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Lost Women of Science

Author: Lost Women of Science

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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.
46 Episodes
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’ lives easier. And if anyone was going to hack the kitchen, Lillian Gilbreth was the woman for the job. Lillian and her late husband, Frank, were absolute fiends for efficiency. They’d used the study of “time and motion” to dissect the activities of factory and office workers, and had made a business of optimizing efficiency in the workplace. Now widowed, Lillian Gilbreth, was set to tackle efficiency in the home when their clients would continue working with her and the business failed. Her innovations—she’s widely credited with inventing the pedal trash can and refrigerator door shelves—live with us to this day.
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 played in the decision to give the Nobel Prize in 1944 to Hahn and not Meitner. After the discovery of nuclear fission, Meitner grappled with its implication: the advent of nuclear weapons and who would get credit for the discovery of nuclear fission. This would lead to a breakdown of Meitner and Hahn’s decades-long scientific collaboration. Meitner, who had fled Germany because of the Nazis, was horrified at the thought of an atomic bomb. She also faulted Hahn for not speaking out about Nazi atrocities, and questioned his character, though she remained loyal to him to the end. It was their working relationship that defined her life.
New translations of hundreds of letters explain, in a two-part episode of Lost Women of Science, why physicist Lise Meitner was not awarded the Nobel Prize in 1944 for splitting the atom. Instead, it was given to her long-time collaborator, chemist Otto Hahn. Lise Meitner was born in Vienna in November of 1878 and moved to Berlin before the first World War where she started work with Hahn. When Marissa Moss came to research her biography of Meitner, The Woman who Split the Atom: The Life of Lise Meitner (2022), she found thousands of her letters in the Cambridge University archive, many of which had never been translated. In this episode we're diving into one particularly illuminating aspect of Meitner's story: her letters with Hahn, which reveal not only that it was Meitner who discovered nuclear fission, when she interpreted experiments that Hahn could not understand, but also her fraught relationship with Hahn. She went to great lengths through her letters to understand his refusal to give her credit for her work before and after the 1944 Nobel Prize was awarded. This first episode takes us up to the end of World War Two.
In the early 1990s, two physicists, Ruth Howes and Caroline Herzenberg, began looking into a question that had aroused their curiosity: Just who were the female scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project? Nearly ten years and hundreds of interviews later, they documented hundreds of women across a broad spectrum of scientific fields — physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics — who played crucial roles in the top-secret race to build a nuclear weapon that would end World War II. Since the film Oppenheimer came out earlier this summer, Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project has enjoyed a revival of sorts as new attention is paid to the women for whom recognition is long overdue.
Katharine “Kay” Way was a nuclear physicist who worked at multiple Manhattan Project sites. She was an expert in radioactive decay. But after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, she became increasingly concerned about the ethics of the nuclear weapons. Dr. Way signed the Szilard Petition and  worked to spread awareness of the moral responsibility surrounding atomic weaponry, including co-editing the influential One World or None: a Report to the Public on the Full Meaning of the Atomic Bomb, remaining an outspoken advocate for fairness and justice.
Lilli Hornig was only 23 years old when she arrived at Los Alamos to contribute to the development of an atomic bomb that would end World War II. A talented chemist, Lilli battled sexism throughout her career and remained a steadfast advocate for female scientists like herself. Lilli is the only female scientist named in Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer. But the character is a blur, popping up here and there to say they didn’t teach typing in her graduate chemistry program at Harvard, when asked whether she could be a typist, or to rib a colleague, telling him that her reproductive system was better protected from radiation than his. The real Hornig worked closely on plutonium research and was part of the team that developed and tested the mechanism for the plutonium weapon in the Trinity test.
Naomi Livesay, born in 1916 in the northern reaches of Montana, aspired to one career: mathematics. She earned a bachelor’s degree in math, but when she decided to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, men on the faculty balked. Mathematics, they said, was no place for a woman. Then fate intervened, and Livesay embarked on a circuitous route to Los Alamos, where she landed in 1944 and started as a supervisor in the computation lab during the Manhattan Project. She played, as episode guest Nichole Dale Lewis describes it, “a unique role at a unique place under unique pressures.” Livesay was a reluctant recruit, and it wasn’t until the physicist Richard Feynman stepped in to persuade her to take the job of supervising work on the IBM punch card accounting machinery, that she agreed. And then Oppenheimer himself went out of his way to make sure that Livesay had everything she needed to get the job done.
Floy Agnes Lee was a hematologist at Los Alamos. Recruited to the Manhattan Project while still  a student at University of New Mexico, she collected blood samples from many Manhattan Project scientists, including Louis Slotin, following an accident that exposed him to a fatal dose of radiation. Years after the war, she returned to Los Alamos National Laboratory and conducted research on the impact of radiation on chromosomes.
Leona Woods Marshall Libby was the only woman hired onto Enrico Fermi's team at the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago. She was just 23 years old, already had a Ph.D. in molecular spectroscopy and a deep understanding  of vacuum technology. She was also the only woman present at the world’s first successful nuclear chain reaction. Amid all this, she managed to conceal her pregnancy until two days before her baby was born.
During World War II, thousands of scientists and engineers worked on the Manhattan project, the top secret push to develop an atomic bomb that would end the war. Two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did just that, while also killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians. The devastating potential of nuclear weapons sparked a moral controversy that continues to this day. Hundreds of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project were women. Over the next few weeks we’ll be bringing you a few of their stories.
Welcome to the first in our From Our Inbox series, in which we give listeners a taste of the mail we get from folks wanting to bring a particular forgotten scientist to our attention. Here’s the story of Alessandra Giliani, brought to us by Barbara Quick, an author and poet in the San Francisco Bay Area. There’s a persistent myth in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy about Alessandra Giliani, a 14th-century girl who defied the laws of Church and state to attend medical school. The most concrete evidence of her existence comes in the form of illuminated manuscripts depicting an assistant to anatomist Mondino de Liuzzi who appears to be a cross-dressed woman. In this episode, associate producer Mackenzie Tatananni speaks with author Barbara Quick about Alessandra’s discoveries, which were well ahead of their time.
Cecilia Payne was in her early 20s when she figured out what the stars are made of. Both she and her groundbreaking findings were ahead of their time. Continuing the legacy of women working at the Harvard Observatory, Cecilia charted the way for a generation of female astronomers to come. This episode of Lost Women of Science: shorts follows Cecilia’s journey of discovery, journals her drive and determination against all odds, and takes you to the Harvard Observatory itself to walk in Cecilia’s footsteps.
In 1992, a Dutch doctor named Josh von Soer Clemm von Hohenberg wrote a letter to Henning Voscherau, the mayor of Hamburg, Germany, requesting that a street be named after Marie Nyswander. The doctor had never met Marie, but he had founded a clinic for treating people with drug addiction, and he’d seen methadone treatment — co-developed by Marie — save lives. Four years later, doctors gathered on a street in northwest Hamburg to celebrate that street’s new name: Nyswanderweg. We’re investigating how German streets get their names, and why so few of them honor women like Marie, who have made historic achievements.
Marie Nyswander died in 1986. She’d achieved almost everything she set out to, but she wanted more: even better medications than methadone, fewer regulations, and the holy grail—a cure for addiction. Addiction science has come a long way since Marie’s time, and it turns out, a lot of the field’s earlier assumptions were probably wrong. Neuroscientist Kent Berridge explains why wanting something isn’t the same as liking it. But a cure is still out of our reach
A reminder that our next episode is scheduled to come out next Thursday! In the meantime, we’ve hit a slight snag—Katie has COVID—but she’s resting up, and we’re doing our best to get that episode to you on time. Stay tuned for updates. We'll be back very soon.
Marie Nyswander and her team at Rockefeller unveil their findings at last: methadone has utterly transformed their patients. They’re going back to school, getting jobs, and reconnecting with family and friends. One of the very first patients went onto college and graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering, all while taking methadone. But soon, Marie’s treatment starts getting resistance, from fellow doctors as well as patients, who think what she’s doing is immoral. See show notes and full transcripts at
After years of disappointing results in her quest to treat heroin addiction, Marie Nyswander was more than ready to try something new. When she met a prominent doctor from the prestigious Rockefeller Institute, they embarked on an experiment that would define both of their careers and revolutionize the treatment of addiction for decades to come. But not everyone was happy about it.
In the early 1950s, Marie Nyswander was ready to move on from addiction. She set up a private practice and specialized in treating women afflicted with what she would call one of the “gravest problems of our time”: sexual frigidity. She and her adoring husband were living the good life, hanging out with rich art collectors and members of the New York literary scene. But when Marie started getting phone calls for help, she got pulled in a very different direction. Show notes and episode transcripts are available at
In 1946, Marie Nyswander, a recent medical school graduate, joined the U.S. Public Health Service looking for adventure abroad. Instead, they sent her to Lexington, Kentucky’s Narcotic Farm, a prison and rehabilitation facility for people with drug addiction, where therapies included milking cows and basket-making. It was at Lexington that Marie encountered addiction for the first time, and what she saw there disturbed her—and reset her life’s course. For show notes and episode transcripts, visit
In 1965, a team of doctors at Rockefeller University announced what sounded like a miracle—they’d found a treatment for heroin addiction that actually seemed to work. For nearly two years, the researchers had been running an experiment with a small group of men, aged 19 to 37, who’d been using heroin for several years—and the results were astonishing. Men who’d been transfixed by heroin cravings for years, who had tried to quit before and failed, were suddenly able to return to their lives. One started painting. Another finished high school and got a scholarship to go to college.  The key to these transformations was a drug called methadone. But the treatment was controversial, and one of the doctors on the team already had a bit of a reputation as a bold, and possibly even reckless, defier of convention: Marie Nyswander. This season, we bring you her story and the radical treatment that would upend the landscape of addiction for decades to come.
Comments (9)

