Historical Women in Physics and Astronomy

For an old Science Borealis editorial , my co-editor and I compiled a surely incomplete list of historical (mostly pre-WWII) women in physics and astronomy. We did this to prove a point -- the history of women in physics does not start or end with Marie Curie -- but compiling the list was illuminating. For one, the list is disappointingly short: I was hoping that a little digging would turn up more women who carved out a space for themselves in the history of science, but the same names come up again and again.

Secondly, the list is overwhelmingly European or American, which just doesn't make sense. There is a rich history of physics, astronomy, and mathematics outside of the Western sphere: there was a wave of scientific innovation during the Islamic Golden Age (9th - 12th centuries), and much of the work of Islamic scholars relied on Indian texts. There are lots of documents showing that the Malinese empire had advanced math and science. The extraordinary navigational skills of the Polynesian islanders and the sophisticated calendars of Mesoamerica both require astronomical knowledge. Astronomy and physics have never been the sole domain of Western thinkers, and it is ridiculous to think that only a small handful non-Western women have made a mark in the entire pre-WWII history of physics and astronomy. I haven't found a single named female astronomer from India, Polynesia, non-Egyptian Africa, Mesoamerica, South America, Japan, southeast Asia, or Australia from before the 20th century, which is profoundly disheartening. I am still looking.

Since this is the internet, repository for all things meticulously enumerated, I am reposting the list at the end of the original editorial, with a few details for each woman. I've added some women whose names I've come across since the editorial was published, and I'll continue to update this list as I find more. This should probably be a Tumblr rather than a page on a site, and someday when I have some time I'll set one up. In the mean time, if you know of someone who should be on the list, please get in touch -- my email and twitter handle are both in the header at the top of the page.

  • En Hedu’anna: Ur, c. 2300BCE. poet, astronomer-priestess, first named woman whose scholarship we still know of.  
  • Aglaonice: Greece, c. 200-100 BCE. Astronomer, priestess, predicter of eclipses.  
  • Ban Zhao: China, 45-116. First known female Chinese historian, scholar of many disciplines including astronomy.  
  • Hypatia: Egypt, c. 360-415. titan of physics, astronomy, and philsophy.
  • Queen Seondeok: Korea, c 600-647. Built Cheomseongdae, the oldest observatory in East Asia.
  • Mariam al-Ijiliya: Syria, mid 10th century. Builder of innovative astrolabes.   
  • Fatima de Madrid: Spain, of Arabic heritage, 10-11th century. Compiled tables of astronomical and mathematical data.
  • Sophia Brahe: Denmark, 1556-1647. Assisted her brother Tycho with his observations.   
  • Maria Cunitz: Silesia, 1610-1664.  Published technical book with new solution to Kepler's problem. Work greatly advanced German scientific language.
  • Margaret Cavendish: England, 1623-1673. Published widely in natural philosophy, argued for women's scientific education, and was first female guest at the Royal Society (which shortly afterwards banned women until 1945.)   
  • Margeurite de la Sabliere: France, 1640-1693. Salonist, polymath, and astronomer.   
  • Elisabeth Hevelius: Poland, 1647-1693. Published a large volume of precise star position data, including 600 newly described stars.
  • Maria Winkelmann Kirch: Germany, 1670-1720. First woman to discover a comet. Produced calendars and almanacs with her husband. Wrote on the aurora borealis and planetary alignments.
  • Christine and Margaretha Kirch: Germany, 1696-1782, 1703-1744. Daughters of Maria Kirch, both worked as assistants and calculators for their mother and brother.
  • Maria Clara Eimmart: Germany, 1676-1707. Astronomical illustrator and observer. 
  • Clelia Borromeo: Genoa, 1684-1777. Discoverer of Clélie curve, mathematician, and salonist.
  • Guiseppa Barbapiccola: Italy, 1702-c 1740.  Scientific translator, advocate for women's education. Wrote the first Italian translation of Descartes' Principles of Philosophy. 
