Badass women of science you should know
Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) supported herself and her family by teaching the daughters of wealthy German families how to draw, because it gave her access to their gardens — and the bugs in them. Her first book, a two-volume illustrated treatise on caterpillars, disproved the popular idea that insects emerged spontaneously from mud. A few years later, she sold 255 paintings so she could take her daughter to Suriname, where they spent two years cataloguing wildlife — 150 years before Charles Darwin had the idea.
Mary G. Ross (1908–2008), the great-granddaughter of Cherokee Chief John Ross, taught high school math and science in Oklahoma during the Depression. During World War II, she landed a job with Lockheed Aircraft Corporation (now Lockheed Martin), which hired women only because so many men were serving in the military (think, Rosie the Riveter). Before long she was promoted to Skunk Works, the company’s now-famous department of advanced and secret projects. In addition to designing anti-ballistic missile defense systems, she also worked on the rockets used in the Apollo space program. One of her biggest projects was the NASA Planetary Flight Handbook, about space travel to Mars and Venus.
Chien-Shiung Wu (1912–1997), known as “the Chinese Madame Curie,” began graduate study in physics in China, moved to the U.S., and turned down a chance to study at the University of Michigan because women weren’t allowed to use the front entrance there. She finished her Ph.D. at Caltech, was hired on at Princeton and Columbia, and helped fix a malfunctioning nuclear reactor along the way. She worked with two physicists who won the Nobel Prize, though she wasn’t named in the award. As time went by, she got involved in politics, especially issues of gender discrimination. “I wonder,” she said during a lecture at MIT, “whether the tiny atoms and nuclei, or the mathematical symbols, or the DNA molecules, have any preference for either masculine or feminine treatment.”
Hedy Lamarr (1914–2000) is known to most people as a movie star who ruled the silver screen in the 1930s and 40s, but that’s just part of her story. Born Jewish in Vienna, she helped her mother escape from Austria. After a short, unhappy marriage to an arms dealer, she was discovered by Louis Mayer, who moved her to Hollywood and billed her as “the world’s most beautiful woman.” She was bored by the roles she was given, though, so in her spare time she turned to inventing. In 1941, she designed the technology that kept submarines on course and is still used in Bluetooth today — and appeared in three blockbuster movies!
Ninety-two-year-old Erna Hoover (born in 1926) was inspired to become a scientist as a girl when she read a biography of Marie Curie, but that didn’t stop her from studying classical and medieval philosophy and history in college. She worked as a philosophy professor for a few years and then joined Bell Labs. While she was in the hospital recovering from giving birth to her second daughter, she had an idea about how to computerize telephone switching so that people trying to make calls wouldn’t hear “all circuits are busy.” She got one of the very first software patents for it — and her technology is still used today.