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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.
71 Episodes
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Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin 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 College Observatory, Cecilia charted the way for a generation of female astronomers to come. This Best Of episode of Lost Women of Science follows Cecilia’s journey of discovery, journals her drive and determination against all odds, and takes you to the Harvard College Observatory itself to walk in Cecilia’s footsteps.
The year is 1897 and Annie Maunder, an amateur astronomer, is boarding a steamship bound for India from England. Her goal: to photograph a total solar eclipse. Like the many people whose gaze will turn upwards in North America on April 8, Maunder was fascinated by the secrets of the sun and was determined to travel the globe and unlock them. She understood that the few minutes of darkness during a solar eclipse presented a special opportunity to explore the nature of the sun. Her observations led to our greater understanding of how the sun affects the earth, but like so many early female scientists, her contributions and achievements have been forgotten.
In this episode of Lost Women of Science Conversations, Michelle Nijhuis talks to historian Catherine McNeur about how she rediscovered the lives and work of Elizabeth and Margaretta Morris, two natural scientists who made significant contributions to botany and entomology in the mid-19th Century. Elizabeth collected rare plant species and sent them to institutions around the world, and Margaretta not only discovered new insects but also helped farmers combat the pests that were devastating their fields. Nevertheless, by both design and accident, these women were lost to history. McNeur tells us how that happened and how, piece by piece, she recovered their stories.
While working at the Salk Institute in California, Ursula Bellugi discovered that sign language was made up of specific building blocks that were assembled following strict rules, much like in spoken language. Her subsequent discoveries about the complexities of sign language led both to linguistic breakthroughs and to changes in the way deaf people felt about signing. Bellugi demonstrated that sign language is as rich and complex as any spoken language. Her work deepened our understanding of what it means to communicate as humans.
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 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.
“Hoots and derision, which did not worry me at all,” Lilian Bland wrote, describing her visit to an airshow in Blackpool, England in 1909. She’d been telling everyone there that she intended to build and fly her own airplane. They were unimpressed. Lilian was undeterred. She built a DIY plane of bamboo, wood, and fabric, with a bicycle handlebar for steering and an engine she carried from England back to her home in Ireland. But would the Mayfly, as she called it, fly?
In the first of a new series we’re calling Lost Women of Science Conversations—and a fitting choice for Black History Month—we talk to Maria Smilios, author of a new book that tells the story of Black nurses who were lured from the Jim Crow South to work at a tuberculosis (TB) hospital called Sea View on Staten Island, N.Y. Facing unsanitary conditions and racial prejudice, these “Black Angels” cared for TB patients for decades before a cure that they helped develop was found. It’s a story of bravery and dedication that Smilios pieced together from oral histories and medical records because there were no archives that described these nurses’ work.
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 development, the early microwave, storage systems, and many other products.
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 secret.
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 electromagnetic waves. In 1933 they discovered a new way that hyperfrequency waves could propagate down these tubes, and this made radar technology possible—just in time for use in World War II.
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 Lost Women of Science episode, host Katie Hafner visits the archives at M.I.T. and The Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston to try to understand Dr. Zacharias’s role in rooting out the cause. For host Katie Hafner, it's personal: Leona Zacharias was her grandmother.
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.
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 the era: she funded expeditions up and down the West Coast, hunting fossils. And sometimes she wore pants! But there was a catch. Annie always had to be accompanied by a female chaperone, as it was considered unseemly for a woman to travel surrounded only by men. Luckily, this worked out well for Annie: One of those female chaperones would become her life partner. For show notes and transcript, visit lostwomenofscience.org
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 groundbreaking research on the proximity fuze, the “world’s first ‘smart’ weapon,” in the words of physicist Frank Belknap Baldwin, who also helped develop the technology. 
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 episode traces Mead’s legendary nine-month stay in the South Pacific.
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 excess of women in New England, so a husband would be hard to find; she’d better get an education instead. “Grandma succumbed,” she wrote in her diary. When a man didn't give her credit for her “antilogism,” the core construct in her system of deductive reasoning, she took him to task in print, taking time to praise the beauty of her own concepts. And when Johns Hopkins University attempted to grant Ladd-Franklin an honorary PhD in 1926, she insisted that they grant her the one she'd already earned — after all, she’d completed her dissertation there, without official recognition, more than 40 years earlier. Johns Hopkins succumbed.
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 episode, Katie Hafner talks to Christie Aschwanden, the science writer who created the test, and Ann Finkbeiner, who inspired it, to find out how they came up with these rules, and to see if there might be hope yet for our series. She reports her findings to Carol Sutton Lewis, who has a whole other set of rules for telling these stories.
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 houses in 1948: the Dover Sun House. We heard about Mária Telkes from Erin Twamley, a children's book author who shares the stories, careers, and the superpowers of everyday women. She said she would love Dr. Mária Telkes to be in every fifth grade classroom to inspire young people.
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 conducted a far more complicated experiment that demonstrated the same effect and revealed how it worked. Today, he’s widely known as the man who discovered the greenhouse gas effect. There’s even a crater on the moon named for him! Eunice Newton Foote, meanwhile, was lost to history—until an amateur historian stumbled on her story.
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 graduated from the New England Female Medical College, the world’s first medical school for women and the founding institution of what is now the Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine. The following year, in the chaotic aftermath of the Civil War, she traveled to Virginia to treat refugees. Many women and children, suddenly freed from bondage, were dying. She worked to dispel the myth that recently freed slaves were spreading disease, rightly pointing instead to poor living conditions. There are no known photos of Rebecca Crumpler, but a Boston newspaper article describes her in her 60s as “tall and straight, with light brown skin and gray hair”. Rebecca Crumpler was ahead of her time, promoting preventive medicine, and she paved the way for women of color in the field of public health.
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Comments (9)

Susanne Bittner

Get fully well soon!

Apr 27th
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Pony Co

perfect subject for a podcast

Apr 13th
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Sara Shahriari

This episode was great 👌🏻

Feb 18th
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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
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Fatemeh Dehqan

that was excellent 👌🏼😍

Sep 27th
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Sara Shahriari

this podcast is amazing 👏 😍 keep going 💪🏻

Jun 23rd
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rocetpally

m.h xxxx

Jun 9th
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