  • Émelie du Châtelet: France, 1706-1749. Physicist, scientific translator, salonist. Hypothesized that total energy is conserved separately from momentum, predicted the existence of infrared light. Her translation of Newton's Principa Mathematica remains the standard French translation.
  • Jeanne Dumée: France, 1660-1706. Wrote astronomical texts supporting Copernican theory.
  • Laura Bassi: Italy, 1711-1778. First woman to earn a university chair (and teaching position) in science. Wrote 28 papers, most on physics and hyrdaulics, and was a prolific corresponder with prominent thinkers. Her husband was her teaching assistant.
  • Nicole-Reine Lepaute: France, 1723-1788. Calculated the return of Halley's Comet, planetary positions, and a solar eclipse. Created catalogs of stars.   
  • Maria Angela Ardinghelli: Italy, 1730-1825. Scientific translator, correspondent, and experimentalist.
  • Cristina Roccati: Italy, 1732-1797. Taught physics for many years at Academy of Concordi, where she was later elected president.
  • Caroline Herschel: Germany and England, 1750-1848. First woman paid for her scientific work. Discovered eight comets, 14 nebulae, and 550 stars. Cross-indexed and augmented existing star catalogs.
  • Wang Zhenyi: China, 1768-1797. Explained and described the movement of the equinoxes, planetary mechanics, and eclipses. Experimentally explored eclipses, accomplished in mathematics as well.
  • Sophie Germain: France, 1776-1831. Mathematician, experimentalist. First woman to win a prize from the Paris Academy of Sciences, for work on the governing equations of elastic surfaces.
  • Mary Somerville: Scotland, 1780-1872. Ran experiments in magnetism, and was the second woman (after Herschel) to have her work published by the Royal Society. Did scientific work for nearly 70 years.
  • Caterina Scarpellini: Italy, 1808-1873. Astonomer and meteorologist. Set up a meteorological station in Rome.
  • Maria Mitchell: USA, 1818-1889. First American woman to work as a professional astronomer. Discovered a comet by telescope, calculated tables of the positions of Venus. First faculty member, male or female, of Vassar College.
  • Sarah Frances Whiting: USA, 1847-1927. Established the physics department and undergraduate experimental physics lab at Wellesley College. Wrote physics textbooks, and was first to run labs for female student. Mentor and educator of several prominent female astronomers, including Annie Jump Cannon.
  • Margaret Huggins: Ireland and England, 1848-1815. Pioneer in spectroscopy, showed that stars are distant suns, and found the first evidence showing a star moving away from the Earth.
  • Sofia Kovalevskaya: Russia, 1850-1891. Wrote papers on partial differential equations, Abelian integrals, the refraction of light, and the rotation of asymmetrical bodies. First woman in nearly 100 years to hold a chair at a European univeristy. Editted a mathematical journal.
  • Hertha Marks Ayrton: England, 1854-1923. Worked with electricity, first woman to read her paper to the Institution of Electrical Engineers. Holder of five patents.
  • Williamina Fleming: Scotland and USA, 1857-1911. Discovered 59 nebulae, 310 variable stars, and 10 novae. Devised the first system of categorizing stars by their composition, and headed the Harvard Computers.
  • Margaret Eliza Maltby: USA, 1860-1944. First woman to earn a degree at MIT. Taught at Barnard College, agitated for the professional advancement of women in physics. Measured electrical nature of solutions.   
  • Agnes Pockels: Germany, 1862-1935. Made foundational discoveries about surface tension and the properties of liquid and solid surfaces.   
  • Annie Jump Cannon: USA, 1863-1941. Devised stellar categoization by temperature, which is still used today. Classified an astonishing 500,000 stars, discovered 300 variable stars, 5 novae, and a spectroscopic binary.
  • Antonia Maury: USA, 1866-1952. Proposed a modification to Jump Cannon's system of classifying stars, which was later instrumental for the Hertzprung-Russel diagram. Studied spectoscopic binaries, published an catalog of stellar spectra under her own name.
