Where are the genius women?

Over winter break, my sons and I had a discussion about  “geniuses” and we talked about Tesla, Einstein, Mozart…along with a bunch of others. I thought….ALL MEN? Huh? I asked my sons if they knew any female geniuses and they could not name even one. Honestly, I felt embarrassed as I could not name any easily either, so my investigation started.

Historically unless you where very rich, born to nontradional parents or in an “enlightened” time persiond or culture, most women were not even allowed to learn to read/write or attend school.. It was amazing that some would even be able to participate in academic, artistic or industrial endeavors.  Even today, many cultures still oppress the great minds of women who are yet to be discovered. But, that is a topic for another day.

Now you can argue that all women are “biological geniuses”as they can grow a new human in their bodies, but I was thinking “bigger brain” stuff.

I researched and found 14 amazing women from history. Some names you may know and others are new names to appreciate and be inspired by.

marie-curie-5Marie Curie  (1867 – 1934)
A Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win twice, the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences, and was part of the Curie family legacy of five Nobel Prizes. She was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris, and in 1995 became the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris.  Random fact: She did all this and was a working mother!

Univac y Grace HopperAdmiral Dr. Grace Murray Hopper  (1906 –  1992)             
Grace Hopper was one of the most accomplished women in computer science. She held a Ph.D. in mathematics and taught at Vassar until she joined the Navy during World War II. She served in the Naval Reserves for most of her life, eventually achieving the rank of Rear Admiral.  Her best-known contribution to computing was the invention of the compiler, the intermediate program that translates English language instructions into the language of the target. Random Fact: She is known for coining the term “bug,” as in “computer bug”.

madame-de-stael-3Madame De Stael (1766 – 1817)
Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker, Baronne (baroness) was a French-Swiss woman of letters, political propagandist, and conversationalist. She also gained fame by maintaining a salon for leading intellectuals. Her writings include novels, plays, moral and political essays, literary criticism, history, autobiographical memoirs, and poetry. Her most important literary contribution was as a leading theorist of RomanticismRandom Fact: While not a great beauty and rather clumsy, she attracted many suitors as she was good-humored, vivacious and a witty conversationalist, not afraid to share her opinions. Napoleon was not impressed by her as he did not like smart women and she tended to encourage  others to speak against his politics. So the bully exiled her on three different occasions out of France. During her exiles, she did her greatest writing. Thank you chauvinist Napoleon.

Kleopatra-VII.-Altes-Museum-Berlin1Cleopatra VII Philopator   (69 BCE–30 BCE)
She was brutal politician who created a Godlike persona, eliminated her opposition and seduced powerful leaders into alliances.  She began her rule as Monarch at 18 years old and had inherited the most lucrative enterprise in existence. She sought to defend Egypt from the expanding Roman Empire and in doing so she formed relationships with two of Rome’s most powerful leaders, Marc Anthony and Julius Caesar. Although, she failed to secure freedom for her country, she is remembered for her beauty, intelligence, education, and passionate devotion. She also broke the glass ceiling of her time. Random Fact: She had four children. Cleopatra’s first child was a son by Caesar. She had twins, a boy and a girl, as well as another son, all by Marcus Antonius.  2nd Random Fact: Cleopatra was also renowned for her intellect. She could speak at least nine languages and wrote scientific/mathematical studies. She is also the most popular Halloween costume of all these ladies.

Ada_Lovelace_portrait-1024x858Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)
A British mathematician is considered to be the first computer programmer in the world. Her analysis of the Analytical Engine of Charles Babbage, the forerunner of computer, is said to have had the first ever algorithms. Her articles inspired Alan Turing in his study of modern computers. The programming language developed by US Department of Defense, is named after her.  Random Fact: She much was a  ‘prophet of the computer age’. She literally envisioned a machine (computer) that could manipulate symbols in accordance with rules and that number could represent entities other than quantity mark the fundamental transition from calculation to computation. She also, at the age of 12, conceptualized a flying machine (Modern plane). There is a cool organization inspired by her: http://findingada.com  that supports women in STEM.

thLise Meitner ( 1878 – 1927)
An Austrian-Swedish physicist who worked on radioactivity and nuclear physics. The second woman Doctor of Physics, she was one of the great nuclear scientists of all-time. Otto Hahn and Meitner led the small group of scientists who first discovered nuclear fission of uranium when it absorbed an extra neutron; the results were published in early 1939. They understood that the fission process, which splits the atomic nucleus of uranium into two smaller nuclei, must be accompanied by an enormous release of energy. This process is the basis of the nuclear weapons that were developed in the U.S. during World War II and used against Japan in 1945. Nuclear fission is also the process exploited by nuclear reactors to generate electricity. Random Fact: She was slighted the Nobel Prize when it was only given to Otto, her partner, but later the chemical element 109 was named after her  “Meitnerium”.  Chew on that Otto!

