5 Women who changed science forever


5th Mar 2021 Life

5 Women who changed science forever

This International Women's Day, we're celebrating five women who changed the face of science forever, with this extract from Anna Reser and Leila McNeill's wonderful book, Forces of Nature

Ellen Ochoa (born May 10, 1958)

Ellen Ochoa floating in space
© NASA Photo-Alamy Stock Photo

Ellen Ochoa is an American engineer and retired astronaut. Born in Los Angeles, California, Ochoa was the first Latina woman to fly in space as part of the crew of the shuttle Discovery in 1993. Ochoa attended San Diego State University as an undergraduate and earned a master’s and doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford. After receiving her PhD in 1985, Ochoa worked as a research engineer at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico and NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. Ochoa credits her mother, whose passion for learning kept her in part-time college courses all through Ochoa’s childhood, as an important influence on her career.

In 1990, Ochoa was selected to astronaut candidacy as part of Group 13, a group of twenty-three NASA astronauts, and became an astronaut a year later. Her first spaceflight was aboard Discovery as a mission specialist and lasted nine days, in which the five-person crew conducted scientific experiments and deployed a research satellite to study the solar corona.

"Ochoa was the first Latina woman to fly in space"

A year later, Ochoa flew on Atlantis as the Payload Commander, spending ten days in space. On her 1999 flight on Discovery, the crew docked the shuttle for the first time with the International Space Station and delivered essential supplies and components ahead of the first human crews who would live there. Ochoa’s last spaceflight was in 2002; the crew of Atlantis visited the ISS for eleven days and conducted spacewalks assisted by the station’s robotic arm.

At the end of her flying career, Ochoa had logged nearly 1,000 hours in space. From 2012 to 2018, Ochoa served as the director of Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, only the second woman to head up NASA’s human spaceflight headquarters. NASA has awarded Ochoa with its Distinguished Service Medal, Exceptional Service Medal, Outstanding Leadership Medal, and four Space Flight Medals.


Mamie Phipps Clark (April 18, 1917–August 11, 1983)

Columbia University

Mamie Phipps Clark was an American social psychologist, who specialised in child development in Black children. Born in Arkansas, Clark drew on her early experiences as a Black child in the segregated American South to help children growing up with the same inequalities. Clark started at Howard University in 1934, first majoring in mathematics and minoring in physics, but she switched to psychology after meeting psychology student Kenneth Clark, who would become Clark’s husband and long-term professional collaborator. Clark graduated magnum cum laude in psychology before pursuing graduate studies. Her master’s thesis, “The Development of Consciousness in Negro Pre-School Children,” investigated the age at which young Black children become aware of their race, concluding that boys as young as three and four showed distinct racial awareness.

Clark went on to complete a PhD in psychology from Columbia University (above) in 1943. She and Kenneth, now her husband, were the first two Black people to earn PhDs at Columbia. She also received a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, and with their funding and her collaboration with Kenneth, she initiated the famous Doll Test, which showed that Black children in segregated schools were more likely to prefer dolls with white complexions and yellow hair while discarding the brown dolls with black hair and assigning negative traits to them.

"Clark drew on her early experiences as a Black child in the segregated American South to help children growing up with the same inequalities"

The study showed the devastating effects of school segregation on Black children. Based on their research, Clark and Kenneth, testified in many school segregation cases in the South, and ultimately, Kenneth used their research to argue for school integration in the 1954 Supreme Court Case Brown v. Board of EducationThis was the first time that social science was used in a Supreme Court case.

In 1946, Clark and Kenneth opened the Northside Center for Child Development, the only mental health organization for Black children in New York, and although Clark retired in 1976, the centre is still open today. Clark was awarded the American Association of University achievement award in 1973, and ten years later the National Coalition of 100 Black Women awarded her the Candace Award for humanitarianism. Clark died of lung cancer in 1983.


Katsuko Saruhashi (March 22, 1920–September 29, 2007)

© Wikimedia Commons

Geochemist Katsuko Saruhashi was born in Tokyo on 22 March,1920. At the age of twenty-one, Saruhashi quit her job at an insurance firm to become a chemistry student at the Imperial Women’s College of Science in the city. After graduating in 1943, she accepted a position at the Meteorological Research Institute, and while there, she worked towards her PhD in chemistry at the University of Tokyo.

