Royal Society’s Top 10 Women in Science

This article ties in with our “Women in Science” issue of Bang! that you will be coming out soon! To celebrate the Royal’s Society 350th anniversary, […]

This article ties in with our “Women in Science” issue of Bang! that you will be coming out soon!

To celebrate the Royal’s Society 350th anniversary, a panel of female fellows and science historians were created to vote for the top 10 British women who had the most influence on science. Here are the women that they came up with:

Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)

Born in Hanover, scientific assistant and sister to the astronomer, William Herschel, Caroline was the first woman ever to receive a salary for scientific work. Caroline mastered astronomical theory and algebra in order to calculate the astronomical distances between different stars. When William Herschel was Royal Astronomer at the English court at Windsor, and Caroline his assistant ,she discovered 14 nebulae and eight comets and composed a comprehensive index of 561 stars. Caroline received the 1828 gold medal of the Royal Astronomical society of which she became an honorary member in 1835. Caroline was also awarded a gold medal of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1846.


Mary Somerville (1780-1872)

After a year of experiments on magnetism, Mary presented a paper called ‘The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum’ to the Royal Society in 1826. This paper was one of the first to be published by a woman. In 1827, Mary was commissioned to write a book communicating the concepts of Laplace’s ‘Mecanique Céleste’ and Newton’s ‘Principia’ through simple experiments and illustrations for a more general audience. Mary went on to write three other books ‘With the connection of the Physical Sciences’, ‘Physical Geography’, and ‘Molecular and Microscopic Science’ which were all great successes amongst schools and universities for fifty years. Somerville college was named after her following her death.


Mary Anning (1799-1847)

Mary spent her life living and working on the Jurassic coast of Dorset, in particular Lyme Regis. Mary was a fossil collector, and was greatly skilled in finding and preserving fossils. Some of Mary’s most significant finds include a complete skeleton of the first ichthyosaur to be recognized, two plesiosaur skeletons, fossil fish and the first pterosaur skeleton to be found outside of German. Mary’s social class and gender prohibited her from fully participating in 19th century Britain’s scientific community and so she did not receive the full credit of her contributions.


Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917)

Elizabeth was the first Englishwoman to become a qualified doctor, and as her attempts to study at medical schools were denied she managed to pass the Society of Apothecaries exams enabling her to become a doctor. Elizabeth lived in London, setting up a dispensary for women, and working as a visiting physician in the East London Hospital. Elizabeth managed to gain a medical degree from the University of Paris, but the British Medical register refused to recognize her qualification and Elizabeth founded the New Hospital for Women in London. Elizabeth was a role model for other women, who from 1876 could enter the medical profession. After Elizabeth retired in 1902 to the Suffolk coast, she became interested in politics. As well as being appointed the first mayor in England she became a member of the suffragette movement.


Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923)

Hertha read Mathematics a Girton College, Cambridge, and received a B. Sc. Degree from the University of London. Hertha attended physics classes at Finsbury Technical College where she assisted her husband with his experiments in physics or electricity, publishing her highly acclaimed work ‘The Electric Arc’ in 1902. Hertha became the first female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1899, and although nominated as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London she could not be elected to this distinction as she was married.  Hertha received the Royal Society’s Hughes Medal in 1906.


Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971)

After receiving a M.S. In mathematics and physics from the Bedford College for Women in London, Kathleen went to work with William Bragg’s team using X-ray crystallography to investigate the structure of organic compounds. Kathleen was the first female to be appointed a range of prestigious posts: Fellow of the Royal Society, first female professor at University College London, president of the British Association for the advancement of science, and president of the International Union of Crystallography. Kathleen was also interested in politics, and even she even spent a month in jail for refusing to register for war duties. As well as being a committed pacifist Lonsdale and her husband, worked towards prison reform and housed refugees during the war. Kathleen was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and received the Davy Medal of the Royal Society.


Elsie Widdowson (1908-2000)

Elsie Widdowson is famous for her contributions to the nutritional problems faced in Britain during the Second World War. Elsie received her undergraduate Chemistry degree from Imperial College London and went on to gain her doctorate from Imperial and the Courtauld Institue of Biochemistry. Working with Professor McCance from 1933 onwards, they revolutionized the way that nutritional values were assessed and investigated dietary deficiencies. During the war McCance and Widdowson showed that health could be maintained on a minimal diet, and Elsie also contributed to the development of re-feeding diets for victims of Nazi concentration camps.


Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994)

After gaining a chemistry degree from Somerville College, Oxford, Dorothy moved to the University of Cambridge to carry out her doctoral research, before returning to Oxford where she stayed until her retirement. Dorothy worked in X-ray Diffraction, studying different structures of organic molecules including protein, insulin and penicillin. As well as solving the structure of insulin, Dorothy discovered the structure of the vitamin B12 and for this work Dorothy was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1964, and received the Order of Merit.


Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

Rosalind gained an undergraduate degree from Newnham College, Cambridge before receiving a PhD from Ohio University. Rosalind also worked with X-ray diffraction, using it to image DNA. Crick and Watson used this data to help formulate their hypothesis regarding the structure of DNA and the results of this work were published in a series of Nature articles. Rosalind also worked on the polio and tobacco mosaic viruses before her death at the age of 37 from ovarian cancer. Crick, Watson and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for the work on 1962, and although this prize is not awarded posthumously Rosalind was not mentioned in the acceptance speeches. Rosalind’s contribution to this work was undervalued and underreported for many years.


Anne McLaren (1927-2007)

After receiving a degree in Zoology, from Oxford Anne made fundamental advances in genetics which led to the development of embryo transfer in human IVF. Anne became Director of the MRC Mammalian Development Unit, developing projects on reproductive immunology, chimeras and contraception. As well as advancing science Anne was also keen to establish correct ethical and legal implications of genetics research, and was eager to communicate to the general public. Anne was the first female officer of the Royal Society, and as their Foreign Secretary she travelled widely becoming a role model and ambassador for women in science.


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