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Female scientists who changed our world

Marking this year’s International Woman’s Day, here at Paramount we’ve taken a look back in time and picked out who we think are the most important female scientists of the ages.

Distinguished female scientists have been few and far between and although today the gender bias and social barriers are no longer prominent, there are still a very low percentage of women entering into the world of Science today – the numbers entering science nowadays are still much lower than men. Perhaps the remarkable stories of these female pioneers will help inspire the next generation to extend the frontiers of science…

Marie Curie

Marie Curie is one of the most remarkable female scientists of our time – she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only woman to have won two Nobel Prizes for different Sciences. Along with her husband, Pierre Curie they discovered two chemical elements: Polonium and radium. Marie was born in Poland and became a French citizen when she married – however she never forgot about her Polish roots, she taught both her daughters the language and also named one of the chemicals she discovered ‘Polonium’ after her native country. In 1934 she died from Aplastic Anemia believed to be contracted by her long-term exposure to radiation.

Irène Joliot-Curie

Following in her mother’s footsteps, Irene became a remarkable Scientist. Along with her husband Frederic, they studied radio-activity, and were the first to create an artificially radioactive element, winning them the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935. Irene’s work on heavy elements was a major contributor to the discovery of nuclear fission the fundamental process behind nuclear energy and atomic weapons. She also taught at the Sorbonne and received many honours, just like her mother, but tragically, she contracted leukaemia through her work and died in 1956. Irene became actively involved in promoting women’s education and joined the National Committee of the Union of French Women.

Lise Meitner 

An extraordinary scientist, Lise lived during a very difficult time whenbeing a female Physicist in the early 20th Century was frowned upon and furthermore she was Jewish living under the Nazi regime. However, in 1926, Meitner became the first woman in Germany to assume a post of full professor in physics, at the University of Berlin. There she undertook the research program in nuclear physics which eventually led to her co-discovery of nuclear fission in 1939, after she had left Berlin. She was praised by Albert Einstein as the “German Marie Curie”

Rosalind Franklin

The race to map the structure of DNA was won in 1953 when James Watson and Francis Crick published their famous paper in Nature. But it was a British scientist called Rosalind Franklin who arguably contributed the final piece of the DNA jigsaw with her high quality x-ray crystallographic images. The unpublished data was crucial to Watson and Crick who were finally able to deduce the helical nature of the molecule. Tragically, at the age of 37, Franklin contracted ovarian cancer and died in 1958. Although her supervisor Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in 1962 with Watson and Crick, her contribution to the DNA race was left unrecognised for years. Rosalind Franklin is now remembered for her vital contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA.

Dame Anne McLaren 

A leading figure in developmental biology, her work helped lead to human in vitro fertilisation (IVF). McLaren studied zoology at Oxford University and continued postgraduate studies at University College London studying the genetics of rabbits and neurotropic murine viruses. She then worked at the Institute of Animal Genetics in Edinburgh for 15 years, before returning to London as Director of the MRC Mammalian Development Unit, developing projects on reproductive immunology, contraception and chimeras. Later at the Gurdon Institute she continued research on stem cells. She became the first female officer of the Royal Society in 331 years, when she was appointed as their Foreign Secretary and travelled widely, becoming a role model for women in science.

Christiane Nusslein Volhard

A German biologist who won a Nobel Prize in 1995together with Eric Wieschaus and Edward Lewis, for their research on the genetic control of embryonic development. Christiane used her prize money to set up a fund for female scientists which pays for childcare and, as importantly in her opinion, cleaners. The experiments that earned Nüsslein-Volhard and Wieschaus their Nobel Prize aimed to identify genes involved in the development of Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) embryos. At this point (the late 1970s and early 1980s) little was known about the genetic and molecular mechanisms by which multicellular organisms developed.

Since 2001 she has been member of the National Ethics Council of Germany for the ethical assessment of new developments in the life sciences and their influence on the individual and society.

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11th March

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