12 incredible women you’ve never heard of who changed science forever.

Sure, most people have heard of Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin, Jane Goodall and Sally Ride.

But for every female scientist whose work has been recognized and celebrated, there are thousands who have been accidentally or purposefully forgotten.

For a few, that might change, thanks to a beautiful new book, “Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World,” by artist Rachel Ignotofsky.

While she highlights some of the classic women in science, she’s also profiled some less familiar faces – and discoveries.

Here are a dozen of our favorites.

Meghan Bartels wrote an earlier version of this post.

Florence Bascom: Helped us understand how mountains form

Florence Bascom (1862-1945) discovered her love for geology on a childhood trip with her father and a geologist friend of his.

She worked for the US Geographical Survey, particularly specializing in the Piedmont Plateau between the Appalachians and the Atlantic coastal plain. She was voted one of the top 100 geologists in 1906 in an edition of a magazine called, ironically, American Men of Science.

In addition to her research, she also taught several important geologists of the next generation at Bryn Mawr College.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas: Championed the ecological importance of The Everglades

President Clinton talks with Marjory Stoneman Douglas after presenting her with a Medal of Freedom.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1890-1998) moved to Miami to write for the Herald, where her father worked. She left to work for the Red Cross during World War I, then returned to the Herald before branching out on her own as a writer.

She was able to see the value and importance of the Everglades despite finding them “too buggy, too wet, too generally inhospitable.” She wrote a book called “The Everglades: Rivers of Grass,” which raised awareness about the threats the ecosystem faced.

She successfully led the opposition to an Army Corps of Engineers planthat would have reduced flooding but destroyed the Everglades. In addition to conservation, she also fought for women’s rights and racial justice.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: Figured out what the Sun was made of

Celia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979) was the astronomer who discovered that the sun is made of hydrogen and helium.

She went to college in Britain for botany, then attended by chance a lecture given by a prominent physicist, which she found so intriguing she changed fields (the lecturer, Arthur Eddington, became an important mentor for her). She moved across the Atlantic to study at Harvard, where she spent the rest of her career.

Her dissertation was called “the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy.” In addition to our sun, she also studied variable stars, taking more than a million photographs of them with her team.

Rita Levi-Montalcini: Made a breakthrough in understanding the nervous system

Rita Levi-Montalcini celebrating her one hundredth birthday in Rome.

Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012) was the first Nobel Prize winner to reach the age of 100. Born in Italy, she talked her father into letting her study medicine.

During the Jewish persecution and World War II, she had to leave her university and eventually flee to the countryside with her family, but she kept working on science, dissecting chick embryos.

After the war, she moved to the US, where she discovered nerve growth factor, which guides the development of the nervous system. She later became an Italian senator for life.

Chien-Shiung Wu: Helped figure out how to enrich uranium

Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997) grew up in China, then moved to the US for her PhD studies.

She was recruited by the Manhattan Project during World War II. During her interview for the top-secret work, she was able to guess what they were researching from an equation left on a blackboard.

She helped figure out how to enrich uranium to fuel nuclear bombs. She was snubbed by the Nobel Prize committee for her work showing that nature isn’t always symmetrical. (The Prize was awarded to two men who first floated the idea, even though she was the one who proved itexperimentally.)

Katherine Johnson: Calculated Apollo 11’s flight path to the moon

President Obama presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Katherine Johnson.

Katherine Johnson (1918- ) did the math that launched the manned Mercury mission into orbit around the Earth and calculated the flight path for the Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon.

She also helped write the first textbook about space.

As a child, she loved to count – and from that springboard she graduated college at 18 and spent three decades at NASA.

Rosalyn Yalow: Developed a technique that tests for diabetes, birth defects, and more

Rosalyn Yalow (1921-2011) spent most of her life in New York City. She and her lab partner developed a technique for studying hormones that is still used today, called radioimmunoassay.

They used the process to differentiate between type 1 and type 2 diabetes. It can also determine whether an unborn child has certain birth defects and to make sure the supplies in blood banks are clean.

Esther Lederberg: Discovered that bacteria mutate randomly

Esther Lederberg (1922-2006) studied bacteria and viruses, helping her work by inventing a technique called replica plating, which made it easy to study certain bacterial colonies across a set of Petri dishes.

The technique contributed to a Nobel Prize for her husband.

From this work, she confirmed that bacteria mutate randomly, including acquiring resistance to particular antibiotics before ever having been exposed to that particular chemical.

She also discovered a type of virus called a lambda phage, which lies low in a cell until the cell is going to die from other causes. It’s now used as a model for human viruses like herpes and tumor viruses.

Annie Easley: Helped write the code behind the Centaur rocket system

Annie Easley (1933-2011) planned to become a nurse, but was inspired to work for the precursor of NASA when she read an article about local twin sisters who worked there as human computers.

She became first a mathematician and then a computer programmer, working particularly on the code for the Centaur rocket launcher and navigation system.

She also tutored inner-city children (she had previously helped neighbors learn to pass Jim Crow voting tests) and worked on energy issues.

Patricia Bath: Invented a device that removes cataracts

A recent science fair presentation about Patricia Bath.

