British Women In Science

Below we take a look at some of the most brilliant female scientists, botanists, mathematicians and dietitians.  

Mary Somerville

1780 – 1872 | Mathematician, Geographer, Astronomer, Scientist And Writer

One of the most influential and intelligent Scottish science writers of her time, Mary Somerville achieved great success, turning complex ideas and translating them into easily understandable verse.

Mary Anning

1799 – 1847 | Paleontologist

Much underappreciated at the time, due to the science scene being extremely upper-class-centric and male-dominated, Mary Anning’s findings changed our understanding of the prehistoric earth. She was famous for finding a vast number of ancient fossils. Scientists from all over the world would come to visit her at her home in the small coastal town of Lyme Regis, however, due to this being the Victorian times, Mary wasn’t even allowed to join the Geological Society of London.

Anna Atkins

1799 – 1871 | Botanist

Botany is the scientific study of plants and something that Anna Atkins was obsessed with. She gained a special scientific education for a woman of that time, due to her father being a noted scientist. She began creating beautiful scientific books, which showcased photographs of dissected plants. Not only was Anna a pioneer of botany but her work served as a precursor to modern photography methods.

Mary Jane Seacole

1805 – 1881 | Nurse

Mary Seacole was a British-Jamaican who worked as a nurse during the Crimean War. When she heard of the shortage of nursing care for the injured soldiers in the Crimea, Mary applied to be an army nurse but was refused. Instead, she travelled to Crimea on her own, and set up a ‘British Hotel’ where she provided assistance and aid to servicemen who were injured on the battlefield, providing them with care, food and medicine. In 2004, Mary Seacole was voted the greatest black Briton and a statue of her stands outside St. Thomas’ Hospital in London.

Ada Lovelace

1815 – 1852 | Mathematician

Often overshadowed by her notorious father, Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace contributed so much to the world. Working alongside Charles Babbage on the Analytical Engine, she proposed how it could generate Bernoulli numbers, all before she was in her 30s! She is also credited with being the first computer programmer.

Florence Nightingale

1820 – 1910 | Statistician and Nurse

Florence Nightingale used her intellect and experience for practical uses, saving countless lives in the process. She raised awareness of the importance of sanitation and created a set of best practices for hospitals, which became the foundations for modern nursing. She used statistics formatted into easy-to-understand graphics, including the pie chart. Because of this popularisation of health statistics, Britain’s life expectancy rose by 20 years by the mid-1930s.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

1836 – 1917 | Physician

Elizabeth was a true rabble-rouser in Victorian England. She was a powerful voice within the women’s suffrage movement: a person who fought long and hard to gain positions that were earmarked for her male counterparts. In the end, she became the first woman in Britain to qualify to be a surgeon and physician, as well as the first female mayor, magistrate and first woman to sit on a school board. Elizabeth also co-founded the London School of Medicine for Women, which was staffed wholly by females.

Beatrix Potter

1866-1943 | Natural Scientist And Writer

Most famous for being the writer and creator of the Tales of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter was also accomplished in mycology, otherwise known as the study of fungi. Before becoming a famous novelist, Beatrix submitted a paper called ‘On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricineae’, which was full of her brilliant illustrations showing the life cycles of mushrooms. She was not allowed to present her paper because she was a woman but in 1997 received a posthumous apology for the sexism shown towards her.

Marjory Stephenson

1885 – 1948 | Biochemist And Microbiologist

After studying chemistry and zoology at the University of Cambridge, Majory Stephenson’s scientific work was interrupted by the outbreak of World War One. She joined The International Red Cross to help its efforts and was awarded an MBE for her bravery. Her contributions to microbiology cannot be understated: in 1930, she wrote the standard text for microbiologists, called ‘Bacterial Metabolism’ and the Marjory Stephenson Prize Lecture is named after her. Whilst women were not allowed to be given awards early in her life, she lived to see a number of these restrictions lifted towards the end of her life.

Mary Cartwright

1900 – 1998 | Mathematician

Mary’s passion was in maths but she wasn’t interested in the daily grind of statistics. Instead she was engrossed by all things cosmic. Her grand studies led to one of the most profound scientific proclamations of the 20th century called ‘chaos theory’.

Kathleen Lonsdale

1903 – 1971 | Crystallographer

Kathleen was a pioneer in the field of X-rays. Her work on electromagnetic waves and visible light was prolific. Kathleen was the first to discover an enormous amount regarding X-rays and undertook considerable research into crystals. She accomplished so much in her lifetime all in specific fields; it’s tough to describe her in one paragraph!

Elsie Widdowson

1906 – 2000 | Chemist And Dietician

If it weren’t for Elsie, the general British public would have suffered more during World War Two as she influenced the British government in aspects of nutrition. Concerned with rationing, she used various dietary experiments, mostly on herself, to put forward the case of standard nutrition for all.

Dorothy Hodgkin

1910 – 1994 | Chemist

A Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry in 1964, Dorothy Hodgkin extensively researched penicillin and eventually discovered the structure of vitamin B. Hugely adored, she was also involved in international efforts in the scientific profession. Dorothy was also profoundly concerned about international conflict and was the president of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, steering discussions for peaceful disarmament.

Joan Clarke

1917 – 1996 | Cryptanalyst

Working alongside Alan Turing at Bletchley Park, Joan Clarke was instrumental in cracking the Enigma code-cracking machine. A master codebreaker like Turing, Joan was able to defy the sexism of the time to become widely respected within the establishment. Her primary task was to break the enemy’s coded cyphers in real time, which must have been extremely tense.

Rosalind Franklin

1920 – 1958 | Chemist And Crystallographer

Another Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, Rosalind Franklin made significant headway in discovering the double helix structure of DNA. She changed the face of the scientific establishment in the 20th century and made one of the most significant discoveries of all time.

Jane Goodall

1934 – Present | Primatologist

This budding explorer and naturist became a literal ‘Jane’ albeit without the Tarzan. An animal activist at heart, Jane has spent a good portion of her life studying primates. Not only studying but living with Tanzanian chimps. Her discoveries in primate behaviour has not only taught us an enormous amount about our distant genetic relatives but a considerable amount about ourselves.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

1943 – Present | Astrophysicist

A living legend among space fans today, Jocelyn Bell Burnell detected the first radio pulsar in the 1960s at barely 17 years old. The radio pulsar was a rapidly spinning neutron star. Using a radio telescope, Jocelyn was able to pinpoint the strange sound emanating from outer space. Despite never winning a Nobel Prize, she is recognised as making one of the most magnificent space discoveries of all time.

Maggie Aderin-Pocock

1968 – Present | Space Scientist

A significant influencer to anyone studying sciences, Maggie has overcome considerable barriers to become one of the greatest living scientists today. She has dyslexia, was born to working-class Nigerian parents and is a woman. She has, however, grown up to be the sweetheart of British sciences, regularly appearing on TV and most importantly working in a career that she loves!

So, there you have it! Some of the most fantastic discoveries and contributions to science in the past 300 years have been made by women. Do you think we’ve missed anyone out? Feel free to contact us with further suggestions if you have any!

Are you to ready to inspire the next famous face in science? Why not print out our Women in Science information as an infographic, and check out some of our Science resources today! Alongside our British Science Week Topical Resources pack, we have a complete pack dedicated to Ada Lovelace.