How Women Influenced Developments in Science

Madame Marie Curie was one of the biggest women pioneers of Science. Madame Curie was born in 1868 as Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland, the fifth child of teachers. Marie stayed in Poland until she was 24, at which time she went to study in Paris. She became a physicist and chemist and eventually became the first person honored with two Nobel Prizes; one in Physics, and one in Chemistry. Curie was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris.

Amongst Madame Curie’s accomplishments was the discovery of the elements Radium and Polonium. She was also responsible for the discovery of radioactive isotopes. Curie studied uranium rays using an electrometer, an instrument that she, her husband Pierre and Pierre’s brother had invented. The Curie’s undertook the daunting task of separating radium salt by crystallization.

During World War 1, Curie worked on mobile radiography units, used to treat injured soldiers. Through all of their work and research, little did the Curies know what toll their exposure to radioactivity would take on Marie’s life. Marie Curie died in 1934 of aplastic anemia, an illness related to her exposure to radiation.

Dr. Leona Baumgartner was the first woman to become commissioner of the New York City Department of Health, where she served from 1954-1962. Dr. Baumgartner used her position to bring health and hygiene advice to millions of Americans by means of television and radio broadcasts. She used her public profile to educate the public, giving regular talks on television about preventive medicine, promoting the value of good health – above and beyond merely the absence of disease.

Dr. Baumgartner also sent health care professionals to visit schools and church groups. Throughout her career she helped to broaden the scope of public health by teaching preventive medicine in easy-to-understand brochures. She also helped to improve the health of New York’s poorest and most helpless citizens.

Baumgartner worked as a Rockefeller research fellow in Munich, completed her Ph.D. in immunology at Yale University Medical School in 1932 and her M.D. in 1934. During her internship in pediatrics from 1934 to 1936 she went on home-visits to some of the poorest areas of Depression-Era New York. Because of this experience, Dr. Baumgartner became more aware of the relationship between poverty and ill-health. While attending graduate school she also taught public health, nursing, preventive medicine and pediatrics.

From 1954 to 1962, while in the position of New York City’s first woman commissioner of the department of health, Dr. Baumgartner was able to establish many needed programs. She was responsible for programs in research and preventive medicine and revised the New York Sanitary Code.

Rosalind Franklin was an English biophysicist, physicist, chemist, biologist and X-ray crystallographer who made outstanding contributions to the field of science. Among her most important contributions were the ones she made concerning the molecular structure of DNA, RNA, and viruses. She also was known for her work with the element Carbon and for her aid to the understanding of the carbon compounds, coal and graphite.Franklin is perhaps best known for her work with X-ray diffraction images of DNA. Although she wasn’t given credit for it at the time, her work was used for Watson and Crick’s model of DNA in future years.

Rosalind Franklin graduated with a Ph.D. from Cambridge University in 1945. Because of her expertise in Chemistry, she was considered an expert in the study of carbon compounds and went to work in 1951 as a research associate for John Randall at King’s College in London.

While working with Maurice Wilkins at King’s College, Franklin discovered that DNA could crystallize into two different forms; an A and a B form. Franklin was assigned to study the structure of the A form. She also developed an ingenious way to separate the two forms, resulting in the first DNA crystals pure enough to yield results that could be interpreted.

Franklin used X-ray diffraction patterns to discover DNA’s true nature. One of the things she discovered was that the sugar phosphate backbone of DNA lied on the outside of the molecule, not on the inside as previously thought. She also discovered that DNA was a double helix and didn’t have three strands as thought in a previous theory. However, the missing link – how the bases were paired inside the structure of DNA – remained a mystery to be discovered by Watson and Crick, using Franklin’s data to their benefit.

Although Watson and Crick eventually gave credit to Franklin once the completed structure of DNA was determined, Franklin never received the Nobel Prize along with Watson, Crick and Wilkins because she had died and the Prize could not be awarded posthumously.

American pharmacologist and biochemist Gertrude B. Elion graduated summa cum laude from college when she was only 19, then worked as a substitute schoolteacher to earn tuition for graduate school. She later worked while attending night school for her doctorate degree. When the university she attended informed her she would be required to attend full-time, she dropped out, deciding she did not want to leave her day job at the lab.

While working for several decades at her day job, Elion helped develop the first drugs to combat such diseases as leukemia, herpes and AIDS. She was also involved in new research methods to design drugs that could target specific pathogens. These medicines included acyclovir, allopurinol, purinethol, pyrimethamine and trimethoprim. In the late 1960’s she became the head of her company’s Department of Experimental Therapy.

Even though she officially retired in 1983 she continued to work almost full time at the lab, overseeing the version of azidothymidine (AZT), the first drug used for treatment of AIDS. She won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1988 and the National Medal of Science in 1991.