Women have made many great scientific achievements, despite the sexist attitudes that tried to hold them back.
When Vera Rubin was a 10-year-old girl in Washington, D.C., she watched enchanted as the night sky rotated outside her north-facing bedroom window. At 14, she made her first telescope from a cardboard tube. Her ardor was so intense that she won a scholarship to Vassar and was its only astronomy graduate in 1948.
She applied to Princeton’s renowned astronomy graduate program but found that it didn’t accept women. She finally earned a doctorate at Cornell and Georgetown universities—then discovered that male astronomers wouldn’t let her into their projects.
On her own, she began studying the rotation of galaxies—and made a historic breakthrough. She found that outer fringes of the spirals travel too fast to be balanced by gravity of the visible mass at their centers. Therefore, galaxies must contain invisible “dark matter” that supplied the extra mass.
Reluctantly, the scientific world slowly accepted her conclusion that nine-tenths of the universe is an unseen mystery. Belatedly, she was honored for her work. Belatedly, Princeton finally opened its graduate astronomy study to women in 1975.
National Geographic recently listed six other female scientists who made landmark advances but were pushed aside by the male-dominated scientific establishment. To wit:
- Jocelyn Bell was a graduate student in radio astronomy at England’s Cambridge University in 1967 when she detected the first pulsar, an incredibly dense ball of neutrons. The discovery won a Nobel Prize for two Cambridge superiors, with no recognition of Bell.
- Lise Meitner, born in Vienna in 1878, was first to discover how atoms can split in nuclear fission—but her supervisor, Otto Hahn, published the findings in his name alone, and won a 1944 Nobel Prize with no mention of her.
- In 1951, at the University of Wisconsin, Esther Lederberg discovered a virus that infects bacteria—and joined her husband in finding an easy way to transfer bacterial colonies from one Petri dish to another. Two other male biologists won a Nobel for the latter.
- Rosalind Franklin used x-ray photos in an attempt to learn the structure of DNA. James Watson and Francis Crick obtained one and used it to detect the famous double-helix, which won them a 1962 Nobel with no credit to Franklin.
- Born in 1861 in Vermont, Nettie Stevens earned a doctorate from Bryn Mawr College and studied animal reproduction. She was first to learn that X and Y chromosomes determine the sex of offspring—but males who wrote about it got the historic credit.
- Chien-Shiung Wu worked on the Manhattan Project at Columbia University during World War II. Later, two Chinese physicists asked her to perform research in an attempt to disprove a quantum mechanics premise called the “law of parity”. Her research succeeded—and the two physicists won a 1957 Nobel, with no mention of her.
Thank heaven, sexism in science finally is disappearing as young women flood U.S. universities and gradually gain equal access to research work. West Virginia’s celebrated National Youth Science Camp is attended by multitudes of brilliant girls just out of high school. Old-style discrimination must be stamped out entirely.
(Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine. This essay was originally published May 27, 2013.)