As a member of the Geochemistry Laboratory at the Meteorological Research Institute, Saruhashi studied carbon dioxide levels in seawater. She developed Saruhashi’s Table, a method for measuring CO2 using pH, temperature, and chlorinity, which has become a global standard. She also discovered that the Pacific Ocean releases more CO2 than it absorbs. Saruhashi broke new ground in her study of ocean-borne nuclear contamination following the nuclear weapons test the United States undertook on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Saruhashi discovered that nuclear contamination travelled along ocean currents, and in the case of the Bikini Atoll bombing, the fallout spread clockwise, northwest toward Japan.

"Saruhashi’s research played an important role in limiting nuclear proliferation around the world"

The Atomic Energy Commission in the United States initiated a comparative study between Saruhashi’s methodology and American scientists at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego. The resulting paper showed that Saruhashi’s methods and conclusions were sound. Saruhashi’s research played an important role in limiting nuclear proliferation around the world, thanks to the signing of the 1963 treaty.

Saruhashi became the first woman elected to the Science Council of Japan, the first woman to win the Miyake Prize for Geochemistry, and the first woman recipient of an award from The Society of Sea Water Science in Japan. In 1981, she founded the Saruhashi Prize, a prize awarded annually to a female role model in science. Saruhashi died of pneumonia in Tokyo in 2007.


Zelia Nuttall (September 6, 1857–April 12, 1933)

Zelia Nutall
© Wikimedia Commons

Born in San Francisco, Zelia Maria Magdelena Nuttall was an anthropologist and archaeologist who specialized in Aztec Mexican cultures and pre-Columbian manuscripts. Nuttall was the second of six children to an Irish father, Robert Kennedy Nuttall, and a Mexican-American mother, Magdalena Parrott. She spent many of her formative years travelling in Europe and received her first formal education at Bedford College in the United Kingdom.

In 1884, she undertook her first archaeological study at the historical site of Teotihuacan in Mexico. She conducted a comparative study of Aztec terracotta heads, and after her 1886 paper on the topic, she was made an honorary special assistant in Mexican archaeology at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, a position she held for forty-seven years. In 1887 she was appointed as a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Among her most important finds are two pre-Columbian manuscripts of a pictographic history of ancient Mexico: the Codex Zouche-Nuttall (1902), which she recovered from a private library in England, and Codex Magliabechiano (1903), recovered from a library in Florence. She also published The Fundamental Principles of New and Old World Civilizations (1901), The Book of Life of the Ancient Mexicans (1903), and New Light on Drake: Documents Relating to His Voyage of Circumnavigation, 1577–1580 (1914). In 1910, she initiated an excavation on Isla de Sacrificios where she found the ruins of a site for human sacrifice.

In 1905, she moved to Mexico and purchased a sixteenth-century mansion, which she named Casa Alvarado. She lived in Mexico until her death in 1933. 


Anandibai Gopalrao Joshee (March 31, 1865–February 26, 1887)

Anandibai Joshee
© Darling Archive-Alamy Stock Photo

The woman who was to become India’s first woman physician with a medical degree, Anandibai Joshee, was born on March 31, 1865 in Kalyan, Maharashtra, an Indian city-state home to the capital Mumbai. When she was young, Joshee’s father, Ganpatrao strayed from orthodox Hindu belief that women should not receive education and encouraged her to go to school. This investment in Joshee’s education was continued by her husband, Gopalrao Joshee. They married when Joshee was only twelve, although he was also a troubling partner. Joshee described instances of verbal and physical abuse suffered at his hands in the years they lived together in India.

By fifteen, she was determined to study medicine, a choice likely influenced by the loss of an infant son and surviving a serious bout of illness herself. After years of planning and gaining the support of her community, Joshee set sail from Calcutta on April 7, 1883. Later that year Joshee began training at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. At WMCP, Joshee studied obstetrics and gynaecology, hoping to return to India to serve other Indian women. After three years, Joshee graduated with her medical degree and upon graduation, she accepted an offer from the governor minister of Kolhapur in India to serve as “Lady Doctor of Kolhapur” and to run the women’s ward at Albert Edward Hospital, a local hospital in Kolhapur.

During her studies, Joshee contracted tuberculosis, and when she returned to India in 1886, her health was in rapid decline. Before she could take up her post at Albert Edward Hospital, she died in February 1887 at the young age of twenty-one. Despite her short life, Joshee's accomplishments were unprecedented for an Indian woman, and her achievements were enough to open the door for other Indian women to quickly follow.


Forces of Nature book cover

Forces of Nature: The Women Who Changed Science by Anna Reser & Leila McNeill published by Frances Lincoln, 20 April 2021, RRP £20

The above extract is © Anna Reser & Leila McNeill / Frances Lincoln