Patricia Bath (1942- ) invented a device for removing cataracts that fog people’s vision.

She also created the field of community ophthamology, which combines public health outreach with ophthamology. The strategy reduces rates of preventable vision loss, particularly in lower-income neighborhoods.

The organization she founded, the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, provides vitamin A eye drops to newborns.

May-Britt Moser: Discovered how our brains make mental maps

May-Britt Moser talked with Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf at the Nobel banquet in 2014.
May-Britt Moser (1963- ) helped discover grid cells, special nerve cells in the brain that create mental maps of places we’ve been – work that won the Nobel Prize.

As a psychologist in Norway, she began studying the brains of rats, particularly as they completed mazes. She has also studied how the brain filters out unnecessary information to focus on particular issues and what happens when your brain thinks you’re somewhere you aren’t.

May-Britt Moser

Francoise Barre-Sinoussi: Helped determine the cause of AIDS

Francoise Barre-Sinoussi (1947- ) is a French scientist who helped discover HIV and determine that the virus causes AIDS.

She had been studying retroviruses and was asked to join a team looking to determine whether AIDS was caused by one (it is, as she determined in two weeks).

She then researched how the immune system responds to HIV and AIDS in hopes of finding a cure. Although she retired last year, she is still outspoken in encouraging the world to rally against AIDS and fight the stigma surrounding the disease.

And so many more …

Tech Insider learned about all of these women from Rachel Ignotofsky’s beautiful book, “Women in Science,” which features full profiles of 50 scientists, plus tidbits on women in science more generally – not to mention gorgeous illustrations.

She also compiled a great list of resources for learning more about any of these scientists.



Sexism in science: Did Watson and Crick really steal Rosalind Franklin’s data?

The race to uncover the structure of DNA reveals fascinating insights into how Franklin’s data was key to the double helix model, but the ‘stealing’ myth stems from Watson’s memoir and attitude rather than facts
 Rosalind Franklin in 1950
The wave of protest that followed Sir Tim Hunt’s stupid comments about ‘girls’ in laboratories highlighted many examples of sexism in science. One claim was that during the race to uncover the structure of DNA, Jim Watson and Francis Crick either stole Rosalind Franklin’s data, or ‘forgot’ to credit her. Neither suggestion is true.

Photo 51 taken by Rosalind Franklin and R.G. Gosling

In April 1953, the scientific journal Nature published three back-to-back articles on the structure of DNA, the material our genes are made of. Together, they constituted one of the most important scientific discoveries in history.

The first, purely theoretical, article was written by Watson and Crick from the University of Cambridge. Immediately following this article were two data-rich papers by researchers from King’s College London: one by Maurice Wilkins and two colleagues, the other by Franklin and a PhD student, Ray Gosling.

The model the Cambridge duo put forward did not simply describe the DNA molecule as a double helix. It was extremely precise, based on complex measurements of the angles formed by different chemical bonds, underpinned by some extremely powerful mathematics and based on interpretations that Crick had recently developed as part of his PhD thesis. The historical whodunnit, and the claims of data theft, turn on the origin of those measurements.

The four protagonists would make good characters in a novel – Watson was young, brash, and obsessed with finding the structure of DNA; Crick was brilliant with a magpie mind, and had struck up a friendship with Wilkins, who was shy and diffident. Franklin, an expert in X-ray crystallography, had been recruited to King’s in late 1950. Wilkins expected she would work with him, but the head of the King’s group, John Randall, led her to believe she would be independent.

1959, Boston, Massachusetts, USA -- James Watson and Francis Crick, crackers of the DNA code. Photo taken on occasion of the Massachusetts General Hospital lectures.

From the outset, Franklin and Wilkins simply did not get on. Wilkins was quiet and hated arguments; Franklin was forceful and thrived on intellectual debate. Her friend Norma Sutherland recalled: “Her manner was brusque and at times confrontational – she aroused quite a lot of hostility among the people she talked to, and she seemed quite insensitive to this.”

Watson and Crick’s first foray into trying to crack the structure of DNA took place in 1952. It was a disaster. Their three-stranded, inside-out model was hopelessly wrong and was dismissed at a glance by Franklin. Following complaints from the King’s group that Watson and Crick were treading on their toes, Sir Lawrence Bragg, the head of their lab in Cambridge told them to cease all work on DNA.

However, at the beginning of 1953, a US competitor, Linus Pauling, became interested in the structure of DNA, so Bragg decided to set Watson and Crick on the problem once more.

At the end of January 1953, Watson visited King’s, where Wilkins showed him an X-ray photo that was subsequently used in Franklin’s Nature article. This image, often called ‘Photo 51’, had been made by Raymond Gosling, a PhD student who had originally worked with Wilkins, had then been transferred to Franklin (without Wilkins knowing), and was now once more being supervised by Wilkins, as Franklin prepared to leave the terrible atmosphere at King’s and abandon her work on DNA.
Watson recalled that when he saw the photo – which was far clearer than any other he had seen – ‘my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race.’ According to Watson, photo 51 provided the vital clue to the double helix. But despite the excitement that Watson felt, all the main issues, such as the number of strands and above all the precise chemical organisation of the molecule, remained a mystery. A glance at photo 51 could not shed any light on those details.