Susanne Bittner

Get fully well soon!

Apr 27th

Pony Co

perfect subject for a podcast

Apr 13th

Sara Shahriari

This episode was great 👌🏻

Feb 18th

Billy Weinheimer

I did not know that! “Since her death in 1979, the woman who discovered what the universe is made of has not so much as received a memorial plaque. Her newspaper obituaries do not mention her greatest discovery. […] Every high school student knows that Isaac Newton discovered gravity, that Charles Darwin discovered evolution, and that Albert Einstein discovered the relativity of time. But when it comes to the composition of our universe, the textbooks simply say that the most abundant atom in the universe is hydrogen. And no one ever wonders how we know.” — Jeremy Knowles, discussing the complete lack of recognition Cecilia Payne gets, even today, for her revolutionary discovery. (via alliterate) OH WAIT LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT CECILIA PAYNE. Cecilia Payne’s mother refused to spend money on her college education, so she won a scholarship to Cambridge. Cecilia Payne completed her studies, but Cambridge wouldn’t give her a degree because she was a woman, so she said to heck with that and m

Jan 17th
Reply (1)

Fatemeh Dehqan

that was excellent 👌🏼😍

Sep 27th

Sara Shahriari

this podcast is amazing 👏 😍 keep going 💪🏻

Jun 23rd
Reply (1)


m.h xxxx

Jun 9th
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