Unknown Women Scientists: Mary Anning
Mary Anning was born into a British working-class family in 1799. She was named for her late sister who died in a fire, and was herself the sole survivor of a freak lightning strike that killed three women who were doting over her. Her father was a carpenter who mined fossils in his free time to sell to tourists, and he often took his children with him on his searches. Though it was expected of her to take a peasant’s vocation, she was inspired by her Congregationalist minister’s fascination with geology and decided to make a career out of fossil digging.
Anning made a series of revolutionary discoveries in the early 19th century, excavating huge skeletal sections of ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and pterosaurs between 1809 and 1829. Fossils of these ancient dinosaurs had been uncovered before, but a consensus on what they really were had never been reached, since Biblical literalism was widespread–even among educated elites. The claims of “extinction” from Anning and her contemporaries were as offensive as they were radical. Nevertheless, Anning was able to build a great reputation and career out of her fossil digging, and became so famous for her marine fossils that it is believed the tongue-twister “She sells seashells…” was written about her. She found the first Ichthyosaur when she was only 12, digging up the rest of the skeleton after her brother found a skull nearly as long as she was tall.
Anning’s contributions effectively settled the argument of extinction, and became the founding ideas behind the burgeoning field of paleontology. Her status as a the poor daughter of a heretical family was a huge impediment to her recognition in the scientific community, and though she was the go-to source for rare and complete fossils, the geologists who published reports about Anning’s discoveries never mentioned her involvement. Since her death, she has had several species named for her in homage to her importance in the paleontological paradigm shift.
Unknown Women Scientists: Lise Meitner
Another woman praised by Einstein as the “German Marie Curie,” Lise Meitner’s story is one of quiet tragedy. Like Emmy Noether, Meitner was born in an era when women were explicitly prohibited from higher learning. Meitner was the second woman ever to earn a degree from the University of Vienna, obtaining a PhD in physics in 1905. Meitner’s father encouraged her ambition, and gave her the money to work in Berlin, where she met physics heavyweight Max Planck.
Planck was notorious for turning away female students, but he begrudgingly allowed Meitner into his lectures. A year later he made her a research assistant to chemist Otto Hahn, with whom she made several groundbreaking discoveries. The Hahn-Meitner team was the Lennon/McCartney of early 20th century nuclear physics, and together they published many articles on radiation and the Auger Effect, which Meitner personally deduced.
After the Nazis took control of Germany in the 1930’s, Meitner’s Jewish lineage became a professional and mortal liability, and she was forced to flee to Holland. Though it was her insights that led to the recognition that nuclear energy was not atomic fusion, but what she termed “fission,” she was forbidden from being granted credit on Hahn’s article. Hahn was granted the Nobel Prize for the discovery in 1944, but Meitner did go on to win several prestigious awards and, like Noether, has a few heavenly objects named in her honor.