5 Women Scientists Whose Amazing Discoveries Were Stolen By A Man

women scientists

Sexism and the effects on women scientists.

We’ve come a long way, baby, but science remains a biased industry. Deep rooted sexism has existed in the scientific world for ages, and has been very hard to shake off. Throughout the decades, women at the forefront of science have felt the effects of sexism at work, from being forced out of certain universities because of laws that restricted husband and wife teams or simply have the credit for their work stolen by a male colleague.

Below are the stories of five women scientists who made significant scientific discoveries, but didn’t get the initial credit that they deserved because of the idea that women are fair game for professional bullying.

1. Jocelyn Bell Burnell

In 1967, Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered the first pulsar, a rapidly rotating neutron star, that emits regular pulses of radio waves, while a graduate student at Cambridge University. Unfortunately, her supervisor Anthony Hewish, along with Martin Ryle were the ones to get the 1974 Nobel Prize in physics for it. “The picture people had at the time of the way that science was done was that there was a senior man—and it was always a man—who had under him a whole load of minions, junior staff, who weren’t expected to think, who were only expected to do as he said,” Burnell Bell told National Geographic. Nowadays, Burnell Bell is a visiting astronomy professor at the University of Oxford.

2. Rosalind Franklin

In 1962 Francis Crick, along with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, were awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA. The name that wasn’t on the list? Rosalind Franklin. Her work using x-rays to take photographs of DNA paved the way for understanding DNA as a whole, and was critical to Watson and Crick’s own work.

3. Lise Meitner

Born in Vienna, Austria 1878, Lise Meitner was one of the most accomplished women scientists. Meitner is responsible for co-discovering nuclear fission, the science that essentially was the blueprint for the atomic bomb. In the early 1900s she worked in Berlin, working with chemist Otto Hahn, a collaboration that would last over 30 years. Meitner happened to be Jewish and when the Nazis took over Austria in 1938 she fled to Stockholm. She continued to secretly with Hahn, and when he performed the experiments to prove nuclear fission, she came up with the theory to back it up, but when the findings were published, her name was left off of the paper.

4. Nettie Stevens

Another of the women scientists born in the late 1800s, Nettie Stevens didn’t enroll in a University until the age of 35, and at 39 began working as a research scientist. Working in the field of sex determination, she ultimately discovered that sex was in fact determined by chromosomes (ie the X and Y chromosomes), as opposed to the common belief at the time which was that it was determined by the mother or environmental factors. Sadly, her superior Thomas Morgan gets all the credit for this discovery, while it was in fact Stevens’ work that got him there.

5. Celia Payne

The first woman scientist to become a professor of science at Harvard, Celia Payne discovered what stars are made of (helium and hydrogen). The work, which was in her thesis, was described as “the most brilliant . . . ever written in astronomy” but astronomers at the time dismissed her findings. Until four years later that is, when they were confirmed by a man, Henry Norris Russell, and he got the credit.

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Image: Seattle Municipal Archives

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.