lamarr-hedy-05-gHedy Lamarr  (1914 – 2000)
German actress as well as Hollywood Beauty. Lovely to look at, but also brainy. At the beginning of World War II, Lamarr and composer George Antheil developed a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes, which used spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology to defeat the threat of jamming by the Axis powers. Although the US Navy did not adopt the technology until the 1960s, the principles of their work are now incorporated into modern Wi-Fi, CDMA, and Bluetooth technology. Random Fact: She was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.

walk mcjSarah Breedlove Walker  (1867 – 1919)
Known as Madam C. J. Walker, was an African American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and a political and social activist. She was “the world’s most successful female entrepreneur of her time,” and one of the most successful African-American business owners ever. Walker made her fortune by developing and marketing a line of beauty and hair products for black women through Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. Random Fact: The Walker Company closed in 1981.  In March 2016, Sundial Brands and Sephora launched a new line of 25 products under the brand name Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culture, in honor of the company and its founder.

Sophie_age14Sophie Germain (1776 – 1831)
Sophie Germain had a lifelong study of mathematics and geometry, even teaching herself Latin and Greek so that she could read classic works. Unable to study at the École Polytechnique because she was female, Germain obtained lecture notes and submitted papers to Joseph Lagrange, a faculty member, under a false name. When he learned she was a woman, he became a mentor and Germain soon began corresponding with other prominent mathematicians at the time. Her education was mostly self-taught as she was relentless in her passion of science and math. Random Fact: She was so impassioned to learn Math and Science in an era that did not support her, that her persistence eventually led to her to receive a medal from the Institut de France and an honorary degree from University of Gíttingen. You go girl!

Rosalind-FranklinRosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
A biophycist played a seminal role in the discovery of the structure of DNA, though she didn’t get the credit she deserved. She produced X-ray diffraction images of DNA which later helped Watson and Crick to find the double helix model of DNA.  Random Fact: Crick and Watson pretty much ripped her off without giving her credit. She turned the other cheek and in five years, Franklin published 17 papers on viruses, and her group laid the foundations for structural virology. A class act who worked until her death of Ovarian Cancer at 38 years old.

dr-maria-goeppert-mayer-theoretical-everettMaria Goeppert-Mayer (1906-1972)
This German-born American scientist is one of the most important figures in nuclear physics. Although her favorite subject was mathematics, she later turned to physics. Meyer is known for suggesting the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus. She became the second woman, after Madam Curie, to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963.  Random Fact: During WWII, she worked on the Manhattan Project. Cool huh?

515428646Gertrude Elion (1918-1998)
Gertrude Belle Elion shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1988 for discoveries regarding drug treatment. She was an American pharmacologist who developed AZT, an antiretroviral drug used for the treatment of AIDS, with Dr. George H Hitchings.  Among the many other drugs she developed were the first chemotherapy for childhood leukemia, the immunosuppressant that made organ transplantation possible, the first effective anti-viral medication, and treatments for lupus, hepatitis, herpes, arthritis, gout, and other diseases.   Random Fact: “It’s amazing how much you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.” her quote and mantra. Elion worked tirelessly to convey the fun and excitement of science to students of all ages and to encourage children—especially girls—to pursue scientific careers.

Katherine Johnson To the Moon and BackKatherine G. Johnson (1918-living)
A NASA mathematician, Johnson’s computations have influenced every major space program from Mercury through the Shuttle. She even calculated the flight path for the first American mission space. A talented student who entered West Virginia State University, at only 15 years old. She was the third African American to earn a PhD. in mathematics. In 2015, she  awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Random Fact: The film Hidden Figures was released in 2016; based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, it is about Johnson and her black colleagues at NASA.

anguissola-sofonisba_self-portrait-at-easel_zamek_webSofonisba Anguissola (1532 –1625)
An Italian Renaissance painter born to a noble family, but a relatively poor one. She and her siblings were all educated and she had apprenticeships with local painters which set a precedent for women to be accepted as students of art. As a young woman, she traveled to Rome where she was introduced to Michelangelo, who immediately recognized her talent, and to Milan, where she painted the Duke of Alba. Elizabeth of Valois, the queen of Philip II of Spain. Most known for her portrait of Queen Elisabeth of Valois which was widely copied by many of the finest artists of the time, such as Peter Paul Rube. Random Fact: She was a feminist of artists in her time with a legacy of over fifty works currently in museums and countless artists who copied and mimicked her style.

In summary, I dedicate this post to my sons as they inspired me to investigate and find these amazing people.

In my reading, a common theme was evident. These geniuses were often overlooked, dismissed and sometimes ignored. Many of them had to work harder and sneakier to follow their passion and talents, because they were women.  And likely they probably did it in heels….backwards  🙂

Peace brainiacs.

Much of the information was gleaned from the following…and I recommend you read more if your interested.

Most photos from Public Domain unless listed above.

Andrea Leppert
Latest posts by Andrea Leppert (see all)