In the past hundred years, we've seen incredible discoveries and movements across every field science, literature, art, mathematics... the list goes on. However, due to the sexist nature of the world we live in, women who dedicated their lives to furthering these industries, made revolutionary discoveries, and deserved recognition, were often cast aside or dismissed altogether. These great minds had their work stolen, were tortured, dismissed, left uncredited, and faced huge obstacles, but still managed to contribute in ways that bettered humankind. Below are six stories of incredibly genius women who fit this very bill. For them, we will always be thankful.
Barbara McClintock was a genius scientist whose ideas and discoveries revolutionized science's understanding of genetics. The thing is? Nobody noticed, because nobody would acknowledge she was even there.
McClintock was working at the University of Missouri, and was regularly excluded from staff meetings, and denied advancement, despite her extraordinary abilities. It was there, working alone, that she discovered that chromosomes can break and repair themselves, a process which frequently leads to mutation.
Soon after, McClintock realized that she would never progress at the University of Missouri, due to constantly being undermined and dismissed for being female. She decided to take a job at the Carnegie Institution in New York, hoping this would turn her career around. It turns out, the Carnegie Institution wouldn't take her seriously either. It was there, at the Cold Spring Harbor research facility, that McClintock went on to revolutionize the way we think about genetics. However, nobody would take her seriously, or even pay attention when she tried to talk about it. Everyone just thought of it as a crazy "woman" idea that would never actually be a thing.
Until that point, geneticists around the world strictly adhered to Mandelian genetics. Essentially, the primary point of Mandelian genetics is that parents pass genes on to their offspring via chromosomes that are immutably locked. So if your parents pass a chromosome on to you, you will pass it on to your offspring, and the pattern will continue that way forever and ever amen. Of course, we now know this is wrong. McClintock knew it was wrong, too, but nobody would listen to her.
There was a shift, though, and I'm going to warn you now that it wasn't a good one. Our story of sexism is about to get a whole lot nastier.
In 1948, McClintock discovered that certain parts of chromosomes could swap genes, which essentially negated the Mandelian theory that every other geneticist had been adhering to. This was obviously a revolutionary discovery.
People weren't listening to McClintock, so she persisted. "In fact, Sewall Wright straight up told her she must have done the math wrong." Let's just understand the gravity of this statement here at that point, McClintock was an award-winning geneticist with a Ph.D. she obviously knew how to double check her numbers. What a low blow.
After that, McClintock toured universities, lecturing on her findings, and wrote letters and papers to scientific journals -- all to no avail. Nobody would take her seriously. All those years, (ten, to be precise), McClintock had finally been worn down by the rampant sexism in her industry. She put two middle fingers to the air and moved on to other studies. Just take a moment to think about all the further discoveries McClintock could and would have made, had people just taken a moment to listen to her. Is it making you angry? Well, you're about to be steaming...
Fast forward in time, and in 1961, McClintock opens an article to read, by a male geneticist who had made the same discovery as McClintock, and was now getting famous for it. He had taken it to his cohort, everyone took him seriously, it had been verified by a bunch of other (male) scientists, and was now completely making waves in the scientific world. So what does McClintock do?
No, she didn't do the thing I would have done, which is egg every house of the people who dismissed me for literal decades. She wrote a piece for American Naturalist, pointing out that she'd done the same thing, years before. All of a sudden, since the discovery had now been made and verified by men, McClintock was taken seriously. 35 years later, she saw recognition for her discoveries and was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1983.
There she is, ladies and gentlemen. A totally amazing, determined, and genius, shafted by sexism.
If you've ever watched a Tim Burton film, you've probably noticed that the characters tend to have a similar quality to their eyes they're huge.
And Tim Burton is the first to acknowledge that this influence, of dispoportionately large eyes, is from none other than 1960s painter, Margaret Keane. In fact, Tim Burton even directed a movie about her in 2014, called Big Eyes.
Here is an example of one of her paintings, called "The Stray."
However, it wasn't always that people would have associated this painting with Margaret Keane. For decades, starting in the 1960s, these paintings, and this entire art style, was attributed to Walter Keane, her ex-husband.
