March is designated as Women’s History Month, a time to recognize women who accomplished extraordinary feats through determination, intelligence, skill, talent, and sheer will. Although women have made gains over the years in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), they are still underrepresented compared to men. According to the United States Census Bureau, in 2019, women represented 27 percent of STEM workers, and men, 73 percent. For this Women’s History Month, let’s look at some of the many American women who were pioneers of their time, continuing to inspire generations of women to come.
Table of Contents
Annie Jump Cannon (1863–1941)
American astronomer Annie Jump Cannon—also known as the “census taker of the sky”—created the Harvard Spectral Classification Scheme. During her career of more than 40 years, Cannon manually classified nearly 350,000 stars. Cannon was the first woman to receive a doctorate in astronomy from Groningen University (1921), the first woman to be awarded an honorary doctorate from Oxford University (1925), and the first woman to receive the Henry Draper Medal from the National Academy of Sciences (1931). Cannon, an advocate of women’s rights and a National Women’s Party member, established the Annie J. Cannon Award in 1933 to encourage the next generation of female astronomers.
Born on December 11, 1863, in Dover, Delaware, Cannon studied physics and astronomy at Wellesley College and graduated in 1884. Ten years later, after her mother died in 1894, Cannon returned to Wellesley as a junior physics teacher and enrolled to study astronomy in Radcliffe College—a women’s coordinate institute of the all-male Harvard College. In 1896, Edward Pickering, Director of the Harvard College Observatory, hired Cannon to catalog stars. Cannon devised a new star classification system based on star temperature, an approach adopted universally in 1922 by the International Astronomical Union. Today, astronomers still use her mnemonic “Oh Be a Fine Girl, Kiss Me” (O, B, F, G, K, M) to remember the star classes she created.
Chien-Shiung Wu (1912–1997)
Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu, known as “the First Lady of Physics,” was an experimental physicist who played a crucial role in the success of the Manhattan Project, which built the first atomic bomb during World War II. While working at Columbia University, Wu’s research improved Geiger counters (instruments used to detect and measure radiation) and processes for enriching uranium in large quantities for producing atom bombs. Wu was born on May 29, 1912, in Liuhe, China. During the time, it was uncommon for women to receive an education in China, but Wu’s father, an intellectual and an engineer, encouraged her to study. In 1934, Wu graduated from the National Central University in Nanking, China, with a degree in physics. She came to the United States in 1936 to study nuclear physics at the University of California, Berkeley. At UC Berkeley, Wu studied under the guidance of physicists Ernest Lawrence, who received a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1939, and Julius Robert Oppenheimer, one of the Manhattan Project’s lead scientists.
Wu was also instrumental in assisting physicists Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang in proving their theory that contested the law of conservation of parity of particles, which concerns ensembles of particles. Despite Wu’s contribution, only Lee and Yang received acknowledgment for their theory and won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1957. Eventually, though, Wu gained the recognition she deserved, and the experiment, which tested the conservation of parity of particles during beta decay using Cobalt-60 near absolute zero temperatures, was named “the Wu experiment.” Wu also earned awards such as the Comstock Prize in Physics (1964) and the Wolf Prize (1978). She was appointed the first female president of the American Physical Society in 1975.
Gertrude Belle Elion (1918–1999)
Gertrude Belle Elion’s persistence and thirst for knowledge led her and her colleagues to pioneer rational drug development methods that earned them the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1988. Elion was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1991.
Born in New York on January 23, 1918, to Eastern European Jewish parents, Elion received a good education. At 15, she lost her maternal grandfather to stomach cancer. Watching him in distress inspired Elion to alleviate human suffering. Elion enrolled in Hunter College and graduated summa cum laude in 1937. Her application for a fellowship to attend graduate school was rejected by 15 institutions because of her gender. In 1944, Elion joined Burroughs Wellcome Laboratories (now part of GlaxoSmithKline) as an assistant to George Hitchings, a medical doctor and pharmaceuticals pioneer. In the lab, Hitchings and Elion studied the chemical composition of disease cells to create new drugs instead of continuing with the established trial-and-error method of drug development. Elion’s first breakthrough occurred in the 1950s with the development of purinethol and Thioguanine to treat leukemia. Subsequent drug discoveries credited to Hitchings and Elion, using their new method, include medications for gout, autoimmune disorders, malaria, urinary tract infections, viral herpes, and azidothymidine (AZT) for AIDS. Elion never completed her Ph.D., but Brown University, George Washington University, and the University of Michigan awarded her honorary doctorates for her exemplary career.
Margaret Hamilton (1936– )
The Apollo Project made history, especially Apollo 11, which landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. However, one project member sometimes overlooked is Margaret Hamilton, the software engineer who wrote the code for the Command and Lunar Modules. Hamilton is credited with coining the term “software engineer” since no term existed to describe her work then.
Margaret Heafield was born in Paoli, Indiana, on August 17, 1936. In 1958, she graduated from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, with a minor in philosophy and mathematics. The same year, she married James Hamilton, whom she met at Earlham. The couple moved to Massachusetts, where James attended Harvard Law School, and in 1960 Margaret took a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in their Lincoln Laboratory. Working with Professor Edward Lorenz, she learned to write code and helped develop an air defense system to identify enemy aircraft, the first of its kind. The following year, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) contracted with MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory to develop the flight software for the Apollo Project. Hamilton applied for the job and became the first female programmer hired. She and her team of 100 software engineers, mostly men, made the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing a historic success. In 2003, NASA awarded Hamilton the Exceptional Space Act Award, and in 2016, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Sally Ride (1951–2012)
On June 18, 1983, Sally K. Ride became the first American woman to travel into outer space aboard the space shuttle Challenger STS-7. The next year, Ride flew a second mission aboard Challenger STS-41G. Sally Kristen Ride was born in Encino, California, on May 26, 1951. She graduated from Stanford University with a Master of Science degree in 1975 and a Doctorate in physics in 1978. In the same year, Ride was selected to be part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s astronaut program along with five other women and 29 men. Following her accomplishments as an astronaut, Ride resigned from NASA in 1987 and became a physics professor at the University of California, San Diego. To foster an interest in science in young minds, Ride created NASA’s EarthKAM Project. This initiative allowed middle school children to take and study pictures of the Earth from a camera aboard the International Space Station. In 2001, she started her own science content company, Sally Ride Science, to encourage young girls and boys to pursue careers in STEM. Ride wrote seven children’s books on the theme of space exploration.
In 1988, Ride was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and in 2003, she was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Ride received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
Mae Carol Jemison (1956– )
Mae Carol Jemison, a doctor, engineer, and astronaut, became the first African-American woman in space in 1992. Jemison was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame the next year. Jemison was an extremely bright child, born on October 17, 1956, in Decatur, Alabama. She went to Stanford University at 16. In 1977, Jemison graduated from Stanford with a degree in chemical engineering and African-American studies. Before becoming an astronaut, Jemison attended medical school at Cornell University and graduated in 1981, volunteered at a refugee camp in Thailand, and served as a medical officer in West Africa from 1983 to 1985 as part of the Peace Corps. Inspired by astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, Jemison pursued her lifelong dream of space travel. In 1987, she was selected with 15 others out of 2,000 applicants to train as mission specialists with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In 1992, Jemison flew as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Endeavour STS-47 that orbited the Earth 127 times before landing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Jemison resigned from NASA the following year but continues to serve with various federal and private organizations.
Originally published on Omnigraphics.