What Watson and Crick needed was far more than the idea of a helix – they needed precise observations from X-ray crystallography. Those numbers were unwittingly provided by Franklin herself, included in a brief informal report that was given to Max Perutz of Cambridge University.

In February 1953, Perutz passed the report to Bragg, and thence to Watson and Crick.

Crick now had the material he needed to do his calculations. Those numbers, which included the relative distances of the repetitive elements in the DNA molecule, and the dimensions of what is called the monoclinic unit cell – which indicated that the molecule was in two matching parts, running in opposite directions – were decisive.

The report was not confidential, and there is no question that the Cambridge duo acquired the data dishonestly. However, they did not tell anyone at King’s what they were doing, and they did not ask Franklin for permission to interpret her data (something she was particularly prickly about).

Their behaviour was cavalier, to say the least, but there is no evidence that it was driven by sexist disdain: Perutz, Bragg, Watson and Crick would have undoubtedly behaved the same way had the data been produced by Maurice Wilkins.

Ironically, the data provided by Franklin to the MRC were virtually identical to those she presented at a small seminar in King’s in autumn 1951, when Jim Watson was in the audience. Had Watson bothered to take notes during her talk, instead of idly musing about her dress sense and her looks, he would have provided Crick with the vital numerical evidence 15 months before the breakthrough finally came.

By chance, Franklin’s data chimed completely with what Crick had been working on for months: the type of monoclinic unit cell found in DNA was also present in the horse haemoglobin he had been studying for his PhD. This meant that DNA was in two parts or chains, each matching the other. Crick’s expertise explains why he quickly realised the significance of these facts, whereas it took Franklin months to get to the same point.

While Watson and Crick were working feverishly in Cambridge, fearful that Pauling might scoop them, Franklin was finishing up her work on DNA before leaving the lab. The progress she made on her own, increasingly isolated and without the benefit of anyone to exchange ideas with, was simply remarkable.

Franklin’s laboratory notebooks reveal that she initially found it difficult to interpret the outcome of the complex mathematics – like Crick, she was working with nothing more than a slide rule and a pencil – but by 24 February, she had realised that DNA had a double helix structure and that the way the component nucleotides or bases on each strand were connected meant that the two strands were complementary, enabling the molecule to replicate.

Above all, Franklin noted that ‘an infinite variety of nucleotide sequences would be possible to explain the biological specificity of DNA’, thereby showing that she had glimpsed the most decisive secret of DNA: the sequence of bases contains the genetic code.

To prove her point, she would have to convert this insight into a precise, mathematically and chemically rigorous model. She did not get the chance to do this, because Watson and Crick had already crossed the finishing line – the Cambridge duo had rapidly interpreted the double helix structure in terms of precise spatial relationships and chemical bonds, through the construction of a physical model.

In the middle of March 1953, Wilkins and Franklin were invited to Cambridge to see the model, and they immediately agreed it must be right. It was agreed that the model would be published solely as the work of Watson and Crick, while the supporting data would be published by Wilkins and Franklin – separately, of course. On 25 April there was a party at King’s to celebrate the publication of the three articles in Nature. Franklin did not attend. She was now at Birkbeck and had stopped working on DNA.

Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958, four years before the Nobel prize was awarded to Watson, Crick and Wilkins for their work on DNA structure. She never learned the full extent to which Watson and Crick had relied on her data to make their model; if she suspected, she did not express any bitterness or frustration, and in subsequent years she became very friendly with Crick and his wife, Odile.

1959, Boston, Massachusetts, USA — James Watson and Francis Crick, crackers of the DNA code. Photo taken on occasion of the Massachusetts General Hospital lectures. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
1959, Boston, Massachusetts, USA: James Watson and Francis Crick, crackers of the DNA code. Photo taken on occasion of the Massachusetts General Hospital lectures. Photograph: Corbis
Our picture of how the structure of DNA was discovered, and the myth about Watson and Crick stealing Franklin’s data, is almost entirely framed by Jim Watson’s powerful and influential memoir, The Double Helix. Watson included frank descriptions of his own appalling attitude towards Franklin, whom he tended to dismiss, even down to calling her ‘Rosy’ in the pages of his book – a nickname she never used (her name was pronounced ‘Ros-lind’). The epilogue to the book, which is often overlooked in criticism of Watson’s attitude to Franklin, contains a generous and fair description by Watson of Franklin’s vital contribution and a recognition of his own failures with respect to her – including using her proper name.

It is clear that, had Franklin lived, the Nobel prize committee ought to have awarded her a Nobel prize, too – her conceptual understanding of the structure of the DNA molecule and its significance was on a par with that of Watson and Crick, while her crystallographic data were as good as, if not better, than those of Wilkins. The simple expedient would have been to award Watson and Crick the prize for Physiology or Medicine, while Franklin and Watkins received the prize for Chemistry.

Whether the committee would have been able to recognise Franklin’s contribution is another matter. As the Tim Hunt affair showed, sexist attitudes are ingrained in science, as in the rest of our culture.