Throughout history there have been many women who have greatly contributed to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). While names like Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale are familiar to most, there are so many ingenious others who may not be as familiar; women who were leaders in their fields, who made major discoveries, and whose work led to critical social and political change. Below is a list of just some of the women who have made significant contributions to the fields of STEM. You can discover their stories through historical newspapers.
Dorothea Dix (1802-1887) was an American educator, social reformer, and humanitarian whose devotion to the welfare of the mentally ill led to widespread reforms in the U.S. and abroad. She lobbied state legislatures and the U.S. Congress to create the first generation of American mental asylums. During the Civil War, she served as Superintendent of Army Nurses.
Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) was the first recognized, professional woman astronomer in the United States. In 1847, she discovered a new comet, which bears her name, calculated its orbit, and added several new nebulae to sky maps. In 1865, she was one of the first professors hired at the newly founded Vassar College, where she became a strong advocate for women’s rights and was later elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Women.
Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) was an Anglo-American physician who is considered the first woman doctor of medicine in modern times. She was the first woman in America to receive a medical degree. Throughout her career, she championed the participation of women in the medical profession and ultimately opened her own medical college for women.
Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919) was an American surgeon, women’s rights advocate, abolitionist, and suspected Union spy. During the Civil War, she became the first female surgeon in United States Army and she is the only woman in U.S. history to receive the Presidential Medal of Honor (1865) for her service.
Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926) was an American nurse and the first African American woman to complete the course of professional study in nursing. In 1936, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, which later merged with the American Nurses Association, established the Mary Mahoney Medal in her honor, given to a member of the organization who has made an outstanding contribution to nursing.
Jane Arminda Delano (1862-1919) was an American nurse and educator who founded the American Red Cross Nursing Service and made possible the enlistment of more than 20,000 U.S. nurses for overseas duty during WWI.
Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941) was an American astronomer who specialized in the classification of stellar spectra. Among her many accolades: she was the first woman to be awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford (1925) and the Henry Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences (1931). She was also the first woman to become an officer in the American Astronomical Society.
Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915) was the first American Indian woman to receive a medical degree. As a child, she had watched a sick Indian woman die because the local white doctor refused the woman care. She later credited this tragedy as her inspiration to train as a physician so she could provide care for the people on the Omaha Reservation. In her remarkable career she served more than 1,300 people over 450 square miles.
Lise Meitner (1878-1968) was an Austrian-born physicist who was a pioneer of atomic research. She collaborated closely with chemist Otto Hahn, studying radioactivity for over 30 years. Their joint research led to the discovery of uranium fission in 1938, which would revolutionize nuclear physics and lead to the atomic bomb. Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1944 for the joint discovery, but Meitner was not recognized for her role in the finding.
Edith Clarke (1883-1959) was an American electrical engineer with expertise in power systems and was influential in the design of dams across the American West, including Hoover Dam. She was a leading figure in her field and a woman of many firsts: the first woman elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) in 1948 and the first woman to present a (prize-winning) paper at an AIEE meeting; the first woman to earn an electrical engineering graduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the first woman to teach in the engineering department at the University of Texas-Austin.
Frances P. Bolton (1885-1977) was born into a wealthy family and pursued a life of philanthropy, politics, and social reform. She was a lifelong advocate of education, healthcare, and civil rights for African Americans. She is most noted for her contributions to the field of nursing and her work in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1943 she sponsored the Bolton Act, which set up the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps to train nurses for military and civilian roles in wartime. In total, the Act provided $5 million of federal funding to enable women to become nurses and was open to all qualified students regardless of the color of their skin. As a result, the number of qualified nurses increased more quickly, which enabled the U.S. to sustain the war effort at home and abroad.
Katharine Burr Blodgett (1889-1979) was an American physicist and chemist. She was the first woman to be awarded a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Cambridge in 1926. After receiving her master’s degree, she was hired by General Electric, where she invented low-reflectance “invisible” glass. Her invention helped to improve eyeglasses, camera lenses, de-icing for aircrafts, poison gas absorbents, and more.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1890-1998) was a journalist and environmentalist who helped defend the Florida Everglades. As a young woman, she was a writer and editor at the Miami Herald, the newspaper that her father had helped establish in 1910. She became known for her work in nature conservation after her book Everglades: River of Grass was published in 1947. Years later, at the age of 79, she founded the Friends of the Everglades. She not only advocated for the environment, but also for women’s rights and racial equality. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1993 from President Bill Clinton.
Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee (1896-1966) was a Chinese-born American women’s rights activist and minister. At the age of sixteen, she became a recognized suffragist and activist when she, on horseback, helped to lead nearly 10,000 people in the New York suffrage parade (1912). She went on to become the first Chinese woman to earn a Ph.D. in economics at Columbia University. She published her book, The Economic History of China, in 1921.
Florence Seibert (1897-1991) was an American biochemist who developed a groundbreaking procedure that led to a reliable tuberculosis test (TB test), used to detect the potentially deadly virus in infants, children and adults worldwide. She also contributed to the development of safety measures for intravenous drug therapy.
Dorothy Boulding Ferebee (1898-1980) was an American obstetrician and civil rights activist. She founded the Mississippi Health Project and the Southeast Neighborhood House, which provided healthcare to the most vulnerable members of the African American community. She was a dedicated advocate for public health, civil rights, and women’s rights, particularly in her roles as president of the National Council of Negro Women and as an international delegate for the U.S. government.
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979) was a British-born American astronomer and astrophysicist who proposed in her 1925 doctoral thesis that stars were composed primarily of hydrogen and helium, which was a groundbreaking discovery at the time. She became the first person–male or female–to earn a doctorate in astronomy from Harvard University and would later become the first woman to head a department at Harvard as the Chair of the Department of Astronomy.
Grace Hopper (1906-1992) was an American mathematician and rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. She was a pioneer in developing computer technology, helping to devise the first commercial electronic computer, and designed a standardized system of computer languages for the U.S. Navy.
Rachel Carson (1907-1964) was an American biologist well known for her writings on environmental pollution and the natural history of the sea. Her prophetic book Silent Spring (1962) was first serialized in The New Yorker and then became a bestseller, creating worldwide awareness of the dangers of environmental pollution.
Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997) was a Chinese-born American physicist who provided the first experimental proof that the principle of parity conservation does not hold in weak subtonic interactions. After receiving her Ph.D. in 1940, and throughout her career, she worked as a professor at Smith College, Princeton University, and Columbia University. Wu received the National Medal of Science in 1975, served as president of the American Physical Society that year, and is considered one of the premier experimental physicists in history.
Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) was an Austrian-born American film star who was often typecast as a provocative femme fatale. Years after her screen career ended, she achieved recognition as a noted inventor of a radio communications device. During WWII, in collaboration with avant-garde composer George Antheil, she invented an electronic device that minimized the jamming of radio signals. Though it was never used during wartime, the device is a component of present-day satellite and cellular phone technology.
Katherine Goble Johnson (1918-2020) was an African American mathematician who calculated and analyzed the flight paths of spacecraft during her more than three decades with the U.S. space program. Her work helped send astronauts on the Apollo 11 flight to the Moon in 1969. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
Leona Woods Marshall Libby (1919-1986) was an American physicist and one of the women who helped to create the atomic weapon. She worked on the team that constructed the first nuclear chain reaction leading to the development of the bomb as part of a nationwide atomic research program known as the Manhattan Project.
June Almeida (1930-2007) was a Scottish-born, internationally renowned virologist who pioneered new methods for viral imaging and diagnosis. She was the person who identified the first human coronavirus.
Antonia Novello (1944- ) is a Puerto Rican-born physician and public official, the first woman and the first Hispanic to serve as surgeon general of the United States (1990-93).
Mae Jemison (1956- ) is an American physician and the first African American woman to become an astronaut. In 1992, she spent more than a week orbiting Earth in the space shuttle Endeavour.
Ellen Ochoa (1958- ) is an American astronaut and administrator who was the first Hispanic woman to travel into space (1993). She later served as director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center (2013-18).
There are so many women in history who have greatly contributed to the fields of STEM, a number well beyond this list. Please share in the comments some of the names and stories of other women in STEM that we missed.
- Search Chronicling America* for newspaper coverage of these historical women in STEM and more!
- Check out Chronicling America research guides on topics in women’s history.
- Read more Headlines & Heroes blog posts related to women’s history.
- National Women’s History Museum: STEM
*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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