  • Marie Curie: Poland and France, 1867-1934. Titan of physics and chemistry, pioneer in studying radiation and radioactive elements, discoverer of polonium and radium. First woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first woman to win two Nobel prizes, and the first female professor at the University of Paris.
  • Henrietta Swan Leavitt: USA, 1868-1921. Her work was critical for measuring astronomical distances in the early 20th century. Described the period-luminosity relationship of Cepheid variables, devising the first "standard candle" in astronomy.
  • Harriet Brooks: Canada, 1876-1933. First female Canadian nuclear physicist, and first woman to receive a Master's degree in Canada, from McGill University. Described the nature of radioactive emissions from thorium, did one of the first measurements of the half-life of radon, and made the first attempt to measure the atomic weight of radon.
  • Lise Meitner: Austria, 1878-1968. Pioneer in nuclear physics, co-discoverer of nuclear fission. Overlooked for the Nobel Prize, which was awarded to her colleague. Researched beta radiation, radioactivity, discovered stable isotopes of heavy elements. First woman in Germany to hold a full professorship in physics.
  • Emmy Noether: Germany, 1882-1935. Titan of mathematics and theoretical physics. Developed theories of rings, fields, and algebra. Her theorem explains the connection between symmetry and conservation laws, which underpins most of classical mechanics and greatly clarifies what energy means in general relativity.   
  • Ida Eva Noddack: Germany, 1896-1978. First person to discuss the idea of nuclear fission, though she did not experimentally discover it. Discovered rhenium (element 75).
  • Irene Joliot-Curie: France, 1897-1956. Discovered that stable isotopes can become unstable when exposed
  • to radiation, and won a Nobel Prize for it.
  • Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: England and USA, 1900-1979. Described the composition of stars using spectrscopic data, including the abundances of hydrogen and helium. Studied variable stars, the Magellanic clouds, and the life cycle of stars.
  • Maria Goeppert Mayer: Poland and USA, 1906-1972. Devised the shell model of the atom, and won a Nobel Prize (along with three German scientists who independently came to the same conclusion). She worked on the Manhattan project, and programmed ENIAC to simluate a nuclear reactor.
  • Paris PismisArmenia and Mexico, 1911-1999. One of the first women to attend Instanbul University, first professional astronomer in Mexico. Studied galactic kinematics, globular clusters, galactic structure. Prominent editor of Mexican astronomical journals.
  • Chien-Shiung Wu: China and USA, 1912-1997. Experimental nuclear physicist, who showed the conservation of parity does not apply to weak interactions; this has significant consequences for the Standard Model. The theoretical physicists who prompted her experiments were awared the Nobel Prize.   
  • Ruby Payne-Scott: Australia, 1912-1981. Pioneer of radio astronomy, and first female radio astronomer.
  • Katherine Johnson: USA, 1918. Lead use of digital computers in NASA space program. Calculated the trajectories for both Project Mercury and the Apollo 11 moon landing.
  • Leona Woods: USA, 1919-1986. Nuclear physicist, and only female member of the team who built the first nuclear reactor (Chicago Pile-1), a critical part of the Manhattan Project.   
  • Alenush Teria: Iran, 1920-2011.  First female Iranian professor of physics, and founder of solar telescopic observatory at the University of Tehran. Prominent figure in modern Iranian astronomy. 
  • Xide Xie: China, 1921-2000. Prolific researcher in solid state and semiconductor physics. Founded the Modern Physics Institute and the Centre for American Studies at Fudan Univerisity. Championed scientific education, and developed educational ties between China and other nations.
  • Ursula Franklin: Canada, 1921. Metallurgist, first female engineering professor at University of Toronto, and pioneer in using materials science to date archeological artifacts. Lead (and won) a class-action lawsuit against U of T for discriminatory pay against female professors.
  • Vera Rubin: USA, 1928. Discovered the first evidence for dark matter by studying galaxy rotation rates.