Walter Keane became famous for his best-selling "Keane Kids" paintings in the 1960s. It wasn't until later that everyone found out the truth behind the paintings...
When Margaret and Walter got married, Walter noticed Margaret's extraordinary painting abilities. However, Margaret was very withdrawn, and didn't quite have the networking-savvy approach that was needed to pursue a career as a successful artist. She also (and this is a key detail) signed her paintings with her last name. Walter, who turned out to be a grade A level horrible person, (and you'll see why in a moment), saw this as an opportunity.
He started taking his paintings and selling them on his own, and people loved them. Walter made millions. He would lock Margaret in a room for up to 16 hours a day and force her to mass produce her paintings. Meanwhile, he blew up in the public eye and got to bask in the glory of being a wealthy, famous artist in the 1960s.
In 1965, Margaret decided to try to do something for once and for all she filed for divorce. Even after their separation, Walter had convinced Margaret that she should keep painting and selling them under his name. This is a perfect example of what 10 years of an abusive relationship can make you think is normal. It wasn't long, though, before Margaret realized how ridiculous their arrangement was, and stopped producing paintings for him. But the battle was far from over, yet.
In 1970, Margaret told the public that she had been behind the paintings all along. How was she planning to prove it? A public paint-off. At first, Walter refused. That's when Margaret took it a step further to court. In court, it was also revealed that Walter had, among other abusive things, threatened to kill Margaret and her child.
In the end, the court ordered a paint-off. Both Walter and Margaret worked beside jurors. Margaret whipped up a Keane Kid painting in just 53 minutes, while Walter spent that same time trying to convince the judge he had an injury that prevented him from picking up the paint brush. In the end, Margaret won (obviously), and was awarded $4 million. It actually seems like a pretty small amount, considering how much her paintings were worth, and all that she went through.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell was born in Northen Ireland in 1943. In the year 1967, while Bell Burnell was still in her twenties, she was studying as a graduate student in radio astronomy at Cambridge University, in England. It was then, that she discovered pulsars.
Pulsars are the remnants of stars that went supernova (exploded). Why are they important? They are tiny fragments of proof that the star once existed, and didn't just disappear after the explosion. It was a huge discovery for astronomy, and it was no small task Bell Burnell analyzed data printed out on three miles of paper from a radio telescope she had helped assemble herself, and found, in all that, the pulsars.
This was so monumental, that the finding earned a Nobel Prize but here's where things get messy. That 1974 award in physics didn't go to Bell Burnell. Instead, they handed it to Anthony Hewish, Bell Burnell's supervisor, and Martin Ryle, a fellow radio astronomer at Cambridge University.
When Bell Burnell—now a visiting astronomy professor at the University of Oxford— was recently interviewed about it, by National Geographic, she said:
"The picture people had at the time of the way that science was done was that there was a senior man—and it was always a man—who had under him a whole load of minions, junior staff, who weren't expected to think, who were only expected to do as he said."
In fact, Bell Burnell had a life of being snubbed in her pursuit of science and academia. In the same interview, she said:
"It was extremely hard combining family and career." This was partly because the university where she worked while pregnant had no provisions for maternity leave.
Bell Burnell hasn't given up the fight yet, though. She recently chaired a working group for the Royal Society of Edinburgh, tasked with finding a strategy to boost the number of women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math in Scotland.
The story of Rosalind Franklin is perhaps one of the better-known stories of sexism in the field of research. It's also one of the most horrible.
Rosalind Franklin was born in London in 1920. She graduated from Cambridge University in 1945, with her doctorate in physical chemistry. Afterward, she spent three years at an institute in Paris, learning x-ray diffraction techniques. For all you non-sciencey people, that's a technique used to determine the molecular structures of crystals.
In 1951, she returned to England as a research associate, where she worked in John Randall's laboratory at King's College in London. It was there, that she encountered Maurice Wilkins, who was leading a research group studying the structure of DNA.
According to National Geographic:
"Franklin and Wilkins worked on separate DNA projects, but by some accounts, Wilkins mistook Franklin's role in Randall's lab as that of an assistant rather than head of her own project."
