Lost Women of Science

Lost Women of Science

For every Marie Curie or Rosalind Franklin whose story has been told, hundreds of female scientists remain unknown to the public at large. In this series, we illuminate the lives and work of a diverse array of groundbreaking scientists who, because of time, place and gender, have gone largely unrecognized. Each season we focus on a different scientist, putting her narrative into context, explaining not just the science but also the social and historical conditions in which she lived and worked. We also bring these stories to the present, painting a full picture of how her work endures.

Episodes

February 15, 2024 12 mins

Sara Little Turnbull was a force in the world of material science and industrial design. It’s safe to say most people will have used something that started life on her drawing board, but few will know her name. She worked with engineered fabrics at 3M, designing a moldable bra cup that inspired the design of the N95 mask. Later 3M disputed her role in coming up with the mask. She also worked on clear glass cooktop developm...

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The Australian physicist Ruby Payne-Scott helped lay the groundwork for a whole new kind of astronomy: radio astronomy. By scanning the skies for radio waves instead of the light waves we can see with our eyes, Ruby and her colleagues opened a window into the universe and transformed the way we explore it. But to keep her job as a woman working for the Australian government in the 1940s, Ruby had to keep a pretty big secre...

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Sallie Pero Mead was first hired at AT&T in 1915 as a “computer”—a human calculator—shortly after completing her master’s degree in mathematics at Columbia University. Before long she started working on the company’s transmission engineering team as both a mathematician and an electrical engineer. She and her team developed and tested hollow metal tubes used as waveguides: structures that confine and direct electromagn...

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Scientist Leona Zacharias was a rare woman. She graduated from Barnard College in 1927 with a degree in biology, followed by a Ph.D. from Columbia University. But throughout her career she labored behind men with loftier titles who got the bulk of the credit. In the 1940s, when premature babies born with healthy eyes were going blind, Dr. Zacharias was part of the team that worked to root out the cause.

In this best of Lo...

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Vera Peters began her career studying treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma. She used techniques that had seen positive outcomes on Hodgkin’s to treat breast cancer patients, and she discovered a treatment that was equally effective and much less invasive than the radical mastectomy, saving hundreds of thousands of women from that life-altering surgery.

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January 4, 2024 32 mins

Annie Montague Alexander was an adventurer, amateur paleontologist, and the founding benefactor of two venerated research collections at UC Berkeley - the UC Museum of Paleontology and the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. She was born in 1867, the daughter of a wealthy sugar baron, but she never quite fit in with her high society peers. Instead, Annie created for herself a grand life out of doors, away from the constraints of...

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Emma Unson Rotor took leave from her job as a math teacher in the Philippines to study physics at Johns Hopkins University in 1941. Her plans were disrupted when the Imperial Japanese Army invaded and occupied the Philippines. Unable to access her Philippine government scholarship to attend Johns Hopkins, she joined the Ordnance Development Division at the National Bureau of Standards. It was here that she did groundbreaki...

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In 1925, a young anthropologist named Margaret Mead traveled to Samoa to explore the impact of cultural factors on adolescent development. In her subsequent book Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead described teenagers who were free to explore and express their sexuality. The book struck a chord with readers in the U.S., became a bestseller, and Mead skyrocketed to fame. But what were her actual methods and motivations? This episo...

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Christine Ladd-Franklin is best known for her theory of the evolution of color vision, but her research spanned math, symbolic logic, philosophy, biology, and psychology. Born in Connecticut in 1847, she was clever, sharp-tongued, and never shied away from a battle of wits. When she decided to go to college instead of pursuing a marriage, she convinced her skeptical grandmother by pointing to statistics: there was an exces...

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November 23, 2023 21 mins

There's a test that we at Lost Women of Science seem to fail again and again: the Finkbeiner Test. Named for the science writer, Ann Finkbeiner, the Finkbeiner Test is a checklist for writing profiles of female scientists without being sexist. It includes rules like not mentioning her husband’s job, or her childcare arrangements, or how she was the “first woman to…”—all rules we break regularly on this show. In this episod...

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Today we tell the story of Mária Telkes, one of the developers of solar thermal storage systems, who was so dedicated to the world of solar energy that while she was working at MIT, she earned the nickname: The Sun Queen. Over her lifetime, she registered more than 20 patents, nearly all related to harnessing the power of the sun. Her inventions included an oven, a desalination device, and one of the first solar-heated hou...

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In 1856, decades before the term “greenhouse gas” was coined, Eunice Newton Foote demonstrated the greenhouse effect in her home laboratory. She placed a glass cylinder full of carbon dioxide in the sun, and found that it heated up much faster than a cylinder of ordinary air. Her conclusion: more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere results in a warmer planet. Several years later, a British scientist named John Tyndall conduct...

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Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, born in 1831, was the first African American female medical doctor in the U.S. and is considered the first Black person to publish a medical book. In it, Dr. Crumpler lays out best practices for good health with a focus on women and children. She writes that she was inspired by her aunt, a community healer and midwife, who raised her in Pennsylvania. In 1864, during the Civil War, Rebecca graduate...

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In the 1960s, a Black home economist at Howard University recruited kids for an experimental preschool program. All were Black and lived in poor neighborhoods around campus.

Flemmie Kittrell had grown up poor herself, just two generations removed from slavery, and she’d seen firsthand the effects of poverty. While Flemmie earned a PhD from Cornell, most of her siblings didn’t make it to college. One of her sisters died at...

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Harriet Jane Lawrence was one of the first female pathologists in the U.S. In the early 1900s she worked in Portland, Oregon, where she hunted microbes and developed vaccines and serum therapies with the help of 200 guinea pigs that she kept in her garage. Her work on a vaccine during the 1918 influenza pandemic earned her presidential recognition and has had a lasting impact on medicine.

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Known as “America’s first female cryptanalyst,” Elizebeth Smith Friedman was a master codebreaker who played a pivotal role in both world wars, but for many years, no one knew what she had done—not even her own family.

Elizebeth didn’t set out to be a codebreaker. In 1917, she was a 23-year-old English lit major, looking for an interesting job. That all changed when an eccentric millionaire whisked her off to his lavish ...

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Christine Essenberg had an unusual life and an unusual career trajectory. She was married, then divorced, and earned her PhD in zoology from University of California, Berkeley at age 41. She went on to become one of the early researchers at what is now The Scripps Institution of Oceanography. We know the story of Christine Essenberg only because of a serendipitous find. Host Katie Hafner, searching in an archive jammed wit...

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Born in 1850, Sarah Loguen found her calling as a child, when she helped her parents and Harriet Tubman bandage the leg of an injured person escaping slavery. When the Civil War ended and Reconstruction opened up opportunities for African Americans, Loguen became one of the first Black women to earn a medical license. But quickly, racist Jim Crow laws prevailed. At the urging of family friend Frederick Douglass, Loguen mar...

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In the late 1920s, Lillian Gilbreth enlisted her children — she had 11— in an experiment: bake a strawberry shortcake in record time. Kitchens at the time tended to have haphazard configurations—pots and pans could be at one end of the kitchen, the stove in another, and the utensils in another room altogether—but Lillian figured that with a well-designed kitchen, she could slash baking time dramatically and make cooks’ liv...

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We continue the story of Jewish physicist Lise Meitner, the first person to understand that the atom had been split. This is the second in a two-part series featuring new letters from and to Lise Meitner translated by author Marissa Moss, author of The Woman who Split the Atom: The Life of Lise Meitner (2022). The letters show the fraught and complex relationship between Otto Hahn and Meitner and the role that antisemitism...

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