Famous Females Forgotten

From Emma:

A recent ICM survey suggests that 2/3 of the general public are unable to name a single famous female scientist! In fact 90% of 18-24 year olds were at a loss to think of a current or historical female scientific figure…shocking!

Then again only about half could name a famous scientist at all…

Which got me thinking…could I think of any famous female scientists?



Jane Goodall:

British primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and UN Messenger of Peace (according to wikipedia). Mostly I just know her as ‘That chimp woman’. Most well known for her work studying chimps at Gombe Stream National Park (Tanzania) she also set up the Jane Goodall Institute to support further research and is an active animal rights activist.

Rosalind Franklin:

Much overlooked biophysicist, physicist, chemist, biologist and X-ray crystallographer. It was drilled into us at school (an all girls school of course) that Rosalind did much of the work behind that famous discovery by James D. Watson and Francis Crick; discovering the structure of DNA.

Marie Curie:

Physicist and chemist. Unfortunately most well known for her death of radiation poisoning (well from aplastic anemia presumably brought on by exposure to radiation), her name is given to a charitable organization which provides nursing care for cancer sufferers. But amazingly this woman, a pioneer of radiation study, was awarded 2 Nobel prizes!


And that’s where my (still slightly hungover and over worked) brain kinda ran out… I am a scientist myself, well educated and from (at least at some point in my education) an all girls school, and yet I can only think of 3 off the top of my head. Admittedly I know of other female scientists (I work with quite a few) but I’m not sure I’d say they were famous. Famous in my area of research, famous in certain circles, but famous famous?

So why do I find it easier to remember Darwin, Einstein & Newton than any of their female counterparts? I find it hard to believe that there aren’t potentially famous female scientists out there, so why don’t I know about them?

So I have decided to start a campaign…well I’ve decided to find random female scientists and their work and then share it with you good people so that hopefully next time ICM or whoever else decides to survey maybe someone out there will know of at least 1 famous female scientist.

Oh and maybe I’ll add some interesting male ones as well, it’s no good me being sexist now is it?


About Rebecca Nesbit

I studied for my PhD with the University of York and spent my time chasing migrant butterflies. I have trained bees to detect explosives, written a novel, organised Biology Week for the Society of Biology and visited universities round the world with Nobel Laureates. I am collecting friends to help me save the world. My website is: http://rebeccanesbit.com/
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10 Responses to Famous Females Forgotten

  1. Well, I’m a famous female scientist aren’t I? Ok, maybe only in certain circles.

    You got me thinking – how many female scientists can I name who have done something towards conservation/environmental protection? Jane Goodall is a good example but then I got stuck. Then I thought – how many men can I name in that field. The people who spring to mind are David Attenborough and the like – presenters not scientists.

    So – are conservation scientists doing the work and not getting recognition? Or is conservation based in looking at pretty animals and not on science?

  2. emmalouisewright says:

    I doubt it’s just women or conservationists who go without recognition. There is tonnes of amazing science going on all the time that we never really hear about.

    I do however think I could name more wildlife presenters than scientists…although many of them have studied biology of some sort at some point. Nick Baker for example has what he calls a ‘half decent biology degree’. (Who’s he you ask? He used to present the Really Wild Show!)

    So maybe when searching for more women scientists to blog about I should have a hunt for underappreciated conservationists as well!

  3. nicholahawkins says:

    After a weekend on the Isle of Purbeck (actually hunting flowers rather than fossils) I have to add Mary Anning to that list, for years of dedicated fossil collecting with important discoveries including icthyosaurs and pleisiosaurs, by someone whose only formal eductaion was at Sunday school. Her work became widely known but was not made a fellow of the Geological Society as they did not admit female fellows until over fifty years after her death.

  4. emmalouisewright says:

    How sad for Mary Anning. Apparently Rosalind Franklin being forgotten is down to a similar thing: Nobel Prizes can’t be given posthumously and she died of cancer quite young, before she could receive the prize and the recognition that would have come with it.

  5. Tom Monkhouse says:

    “Most people” can only name any scientists because of the popularisation of their work, not the significance of their contribution. While we might appreciate the study of radiation or the internal structure of crystals, what does your average person care enough about those things to remember?

    The names people do know are supreme geniuses; Einstein contributed to every discipline in modern physics courses. His name pops up everywhere, just when you’re not expecting it, but all a layman will know about his work is something about relativity. If you’re lucky they’ll mention quantum theory.

    It’s not just women scientists who are under-represented in the public consciousness, it is every scientist.

    Maggie Thatcher springs to mind. I guess you wouldn’t know her as a chemist though.

  6. Phil says:

    Just a quickie – the “Gorilla Woman” was Dian Fossey, not Jane Goodall … she’s “Chimp Woman”.

    So, there’s another famous female for you all. Portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in “Gorillas in the mist”, Dian Fossey, was considered one of the foremost primatologists in the world, having studied gorillas in Rwanda for 18 years.

    She was against their collection for zoos, undertook her own anti-poaching patrols, and because it disturbed the gorillas and introduced diseases, she also opposed tourism . This earnt her many enemies and she was murdered in 1985 … no-one has yet been brought to justice.

  7. emmalouisewright says:

    Thanks Phil, you are correct as usual:P

    And thanks Becky for correcting : )

    And Tom, I agree. The other thing is there are tonnes of names that turn up all over in physical constants or oddly named cells (I’m thinking Planck and Hooke and Schwann and the like) who’s names I know, but I have no idea who they were or what they did.

    Maybe we should do an odd series of posts not just on underappreciated scientists (men, women, conservation biologists and all) but also give some actual information about some of the big names as well? That’ll keep us busy for a while…

  8. Becky says:

    It’s not just scientists who are under represented in the media – it’s science. I guess that’s why we’re here 🙂

    • Anonymous says:

      Rachel Carson was a famous scientist, wrote silent spring and is widely acknowledged for bringing the worlds attention onto the impacts of pesticides.

      I have a theory about women scientists, there aren’t many because that’s not the female strategy. Females reliably pass on their genes to the next generation, at great personal investment. Males don’t always pass on their genes, they need to be brilliant to attract a mate and convince her that his genes are worth inveting in. I believe there is a selection pressure for men to be intelegent/ successful when females don’t have this evolutionary drive. Famous female scientists that we have come up with are concerned with caring, improving life for people, animals the environment, all things that make the world a better place for their offspring. The famous men have achieved abstract things.

      I am a layman when it comes to the likes of Einstein, i’ve had the boat and the light explained to me a couple of times but i don’t understand, i fit in with my stereotype and want to improve the environment. I’m not saying that males don’t care about the environment, that’s rediculous and sexist, but i don’t think it’s sexist to talk about differences in the selection pressures acting on males and females. We’re not the same, there should be now diferentiation in the level of respect each gender recieves but that equality does not lead to an equality in other traits, like brilliance.

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