Meanwhile, a couple of other researchers were also trying to determine the structure of DNA, and they showed Franklin's image of DNAknown as Phototo Wilkins, without her knowledge or permission.
According to National Geographic:
"Photo 51 enabled Watson, Crick, and Wilkins to deduce the correct structure for DNA, which they published in a series of articles in the journal Nature in April 1953. Franklin also published in the same issue, providing further details on DNA's structure."
Franklin's image of the DNA molecule was the key to figuring out the complex structure of DNA. It could not have been done without her. Yet, Franklin was totally unaware that her work was being stolen, shared, and used by others.
In 1962, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins all received the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their work... and Franklin didn't even get a mention. In fact, she had died in 1958, four years earlier. Since Nobel prizes aren't awarded posthumously, we will never know whether she would have been included in the prize for her work.
Esther Lederberg was born in 1922 in the Bronx. Nobody could have guessed that that little babe would grow up to revolutionize the field of microbiology. That's right Lederberg was behind many advancements that laid the groundwork for future discoveries on genetic inheritance in bacteria, gene regulation, and fenetic recombination.
It doesn't stop there, though!
She is perhaps most famous, (or, not, since she never really received the notoriety she deserved), for discovering a virus that infects bacteria called the lamda bacteriophage in 1951, while at the University of Wisconsin.
Oh, but wait... there's more. Lederberg was one half of a science power couple. Her and her husband, Joshua Lederberg, developed a way to transfer bacterial colonies from one petri dish to another, which, prior to that, was extremely difficult or impossible. They called it replica plating. Inventing this method actually lead to a whole new form of study: the study of antibiotic resistance. This is now known as the Lederberg method, and it's still used today.
Because of this new development, the 1958 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine went to none other than... Joshua Lederberg. Along with two of his colleagues George Beadle and Edward Tatum.
Esther Lederberg was left entirely out of the prize winning a fact that many have tried to speak out against. Stanley Falkow, a retired microbiologist at Stanford University, said, "She deserved credit for the discovery of lambda phage, her work on the F fertility factor, and, especially, replica plating."
That's not where it ended, for Lederberg's struggles, either. Falkow went on to speak at Esther's memorial service in 2006, and touched on the ways that she, and her work in the academic world, were often regarded as less important:
"She had to fight just to be appointed as a research associate professor, whereas she surely should have been afforded full professorial rank. She was not alone. Women were treated badly in academia in those days."
Have you ever heard of Chien-Shiung Wu? Not many people have.
But I bet you've heard of the atom bomb. Guess what? Chien-Shiung Wu was not an instrumental scientist behind the development of the atom bomb, she also overturned a laws of physics. Yeah. She's pretty cool. So where did we go wrong?
In the 1940s, Wu was recruited to Colombia University as part of the Manhattan Project. There, she conducted research on uranium enrichment and radiation detection. After the war, Wu remained in the United States. There, she became known as one of the best experimental physicists of her time (and quite frankly, of all time).
It wasn't until the mid-1950s, that two theoretical physicists, Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, approached Wu to help disprove the law of parity. That's a huge deal you're essentially being asked to take a law of the universe that everyone believes to be true, and figure out how it's not true. What was this law? The law holded that in quantum mechanics, two physical systems like atoms that were mirror images, would behave in identical ways.
Wu got to work. Leave it to her to figure it out. She conducted experiments using cobalt-60, a radioactive form of the cobalt metal, and ... snap she upended a law that had been accepted as true for 30 years.
So can you guess who received the 1957 Nobel Prize for such a discovery? That's right Tsung-Dao Lee and Chan Ning Yang. Wu was left out. People were outraged, but nothing was ever changed.
Many historians and scientists alike believe it was a combination of Wu's gender and ethnicity that led to this ridiculous snub.
Wu died of a stroke in 1997 in New York.
As a small side note, you might like to know that Wu also had a wicked sense of humor! Here's one of her quotes:
"There is only one thing worse than coming home from the lab to a sink full of dirty dishes, and that is not going to the lab at all!"