A Timeline of Firsts: Recognizing brave female pioneers in STEM

Above is an illustration of Florence Bingham Kinne, courtesy of Sarah Teng. More illustrations are included in the full 93.3 PDF.

The Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries brought unforgettable names to the history of science, each attributed with making groundbreaking discoveries and developing methods of science that we use today. Often missing among these names are the women: women who had the ability to become great scientists yet were barred from education; women who made groundbreaking discoveries and contributions but weren’t credited for their work. This (by no means inclusive) timeline of the first women in STEM will bring to mind many familiar names, as well as many new names, in order to acknowledge the courage and passion it takes to break any barrier for the first time.

1732After becoming one of the first women to receive a degree from an institute of higher education, Laura Bassi (1711 – 1778) became the first salaried female professor in the world. She taught at the University of Bologna until her death, and during her time at the institution, she was also appointed the chair of the Physics department.
1754Inspired by Laura Bassi’s achievements, Dorothea Erxeleben (1715 – 1762) fought for her right to study medicine, and eventually became the first licensed female doctor in the world.  Much of her life was dedicated to advocating for the education of women.
c.1793Though she lived in the highly conservative society of the Qing dynasty, the self-taught Wang Zhenyi (1768 – 1797) became an accomplished astronomer, mathematician, and poet. She became the first individual in China to correctly explain lunar and solar eclipses. Through writing various textbooks, she dedicated her life to providing education to those who were traditionally denied it.
1843Through her collaboration with Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852) wrote the first algorithm for his “Analytical Engine,” making Lovelace the world’s first computer programmer. Her novel idea that computers could be used for more than calculations was vastly ahead of her time and would go on to frame the basis of modern-day programming.
1849While working as a teacher, Elizabeth Blackwell (1821 – 1920) noticed a dire need for female doctors, so in 1849, she became the first licensed female doctor in America. Later in her life, Blackwell opened her own practice, started a medical college in New York, and became a professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women.
1864Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831 – 1895) was the first African American woman to receive a medical degree. Working as a nurse first, she was recommended by the doctors she worked with to attend medical school. In 1866, she joined other Black physicians in caring for freed slaves.
1894Yale graduate schools allowed women to enroll for the first time in 1892. Of the twenty-three wome n who joined, seven successfully received their doctorates, and two of them were in STEM fields. Margaretta Palmer received a Ph.D. in mathematics and became a pioneering astronomer, working at the Yale Observatory until her death. Charlotte Fitch Roberts received a Ph.D. in chemistry and took up professorship at Wellesley upon graduation.
1903The first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, Marie Curie (1867 – 1934) was honored in 1903 for her work with her husband on spontaneous radiation. After her husband’s death, Marie took his place as professor of general physics at the University of Paris, receiving a second Nobel Prize in 1911. She dedicated much of the rest of her life supporting research on radium at various institutes.
1905Florence Bingham Kinne (1863 – 1929) was hired to teach at the Pathology Department at the School of Medicine, becoming the first female instructor at Yale. When she was hired, she was likely to have been one of the only women in the entire School of Medicine, since the first female students were admitted in 1916
1942During the war, Mary G. Ross (1908 – 2008) was hired as a mathematician for Lockheed Corporation in California. During this time, she became the first Indigenous woman to receive a professional certification in engineering. She continued to work for Lockheed until 1973, where she worked on preliminary designs for satellites, manned space flight, and developed ballistic missile systems.
1958In 1958, Mary Jackson (1921 – 2005) became the first woman of color engineer at NASA. After publishing various papers during her two decades there, Jackson became the Federal Women’s Program Manager at NASA’s Langley Research Center, where she helped to promote the hiring and promotions of female mathematicians, engineers, and scientists.
1969In 1969, Yale College allowed women to enroll for the first time. Two hundred-thirty women enrolled as freshmen at Yale, and another cohort of women enrolled as transfer students. The women who transferred as juniors graduated in 1971, becoming the first women to graduate from Yale College.
1983As a crewmember and flight engineer of the Challenger STS-7 shuttle, Sally Ride (1951 – 2012) became the first female American astronaut. She participated in two missions. After her retirement from NASA, Ride worked to improve science education for girls and founded Sally Ride Science, a non-profit that supports young women in STEM.
1993Through her mission aboard the Discovery space shuttle, Ellen Ochoa (b. 1962) became the first Hispanic woman to go to space. She embarked on three more missions during her career, and she is currently the Director of the Johnson Space Center.
2014Maryam Mirzakhani (1977 – 2017) was the first woman to be awarded the Fields Medal (the “Nobel Prize of Mathematics”) for her work in the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces. Before she passed, Maryam was a professor at Stanford University. 


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