Historical Women in STEM

Detail collage image from a newspaper of five female figures separately working with scientific instruments. The title above states "The Lady if a Scientist."

“The Lady is a Scientist,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), November 22, 1951.

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

Detail image from newspaper featuring a portrait of Dorothea Dix. She is pictured with he hair in a bun and looking left wearing a black garment with a high white collar around the neck.

Dorothea Dix. Evening Star (Washington, DC), November 4, 1934.

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

A detail image from a newspaper of a sketch portrait of Maria Mitchell. She is featured with ear-length curls around her head and wearing a ruffled-neck top with high collar.

Maria Mitchell. The Ottawa Free Trader (Ottawa, IL), July 6, 1889.

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

Detail image from a newspaper of a sketch portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell. She is featured with shoulder-length curls draped on either side of her head with a kerchief atop her head and a ruffled-collared top.

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell. Waterbury Democrat (Waterbury, CT), December 21, 1895.

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.

Detail image from a newspaper photo of Mary Edwards Walker. She is dressed in a man's black suit with a cravat and top hat. The presidential medal of honor is pinned to the front of her jacket.

Mary Edwards Walker. The Day Book (Chicago, IL), January 4, 1912.

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.

Detail image of a portrait of Mary Mahoney. She is pictured wearing a bonnet on her head.

Mary Eliza Mahoney. Los Angeles Sentinel (Los Angeles, CA), Feb. 24, 1983, p. 4.

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. 

Detail image from a newspaper of a photo of Jane Delano. She is pictured with her hair up and in a white frock clasped together on her chest with a brooch.

Jane Delano. The Fulton County News (McConnellsburg, PA), May 21, 1912.

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. 

Image detail from a newspaper of a photo profile portrait of Annie Jump Cannon. She is pictured looking to the left with her hair arranged in a bun.

Annie Jump Cannon. Evening Star (Washington, DC), August 9, 1931.

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.

A detail image from a newspaper of a sketch portrait of Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte. She is pictured looking slight right with her hair arranged in a bun and wearing a high collared top.

Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte. Lincoln Evening Journal (Lincoln, NE), April 13, 1975, p. 49. Retrieved from NewspaperARCHIVE.

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. 

Detail image from a newspaper of a photo portrait of Lise Meitner. She is picture wit her dark hair pulled back and looking straight forward.

Lise Meitner. Detroit Evening Times (Detroit, MI), September 30, 1945.

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. 

Detail image from a newspaper of a photo portrait of Edith Clarke. She is pictured with her hair pulled back with glasses upon her face, wearing a necklace and collared shirt.

Edith Clarke. Oil City Blizzard (Oil City, PA), January 25, 1951, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperARCHIVE.

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.

Image detail from a newspaper of a portrait of Frances P. Bolton. She is pictured with her hair pulled back and she is looking slightly upwards.

Frances P. Bolton. Evening Star (Washington, DC), November 6, 1949.

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.

Image detail from a newspaper of a photo of Katharine Burr Blodgett. She is featured on the right wearing a white lab coat with her arm resting on a piece of machinery.

Katharine Burr Blodgett. Evening Star (Washington, DC), March 5, 1939.

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. 

Detail image from a newspaper of a portrait of Marjory Stoneman Douglas. She is pictured center, wearing a white sun hat, eyeglasses and coat. The photo appears to be taken outside and she is on a boardwalk of some kind with trees surrounding.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Washington Post (Washington, DC), May 15, 1998, p. B6.

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. 

Detail image from a newspaper of a photo portrait of Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee. She is pictured with her hair pulled up and wearing a mock-turtle collared top in the traditional Chinese fashion. Below her portrait states the words "Chinese Girl Wants Vote."

Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee. New York Tribune (New York, NY), April 13, 1912.

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. 

Detail image from a newspapers of a photo portrait of Florence Seibert. She is featured with shortly-cropped dark hair and wearing eyeglasses and a collared shirt and jacket with tie.

Florence Seibert. Evening Star (Washington, DC), April 13, 1943.

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. 

Detail image from a newspaper of a photo of Dorothy Boulding Ferebee teaching nurses. There are five figures in the photo; Ferebee is center and there are two people on either side of her (2 females to her left; 2 males to her right). All of them are looking towards Ferebee who is pointing to a board in the middle of the photo.

Dorothy Boulding Ferebee (center-right pointing). Evening Star (Washington, DC), April 18, 1954.

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.  

Detail image from a newspaper of a photo portrait of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. She is pictured with short wavy hair just below the ears and wearing a large printed scarf around her neck.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. Henderson Daily Dispatch (Henderson, NC), January 9, 1945.

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.

Detail image from a newspaper of a photo portrait of Grace Hooper. She is pictured in a U.S. Navy uniform with a hat. She is leaning slightly to the right with her left arm bent and her left hand touching her chin.

Grace Hopper. Cedar Rapids Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA), October 30, 1983, p. 41. Retrieved from NewspaperARCHIVE.

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. 

Detail image from a newspaper of a photo portrait of Rachel Carson. She is pictured looking slightly left and upwards with short wavy hair. She is wearing a large-collared top and pearl necklace.

Rachel Carson. The Key West Citizen (Key West, FL), May 16, 1952.

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. 

Detail image from a newspaper of three females figures. Dr. Chien-Shiung (center) is receiving an award handed to her by the woman on the right. There is a woman standing to her left.

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu (center). Afro-American (Baltimore, MD), January 11, 1947, p. 13.

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. 

Detail image from a newspaper of a profile portrait photo of Hedy Lamarr. She is pictured looking left wearing a newsboys-style hat and dark shoulder-length hair.

Hedy Lamarr. Evening Star (Washington, DC), May 31, 1942.

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. 

Detail image from a newspaper of a portrait of Katherine Goble Johnson. She is pictured with short curly hair, cat-eye glasses and wearing a collared shirt.

Katherine Goble Johnson. Journal and Guide (Norfolk, VA), May 20, 1972, p. 4.

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.

Detail image from a newspaper of Leona Woods Marshall Libby. She is pictured looking slight left at a board of wires . She has short-cropped hair above the ears with bangs and wearing a white collared top.

Leona Woods Marshall Libby. Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, IL), Dec. 2, 1956, p. B27.

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. 

Detail image from a newspaper of a photo of June Almeida. She is pictured on the left wearing a white lab coat with headphones on. Her left arm is lifted and she touching a large piece of scientific equipment.

June Almeida. The Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY), March 7, 2021, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperARCHIVE.

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).  

Detail image from a newspaper of a photo of Antonia Novello (left) shaking hands with President George H.W. Bush (right). She is pictured in uniform with short dark hair. President Bush is pictured wearing a dark suit and collared shirt.

Antonia Novello. Chicago Tribune (Chicago, IL), March 10, 1990, p. S4.

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

Detail image from a newspaper featuring Mae Jemison (right) carrying a notebook in her left hand and signing autographs to three young people (left). All three are smiling and holding notebooks.

Mae Jemison (right). Chicago Tribune (Chicago, IL), February 6, 1992, p. A6.

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). 

Detail image from a newspaper of a photo of Ellen Ochoa floating in zero gravity during her flight in the Space Shuttle Discovery. Her image is projected onto a large screen in front of an audience; a young student is featured standing in front of the audience in front of a microphone.

Ellen Ochoa (right). Chicago Tribune (Chicago, IL), April 15, 1993, p. D_B8.

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.

Detail image from a newspaper of a photo of young woman (left) working with a piece of scientific machinery.

“Miss Kathleen Patricia Hannon, a young physicist with the National Bureau of Standards…” Evening Star (Washington, DC), January 17, 1960.

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*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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