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These Women Had To Overcome the Impossible To Make It In Science

Maria Merian Changed How the World Saw Insects

Before Maria Sibylla Merian began studying insects, many 17th-century scientists considered them “gross” and unworthy of study. But Merian knew better. A skilled artist and dedicated naturalist, she illustrated and described previously unknown traits of dozens of insect species. The stepdaughter of a still life artist, Merian began collecting and drawing insects, spiders, and plants at 13. Between 1675 and 1678, she published her three volumes of scientific illustrations. Then, in 1699, Merian went on a research expedition in Suriname to collect insect and plant specimens.

A few years after returning from the expedition, Merian published her greatest work, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, establishing her as an authority in the field. Her book is considered one of the most important in the history of entomology, the study of insects. Merian’s remarkable drawings and detailed descriptions were the first virtual record of insect metamorphosis. This altered our understanding of insects and advanced the field of entomology. The 1980s renewed interest in Merian’s works, which remain among the greatest scientific illustrations ever.

These Women Had To Overcome the Impossible To Make It In Science
Smithsonian Institution Archives

Suffragette Mary Agnes Chase Risked Her Career to Stand Up For Her Beliefs

It would have been easy for Mary Agnes Chase, who fought hard for her position as one of the most distinguished botanists in history, to stay silent on political issues. Her critics certainly would have preferred that. But Chase was never afraid to stand up for what she believed in. She had a difficult start in life. Her father, an Irish railroad worker, died when she was a toddler, forcing the family to move to Chicago. She received little formal education, leaving school after elementary school. Her husband died just a year after they married. Still, she carried on in her career as an illustrator for the University of Chicago, the Field Museum of Natural History, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Chase began studying the grasses outside Chicago and taking botany classes in her free time. She eventually began working with a fellow illustrator and botanist, Albert Spear Hitchcock, who attempted to give Chase money from his research grant to conduct her own study. The request was refused because Chase was a woman. Unfortunately, her work was not the only area where Chase felt this sting of sexist discrimination. In the 1910s, she became deeply involved the women’s suffrage movement, participating in protests and getting arrested several times. Although she faced threats of losing her job due to her political advocacy, she never wavered in her commitment. Chase mentored many female botanists throughout her life, published several highly-regarded works, and went on multiple international research expeditions, including a survey of Venezuela at 71.

These Women Had To Overcome the Impossible To Make It In Science
Time and Life Pictures / Getty Images

Rachel Carson Defied Sexism and Launched an Environmentalist Revolution

When Rachel Carson wrote her revelatory book Silent Spring, she couldn’t have known how influential it would be. Her writing laid out the harmful effects of chemical pesticides. Then, she went a step further, taking the government and pesticide manufacturers to task for spraying poorly-regulated chemicals into the environment. Carson’s book almost single-handedly launched a global environmental movement against harmful industrial chemicals. Most impressively, Silent Spring and the movement it started were directly responsible for the U.S. banning use of the popular agricultural insecticide DDT, which causes seizures, tremors, and vomiting in humans.

Although Silent Spring was massively popular, it also drew accusations of radicalism and a lack of patriotism for daring to condemn the government. Her harshest condemnation came from the powerful chemical companies she criticized in her book. One critic dismissed her as hysterical and mocked her for being “scared to death of a few little bugs.” But Carson was no stranger to taking on a challenge. Born on a farm in 1907, she was a published writer by the age of 10. Her dream of being a zoologist was interrupted by the Great Depression. A few years later, Carson became the second woman to work for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. Throughout her career, she won many prestigious awards for her science writing and received a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom.

These Women Had To Overcome the Impossible To Make It In Science
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft Archives

Lise Meitner Was Denied a Nobel Prize But Made It Onto the Periodic Table

Born to a Jewish family in Austria in 1878, Lise Meitner faced tremendous obstacles to her success in science. Her father, one the first Jewish lawyers to practice law in Austria, was a trailblazer in his own right. He hired tutors to support his daughter’s budding curiosity. However, when Meitner wished to study science at university, her father encouraged her to become a teacher instead. She passed her teaching certification but decided to enroll at the University of Vienna to study physics. Meitner was a brilliant student, completing her Ph.D. in Physics with the highest honors. After graduating, she struggled to find a research position. In 1907, she moved Berlin, where she spent the next 30 years of her career.

Meitner was not allowed to work in a lab in an official capacity in Berlin. Instead, she worked for several years without pay with chemist Otto Hahn. After their joint discovery of the radioactive element protactinium, Meitner got her own lab. She eventually became the first female physics professor at the University of Berlin. During this time, she began studying nuclear fission, a term that she coined. She was forced to flee Germany in 1938 due to Hitler’s rise to power. After arriving safely in Sweden, Meitner immediately continued her research. She was instrumental in uncovering the process of nuclear fission. But only her longtime collaborator Hahn received the Nobel Prize after downplaying her role in their research. Nonetheless, Meitner went on to become one of the most highly regarded scientists in her field and a tireless champion for women in science. In 1992, the 109th element on the periodic table, ​​Meitnerium, was named in her honor.


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