How many female scientists can you name? Besides Marie Curie. One? Two?
Sadly, a recent survey funded by L’Oreal USA shows that nearly two-thirds of Americans can’t name a female scientist (not even Marie Curie or Rosalind Franklin). This is disheartening, given female scientists’ contributions to chemistry, particularly biochemistry. Their discoveries and accomplishments in a traditionally male-dominated field paved the way for women generations after them to contribute to our ever-growing pool of scientific knowledge. Their determination to succeed against all odds contributed to the present diversity of science as we know it today—a privilege many of us take for granted.
1. Maud Leonora Menten
Born on March 20, 1879 in Port Lambton, Ontario, Maud Menten is a Canadian medical scientist who is known for her invaluable contributions to the study of enzyme kinetics and histochemistry. She was born during a time when women were not allowed to do research in Canada; far from being discouraged, she merely went abroad to the United States and Germany to do her research.
In 1912 (the year the Titanic sank), she traveled alone across the Atlantic to Berlin, Germany so she could work with a well-known biochemist of the time, Leonor Michaelis. Together, they developed the Michaelis-Menten Equation:
where v is the rate of the enzyme-catalyzed reaction, [S] is the concentration of the substrate, and Vmax and Km are constants. This equation provides an essential foundation for studies in biochemistry, enzymology, and related fields. It also has numerous useful and practical applications, including modern drug design.
Menten kept busy; during her lifetime as she earned a total of four degrees: a B.A. (1904), an M.B. (1907), an M.D. (1911), and a Ph.D. (1916). She is also known for being among the first Canadian women to earn a medical doctorate. After attaining her degrees, she joined the Pathology Department at the University of Pittsburgh (where it was not uncommon to find her working 18 hours a day) and also served as head of Pathology at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
As if all her academic and scientific accomplishments weren’t enough, she also had a variety of interests outside of science. For example, she was also a talented clarinetist, painter, and linguist (she spoke Russian, French, German, Italian, and at least one Native American language!).
Although she was less skillful as a driver (“she could never remember which pedal to push, so she would push them all enthusiastically…”), she was nonetheless one of the most accomplished women of her time. Her contributions have lived on and been extensively used in the scientific and medical fields.
2. Dorothy Mary Hodgkin
Dorothy Hodgkin was a British scientist born in Egypt on May 12, 1910 to her parents John and Mary. Her father was an archeologist, and during her early years, “she lived in the English expatriate community in Egypt, returning to England only a few months a year.” Her passion for chemistry developed at an early age and was fostered by her mother.
While studying chemistry under the direction of her mentor, John Desmond Bernal at the University of Cambridge, Hodgkin became aware of the structure-determining potential of X-ray crystallography. This would lead to some of her most notable achievements in the determination of three-dimensional biomolecular structures. In 1945, in collaboration with her student C. H. Carlisle, she published the first structure of a steroid (cholesteryl iodide). Four years later, in 1949, she and her colleagues published the structure of penicillin, thus confirming that it contained a β-lactam ring (which was contradictory to scientific opinion at that time). In 1954, their analysis of vitamin B12 was published, for which she received the Nobel Prize in 1964.
Many believe the structure determination of insulin (in 1969) to be one of her greatest scientific achievements.
Although insulin is one the smallest protein molecules, its structure was too complex for the method of X-ray crystallography at that time. However, Hodgkin enthusiastically committed to this project (which lasted over 30 years) due to her interest in the connection between diabetes and insulin.
Hodgkin received many other honors during her lifetime: “she was the second woman recipient of the Order of Merit (after Florence Nightingale), the first woman recipient of the Copley Medal, a Fellow of the Royal Society, a winner of the Lenin Peace Prize, and also served as the Chancellor of Bristol University for 18 years” (source). She also mentored future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Hodgkin made these notable accomplishments while suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, with which she was diagnosed at the young age of 24. In addition to her scientific interests, she was also concerned with social inequalities and conflict resolution. Accordingly, she served as president of the Pugwash Conferences from 1976-1988.
3. Marie Maynard Daly
Born on April 16, 1921 in Corona neighborhood of Queens, New York, Marie Daly was not only an American biochemist, but the first African-American woman in the U.S. to obtain a Ph.D. in chemistry. She overcame both gender and racial barriers with determination and grace, all while remaining dedicated to the science she loved.
Inspired by her father, who attempted to pursue his chemistry studies at Cornell University (but could not, due to lack of funds), Daly enrolled at Queens College as a chemistry major and graduated in 1942. While attending graduate school at New York University, she simultaneously worked as a research assistant at Queens College, and still managed to complete her Master’s degree in just one year. She then went to Columbia University for her doctoral program, and worked under the mentorship of Dr. Mary L. Caldwell. After completing her Ph.D. in 1947, she worked as a physical science instructor at Howard University for two years.
In 1949 Daly received an American Cancer Society grant to pursue postdoctoral research at The Rockefeller University with A. E. Mirsky. Together, they studied the cell nucleus—a burgeoning field of research at the time due to Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA.
In 1955, she taught biochemistry courses at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. She also collaborated with Dr. Quentin B. Deming to investigate the causes of heart attacks. They investigated the effects of high cholesterol levels on the blockage of arteries, and the effects of sugar on the function of coronary arteries. She later pioneered the study of the effects of cigarette smoking on the lungs.
Throughout her life, Daly was dedicated to giving back to her community through both teaching and developing programs to increase the success of minority students in scientific disciplines. For example, in 1988 she started a Queens’ College Scholarship fund (in her father’s honor) for African-American students in chemistry and physics majors.
Menten, Hodgkin, and Daly are three of many women who helped open wide the door of opportunities available for women in scientific fields. Even today, scientific disciplines continue to be male-dominated (though not nearly as much as they were in the past). The rising number of females we have seen in recent decades is to be attributed to the struggles and accomplishments of these and other women, who not only saw a need for the contributions they knew they could provide, but more importantly, had the courage to fulfill that need despite commonly held opinion.
Amanie Power is a chemistry major at Cosumnes River College. She enjoys applying chemical principles to biological systems and everyday situations. Amanie plans to transfer to UC Davis and complete a double-major in Pharmaceutical Chemistry and African American & African Studies. She then plans to attend medical school.