Women in Chemistry Are Not Named Marie Curie

Today is the 100th International Women’s Day. This year’s focus of the year is for equal access to education, training and science and technology with the overall aim of creating a pathway to decent work for women.

It is easy to sit in the relative comfort of your chair or lie in your bed tweeting and flipping through web pages faster than devouring magazines in salons and think that this is an issue exclusive in other countries. Other countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and those African nations always having some sort of civil war except for those nice ones where you can go on safaris to see the Big Five. It isn’t a problem for progressive developed nations embracing democracy.

Yesterday a list of the top 100 Chemists of the world from 2000-2010 was released. In the International Year of Chemistry, 100 years since the Nobel Prize was awarded to Madame Marie Curie, to look for women chemists on that list is akin to a search and rescue mission. There aren’t many on the list.

Here is a list of some of the female chemists that have contributed to society. Some of these women had to contend with sexist atmospheres in their professional lives but were still able to be recognised for their work. Things have improved in science today but they are far from perfect. Something to keep in the back of your mind as you go through this list.

Jacqueline Barton – Born in USA, 1952 –

Jacqueline Barton probes DNA with electrons. The electrons are shot through the DNA and custom built molecules direct the electrical currents. This allows for the location of genes to be determined and to see their arrangement as well as to scan for damage. These techniques have the potential to result in new techniques to diagnose diseases and treat them through direct DNA repair.

She co-founded GeneOhm Sciences in 2001 which became part of Becton, Dickinson and Company in 2006.

Ruth Benerito – Born in USA, 1916

The 1930s and 1940s saw the invention of synthetic fibres like nylon and polyester. Suddenly, clothes no longer needed ironing or pressing. Cotton farmers started to worry. Despite cotton feeling more comfortable and cooler against the skin, people were chasing clothes made from the new low maintenance fabrics.

Ruth Benerito developed a method for creating cotton that was wrinkle resistant. The technique also made the cotton flame resistant and stain resistant.

Ruth Erica Benesch – Born in Paris, 1925-2000

Ruth Erica Benesch together with her husband Reinhold Benesch, (1919-1986) found the mechanism of haemoglobin releasing its oxygen as it travels throughout the body. It turned out that the build up of carbon dioxide signals to a haemoglobin molecule that a cell has used up available oxygen and needs another supply. This ensures that oxygen is released to where it is needed most in the body.

Carolyn Bertozzi – Born in USA, 1966 –

Carolyn Bertozzi has helped design artificial bones that mimic the chemistry of real bones. This reduces the risk of reactions or rejections. She has also helped develop contact lenses which are eyeball friendly as the materials that go into them resemble the surface of the eye.

Marie Curie – Born in Poland, 1867–1934

Marie Curie pioneered radioactivity research. Besides being the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize, she was also the first person to be awarded two Nobel Prizes and is still the only person to win this award in two different sciences, Chemistry and Physics. Marie Curie was the first female professor at the Sorbonne.

Iréne Joliot-Curie – Born in Paris, 1897 – 1956

The daughter of Marie Curie who was a successful chemist in her own right. She was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1935 which she shared jointly with her husband for synthesising new radioactive elements.

Edith Flanigen – Born in USA, 1929 –

Edith Flanigen worked in developing the technology behind molecular sieves. Molecular sieves are crystal compounds designed to to work like strainers at the molecular level. The sieves have specific sized pores to filter and separate the components of a complex mixture. These molecular sieves have become critical pieces of equipment in refining petroleum and petrochemicals. Edith Flanigen worked on a substance called zeolite Y and it has the ability to break crude oil into different parts to be refined and used ina wide range of commercial applications.

In the 1960s Edith Flanigen created a process to manufacture synthetic emeralds. An obvious application is that these are used widely in jewellery. Importantly, the synthetic emeralds are flawless and it became possible to create powerful lasers. In 1992, Edith Flanigen became the first woman to be awarded a Perkin Medal for her work with zeolites.

Rosalind Franklin – Born in Great Britain, 1920-1958

Rosalind Franklin used x-ray crystallography to determine the structure of DNA. Her data was used by Watson and Crick to propose the double stranded helical structure of DNA. She died of ovarian cancer before the determination of the structure of DNA was recognised by the Nobel Foundation. The Nobel Prize is only awarded to living persons so she was not included in the 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin Born in Great Britain, 1910 -1994

Dorothy Crawford Hodgkin advanced the techniques of x-ray crystallography to determine the three dimensional structures of molecules in biology. She has been credited for starting protein crystallography. She confirmed the structure of penicillin that was inferred by Ernst Boris Chain as well as determining the structure of Vitamin B12. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964.

M. Katharine Holloway Born in USA, 1957 – and Chen Zhao 1956 –

Two female Chemists working in separate research teams that developed protease inhibitors to inactivate HIV which has resulted in extending the lives of AIDS patients. These inhibitors are taken together with other HIV medications. When first made available, the death rates in the USA decreased by approximately 70%.

Lise Meitner, Born in Austria, 1878 – 1968

Lise Meitner collaborated with Otto Hahn studying radioactivity for 30 years at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Berlin. In 1922 Lise Mietner discovered the Auger effect while searching for nuclear beta electrons. After Austria was annexed by Germany, Lise Mietner was forced to move to Sweden where she continued her work at Manne Siegbahn’s institute in Stockholm with little support due to a prejudice against women in science.

Lise Meitner continued to met with Otto Hahn in secrecy in Copenhagen to plan the next round of experiments. These experiments provided evidence for nuclear fission. Otto Hahn published the findings in January 1939 and Lise Meitner published the first theoretical explanation for the observations with her nephew, physicist Otto Fricsh naming the process nuclear fission.

In 1944, Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry and Lise Meitner was ignored. In 1966 Lise Meitner’s role in the discovery of nuclear fission was finally recognised when she, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman were awarded with the Enrico Fermi Award.

Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze – Born in France, 1758-1836

Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze was the wife and colleague of the chemist Antoine Lavoiser. Her training from the painter Jacques-Louis David enabled her to accurately draw experimental apparatus. This allowed other chemists to understand the methods and results of Antoine Lavoiser’s work. She was also the editor of his reports.

Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze was fluent in English, Latin and French allowing her to translate articles into French for her husband to read. This proved invaluable to Antoine Lavoiser as not only he was able to keep up to date with the developments in chemistry but also allowed him to debunk the idea of phlogiston leading to studies in combustion and the discovery of oxygen.

Thirteen drawings that showed all the laboratory instrumentation and equipment used by the Lavoisiers in their experiments in the publication of Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, (Lavoisier’s Elementary Treatise on Chemistry) were drawn by Marie-Anne Peirette Paulze. This book presented the ideas like the conservation of mass, a list of new elements and a new system of naming chemicals.

Here ends the list. The majority of the names of these women do not grace the pages of chemistry textbooks yet the names of many male chemists are weaved in through the chemical information. There is much lamenting over a lack of suitable women role models in chemistry. Perhaps people just aren’t looking in any of the right places.


Filed under chemistry365, Science

5 responses to “Women in Chemistry Are Not Named Marie Curie

  1. Great post! I wrote a similar smaller post on my blog some time ago. People posted some interesting comments with links to more information if you are interested link http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2004/jul/02/britishidentity.gender

    • It seemed fitting for International Women’s Day especially after the publishing of the top 100 chemists of the last decade with very few women featured. I am intrigued by the suggestion that the more that a woman is seen, the less her worth as an intellectual but yet it’s perfectly okay for a man to be seen more. I don’t buy it.

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  3. Pingback: Chemistry girl awesomeness | Girls rock and science is cool!

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