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Homage to the Heroines of Scientific History

Stories and controversies of the women who spurred innovation but were spurned

One of the most memorable talks I can recall was in 2019. I was being served a delicious story of discovery by Nobel Laureate Martin Chalfie, with a rare ingredient that really stood out to me: the emphasis of innovation as a collaborative effort built from the contributions of diverse individuals. He remarked humbly in response to a question, “You heard of at least six people, all of whom contributed exceptionally important aspects to this discovery … It is very unfortunate that only three people can be selected for the Nobel, however grateful I am that I was part of it.”1

Conversations with prominent scientists typically focus on results and techniques, and sometimes on scientific thinking, innovative traits, or the moment of inspiration that got them there. But it is rare to see an individual highlighting the contributions of others with equivalent or even more emphasis, enthusiasm, and eagerness than their own. 

Given that discovery is necessarily a cooperative venture and that it happens in unexpected ways, our current culture around innovation with an emphasis on hyper-individualism and glorification of the singular, scientific genius with a given set of traits seems counterproductive. This is not to say that we should downplay the narratives of innovators. Rather, we must reflect upon which individuals we choose to confer with honors and why, as well as realize that failure to secure such recognition does not reflect a lack of their ability. By encouraging conversation about the unrecognized labor that has been crucial to innovation, we can challenge our notions and perhaps re-envision the concept of innovation.

For instance, what if Marie Curie had never been recognized for her immense contributions to science? Curie is one of only two individuals to receive two Nobel prizes in two different categories, and the first female Nobel Laureate. She shattered the glass ceiling and inspired generations of women—and countless others—to pursue their dreams of discovery. Despite the merits of her research, she would not have received the prize if her husband, Pierre Curie, had not insisted to the Nobel committee that she gain recognition.2 It took strong allyship for the couple to be co-awarded, alongside Henri Becquerel, the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 for their work on the theory of radioactivity. After her husband’s death, because Curie was Polish and there was false rumor of her being Jewish, xenophobic and Anti-Semitic sentiments led to the public opinion that she was “not truly French” and she was further vilified by the press due to an affair.3 Nonetheless, she survived all the scorn and scandal, letting her innovation speak for itself and won her second Nobel Prize in 1911, this time in chemistry, for isolating radium.

Women’s contributions to innovation have been mired in controversy

Today, Curie is a household name, but there are so many others whose contributions were unacknowledged, stolen, suppressed, and lost to time.

An example is the story of Mileva Einstein-Marić. From the time she met Albert Einstein as a fellow student at the Swiss Polytechnic Institute in Zurich (now ETH Zurich) in 1896 to their divorce in 1914, they shared a passion for physics. In 1905, Einstein published five papers, including one on the photoelectric effect for which he would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921. They write “our work” on several instances in letters exchanged between them, her handwriting can be seen in his notes, and those who knew the couple claimed to have seen her calculating, writing, and working with her husband at the dining table or in the garden.4 Since she did not publish any papers under her name nor did she make any claims on her husband’s work, and their relation ended in divorce due to Einstein’s affair with his cousin Elsa Löwenthal (whom he later married), the nature of her work and the extent to which she shaped his ideas can only truly be known privately between the couple.5 Mileva Einstein-Marić's potential contributions to physics continue to be investigated—and debated—by science historians. 

More established than Einstein-Marić's contributions but nonetheless sidelined in scientific history are women such as Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier. In 1771, at the age of 13, she married one of the founders of modern chemistry, Antoine Lavoisier. Along with assisting in the laboratory and notetaking, she performed scientific illustrations, translated papers into French for her husband, and wrote out experimental results, all of which were necessary for the Lavoisiers’ work on the role of oxygen in combustion, among other discoveries.6 However, being a woman, she was not acknowledged outside of her private circle by the scientific establishment, and we are only now learning about her work.

Even if you managed to publish, there was no guarantee that you would be viewed as a credible authority. In 1935, Grete Henry-Hermann challenged the mathematical proof of her contemporary, John von Neumann, but her critique went unnoticed by the physics community for decades until it was independently discovered by John Stewart Bell in 1966.7 Had it gained attention, it would have advanced understanding of nonlocal hidden variable theories, changing how the field of quantum mechanisms developed. She continues to be largely unknown today.

