Empowering Women – Sharing Stories of Women in Science

By Ilaria Nissotti – Year 13

I am participating in a group project whose goal is to empower women. One article will be written per month until March (Women’s day on the 8th). The role of each article is to share stories of women who have accomplished something extraordinary but whose stories haven’t really been shared before, mainly due to their gender. Each month focuses on a different topic, this first article focuses on empowering women in Science.

In addition to writing articles, we’ve also organised an independently organised TEDx event on Thursday, 6th December from 3:30pm to 7pm. If you’d like to come and watch, a form will be sent out for you to fill in. In this article I’ve chosen to write about two women who’ve made amazing discoveries in Science.

Lise Meitner was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1878. She was Jewish and showed an early propensity for mathematics. Her father insisted that each of his daughters receive the same education as his sons. In Vienna, girls weren’t permitted to attend the normal boys’ high school, therefore she focused on passing the very difficult entrance exam to the University of Vienna. This allowed her to study there at the age of 23, becoming the first woman admitted to the university’s physics lectures and laboratories. She then became the second woman to receive a PHD in Physics from the University of Vienna.

Her work in nuclear physics led to the discovery of nuclear fission, a reaction in which a large nucleus splits into smaller ones with the simultaneous release of energy. This is a massive breakthrough and it’s the finding that laid the groundwork for the atomic bomb. This discovery has additionally had a profound effect on our world in delivering energy, influencing geopolitics and opening new frontiers in science and medicine.

While doing some research, I discovered a site in which there’s a picture of Otto Hahn (a chemist whom she collaborated with). This picture was to show Hahn who discovered nuclear fission alongside Fritz Strassman. The woman to his left is Lisa Meitner – the true discoverer of the theory behind nuclear fission!

You may be wondering why Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman are mentioned as the discoverers of nuclear fission and Lise Meitner wasn’t mentioned at all. Otto Hahn had performed the experiments that produced the evidence supporting the idea of nuclear fission, although he couldn’t come up with an explanation. Meitner and her nephew, Otto Frisch, came up with the theory behind nuclear fission.

Otto Hahn then published his findings in a paper without including Meitner as a co-author. Meitner didn’t argue about this as it’s said that she understood this omission, given the situation in Nazi Germany and her Jewish religion. Although another contributing factor to the neglect of Meitner’s work was her gender.

Lise Meitner had moved to Stockholm, Sweden after the Nazis annexed Austria in March 1938. She believed that it was almost a crime to be a woman in Sweden, and therefore a researcher on the Nobel physics committee actively tried to shut her out. This led to Otto Hahn alone winning the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of nuclear fission.

Over the years she hasn’t been associated with the findings even though she felt she was instrumental in the discovery of nuclear fission. But since her name wasn’t on the initial paper with Hahn, she was always left off the Nobel Prize for recognizing and contributing to the discovery.

Nettie Stevens was born in Vermont in 1861. She was a biologist who performed studies crucial in determining that an organism’s sex was dictated by its chromosomes rather than environmental or other factors. She did work with mealworms, and this allowed her to deduce that the males produced sperm with X and Y chromosomes, whereas the females produced reproductive cells with only X chromosomes. This was the evidence that supported the theory that sex determination is directed by an organism’s genetics.

Edmund Wilson, a researcher who was said to have done similar research and come to the same conclusion but only after Nettie Stevens, caused something known as the Matilda effect. The Matilda effect is the repression or denial of the contributions of female researchers to science.

Additionally, Thomas Hunt Morgan, was the first to write a genetics textbook. He was often credited with discovering the genetic basis for sex determination. Although, textbooks have a terrible tendency to choose the same evidence as other textbooks, hence causing Stevens’ name to almost never be associated with her own discovery.

Letters between Morgan and Stevens were discovered showing that Morgan was contributing with other scientists to the discovery, although it was different with Stevens. Instead with her, he was simply asking for details of her experiments, giving proof that Stevens simply did the work and found the discovery herself. When she died in 1912 from breast cancer, Morgan wrote about her in Science saying that “she did not have a broad view of science”, but that’s because “he didn’t ask her”.

Who would you add to the list of female scientists / researchers who did not get the credit they deserved for their work?

I’d like to thank Dariimaa Sukhbaatar, Harry Engesser-Sudlow and Wiona Willmann for participating in this group project with me. If you’re interested in women empowerment / gender equality or any of the following topics (Art and Literature, History and Politics, General education and Female activists), please come and read the articles that will be written in the following months up until March.

Thank you!