to discover nuclear fission of heavy atomic nuclei during the late 1930's/ At the time these findings were published, Meitner was seeking refuge in Sweden after the German annexation of Austria, where she struggled to find support for her scientific endeavors at Manne Siegbahn's research institute due to attitudes of sexism and discrimination. This estrangement from partner Otto Hahn and difficulty establishing herself in the new lab played a major role in her exclusion from the 1944 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for discovering nuclear fission, which was awarded solely to Hahn.


Fortunately, Meitner was later awarded with the Enrico Fermi Award for her work, and had the heaviest known element - Meitnerium - named in her honor.


Jocelyn Bell-Burnell

Jocelyn Bell-Burnell is a British astrophysicist who, as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, made a significant contribution to astronomy when she noticed some anomalies while monitoring quasars through a radio telescope. After extensive study, she and her research team reached the conclusion that the anomalies were a product of pulsating neutron stars radiating radio waves and appropriately deemed them 'pulsars.' The findings were published in the science journal Nature in its February 1968 issue, and Bell-Burnell was widely celebrated for her discovery. However, it was two other male astronomers on her research tam that received the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics for the achievement.


Years later, on September 6, 2018, Bell-Burnell was finally given an award recognizing her contribution to such a revolutionary discovery in astrophysics: the $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. In an interview with space. com, she revealed that she plans to use the money "to fund research students - graduate students, particularly students from underrepresented groups in physics," a cause she has been passionate about for years, given she herself was a minority in her field when she made her groundbreaking discovery.


Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper was both a Rear Admiral for the U.S. Navy as well as a pioneering computer scientist. In addition to developing the still widely-used computer programming language COBOL, helping to devise the first commercial electronic computer, and coining 'bug' as a term for computer failures, Hopper was one of the first computer scientists recruited to work on the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, or Mark I, the predecessor of today's modern electronic computer, that was used in the later stages of World War II. While John von Neumann is recognized for starting up Mark I's first program, it was Hopper that developed one of the first computer programming language compiler tools used for Mark I and invented the code that was used to program it.

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