Perhaps the most infamous story of uncredited science is the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, for which Francis Harry Compton Crick, James Dewey Watson, and Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. Crucial clues came from Rosalind Franklin’s investigation of DNA using X-ray crystallography.8 Her unpublished data was shared with Crick and Watson largely without her knowledge, and she was not credited in their papers. Watson’s book on the subject, The Double Helix, further diminished her contributions by portraying Franklin as merely Wilkins’ assistant who would have lacked the ability to interpret her data instead of the accomplished and independent scientist that she was. 

Most innovators will tell you that they do not pursue their work for fame and fortune, but are driven by their curiosity, need to solve problems, and desire to carry out a project to its end. For brilliant scientists, gaining an award like the Nobel Prize is just something that happens along the way. However, these examples show us that despite the importance of one’s innovations, they can be locked out of the upper echelons of scientific achievement without strong support from those who are already deemed acceptable there: Marie Curie had Pierre championing her, but Franklin and others did not find such an ally to advocate for them. 

Issues of recognition linger today

More than a century after the founding of the Nobel Prize in 1901, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna in 2020 were the first all-female team to be awarded a Nobel in the sciences. Despite their win in chemistry for the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing method, there remains a fierce debate regarding who deserves credit for the technology due to an ongoing patent battle. Along with Charpentier and Doudna, Feng Zhang at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, George Church at Harvard Medical School, and Virginijus Siksnys at Vilnius University in Lithuania are all considered key contributors to CRISPR.9 Unfortunately, given that the currency in the world of science lies in prestigious publications, awards, and patents, an ongoing challenge we face as a society is incentivizing innovation in a way that celebrates cooperation and collaboration. 

Perhaps we can start with simple steps, through recognition, acknowledgement, and education—as Chalfie did in his talk, or as Aaron Klug did in his Nobel Lecture in 1982. While accepting the Prize in Chemistry for his work on nucleic acid-protein complexes, research that he had commenced with Franklin, he acknowledged Franklin’s contributions to both the science and to his training as a scientist. He said, “Had her life not been cut tragically short, she might well have stood in this place on an earlier occasion.”10

References:

Nobel Prize. ‘GFP: Lighting up life’ lecture by Martin Chalfie, Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2008. YouTube. 2019. Accessed May 27, 2022.  https://youtu.be/JsEfNvMX4Pw?t=3355 

Nobel Prize. Women who changed science: Marie Curie. Accessed May 27, 2022. https://www.nobelprize.org/womenwhochangedscience/stories/marie-curie 

American Institute of Physics. Marie Curie and the science of radioactivity: Scandal and recovery. History of Science Web Exhibits. 2002. Accessed May 27, 2022. https://history.aip.org/exhibits/curie/scandal1.htm

Gagnon P. The forgotten life of Einstein’s first wife. Scientific American. December 19, 2016. Accessed June 5, 2022. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/the-forgotten-life-of-einsteins-first-wife/ 

Finkbeiner A. The debated legacy of Einstein’s first wife. Nature: Books and Art. March 5, 2019. Accessed June 5, 2022. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00741-6 

Bennet H. Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier the invisible assistant. Royal Society of Chemistry: Culture. January 20, 2022. Accessed June 5, 2022. https://www.chemistryworld.com/culture/marie-anne-paulze-lavoisier-the-invisible-assistant/4014701.article 

Soler L. The convergence of transcendental philosophy and quantum physics: Grete Henry-Hermann's 1935 pioneering proposal. In: Bitbol M, Kerszberg P, Petitot J, eds. Constituting Objectivity. The Western Ontario Series In Philosophy of Science, vol 74. Dordrecht: Springer; 2009. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-9510-8_20 

Elkin L. Rosalind Franklin and the double helix. Physics Today. 2003;56(3):42. https://doi.org/10.1063/1.1570771

Ledford H, Callaway E. Pioneers of revolutionary CRISPR gene editing win chemistry Nobel. Nature: News. October 7, 2020. Accessed June 8, 2022. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02765-9 

Klug A. Nobel Lecture. Nobel Prize. 1982. Accessed June 4, 2022. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/1982/klug lecture/