n celebration of Women’s History Month, this post features four women who paved the way for women in science throughout history: Alice Ball (top left), Ynés Mexía (top right), Chien-Shiung Wu (bottom left), and Mamie Phipps Clark (bottom right). This post is part of a series focusing on women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM).
There are many, many other women who made important contributions to STEM throughout history; check out the bottom of this post for some suggested sources if you want to learn more.
Alice Ball (1892-1916)
Image source: University of Hawai’i
Although her career was cut short, Alice Ball made a huge impact on the lives of people around the world. She was born into a family of photographers, which inspired her interest in chemistry. She was the first African American to graduate with a master’s degree from the University of Hawai’i, and was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society by age 23, which was incredibly uncommon for a female African American scientist at the time. Her major legacy was a technique to administer a notoriously difficult leprosy treatment, and the method she created was used until the 1940s when a full cure for leprosy was developed. Although the method she created came to be known as the “Ball Method” in the writings of other researchers, she passed away at the age of 24 before she was able to publish her findings and as a result her work was unrecognized until the 1970s when two professors at the University of Hawai’i searched for her research in the University’s archives.
Ynés Mexía (1870-1938)
Image source: National Parks Service
Ynés Mexía, a Mexican American botanist, was born and raised in the United States, but lived with her father in Mexico for ten years beginning at age 17. When she moved to Northern California for medical treatment in 1909, Mexía became involved with the local Sierra Club and went on many excursions. She went on her first expedition in 1922 with Mr. E. L. Furlong of UC Berkeley, and by 1925 had discovered the first of many species to be named after her: Mimosa mexicae. Throughout her years of expeditions Mexía collected tens of thousands of specimens, and botanists are still attempting to catalogue them all nearly a century after their discovery, but so far 50 new species have been named after her. Her journeys took her from the northernmost parts of North America to the sounthernmost tip of South America. Mexía lived in a time where her habits were considered “unladylike”: traveling alone through the wilderness, riding horseback, wearing trousers, and sleeping outside. Though her career lasted only 16 years, the full implications of her discoveries have yet to be fully catalogued.
Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997)
Image source: Smithsonian Institution
Chien-Shiung Wu was a bright student from an early age, and was able to receive higher education due to a teacher training program. After spending some time teaching public school, she was able to attend National Central University (now called Nanjing University) to study mathematics and physics. She bacame involved with student politics and was encouraged by her advisor to pursue her PhD abroad, so Wu ended up studying at UC Berkeley after discovering that the school she originally intended to study at didn’t even let women use the front door. She advanced quickly in her studies, finishing her PhD in 1940, a little over a year before America entered World War II. Her knowledge of radioactive isotopes led to her being included in the Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weapons. After the war she worked with two male scientists on a groundbreaking parity study, which led to the other scientists being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1957. Wu wasn’t recognized for her work on the same project until 1978, and never received a Nobel Prize. She remained an outspoken voice aginst gender discrimination in the sciences until her death in 1997.
Mamie Phipps Clark (1917-1983)
Psychologist and civil rights activist
Image source: Psychology Today
Mamie Phipps Clark is known for her work in social psychology with her husband, Kenneth Clark (pictured here). Although she was successful and influential in her own right – her master’s thesis provided strong influence on the Brown v. Board of Education case that ultimately decided that segregated schools were unconstitutional – due to gender norms in her era her work is often overshadowed by her husband’s. The two worked in tandem on the “doll study” which used four dolls identical in every way but skin color to show prejudices in young children, and that these prejudices affect the self-esteem of black children. This work was used to argue that segregation had a negative effect on black children, which supported the argument that segregation is not constitutional. In addition to this groundbreaking study, Phipps Clark was also the first African American woman to earn a PhD in experimental psychology from Columbia University and was the founder of the Northside Center for Child Development, which is still an important resource in Harlem today.