5 “Disruptive” Women Scientists Who Broke the Mold


Reprinted with permission from AAUW.

Renowned biochemist and Nobel laureate Tim Hunt’s recent remarks about women scientists made us think we had traveled back in time. Hunt claimed that women in laboratories are “disruptive to the science.”

“Three things happen when they are in the lab,” Hunt said of women. “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.”

Hunt’s sexist remarks are part of a long history of gender discrimination against women in science. Popular 19th- and early 20th-century theories held that women were both biologically and intellectually inferior to men. It was widely believed that women’s generally smaller bodies meant that they had smaller brains than men. Women were also believed to have weaker nervous systems than men, allegedly making them prone to emotional distress and fatigue. These theories contributed to the notion that, rather than in the classroom or workforce, women’s place was in the home, where they could properly channel their energies into reproduction.

Fortunately, many women challenged this sexist ideology. Here are five American Association of University Women founders and early members who overcame severe gender bias and discrimination to become trailblazers in science.

1. Ellen Swallow Richards, chemist (1842–1911)

Ellen Swallow Richards, an AAUW co-founder, became the first U.S. woman to earn a chemistry degree when she graduated from Vassar College in 1870, a time when women were largely barred from higher education. But when Richards was accepted to pursue a doctorate degree at MIT, she found that her path was blocked. School officials told her that there was “no precedent” for a woman to pursue graduate work. In order to remain active in her discipline, she eventually volunteered her services to teach chemistry at MIT, including establishing its Woman’s Laboratory in 1876. Knowing firsthand the barriers facing women in science, Richards’ women-only lab provided much-needed opportunities for women to study and gain entry into science.

2. Ida Henrietta Hyde, physiologist (1856–1945)

Like Richards, 19th-century physiologist Ida Henrietta Hyde faced blatant sex discrimination. Hyde, who received a European Fellowship from AAUW’s predecessor organization in 1893, enrolled in the University of Heidelberg in Germany in pursuit of a doctorate. However, once there, Hyde was forbidden to attend lectures or labs and had to rely on two male lab assistants to take notes for her. Still, she persevered. Despite being forbidden from the classroom, she successfully fulfilled the requirements for her doctoral degree. She went on to establish the physiology department at Kansas University, where she fought to secure women’s restrooms in the science building and several scholarship funds for women in the sciences.

3. Florence Bascom, geologist (1862–1945)

As a female undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, geologist and AAUW member Florence Bascom was barely allowed in the library and prohibited from classrooms already filled by men. But perhaps the most egregious bias came when, as the first woman admitted to graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, Bascom was forced to sit behind a screen so as not to “disrupt” male students. Bascom became the first U.S. woman to receive a doctorate in geology and also the first woman officer of the United States Geological Survey. She also later established Bryn Mawr’s geology department, which turned out more women geologists in the early 20th century than any other U.S. institution.

4. Dorothy Ferebee, physician (1890–1980)

Dorothy Ferebee, a physician, health care advocate, and AAUW board member, worked tirelessly to ensure access to health care for underserved communities. The daughter of former slaves, Ferebee graduated from Simmons College in 1924 and earned her medical degree from Tufts University. Although she graduated in the top five of her class, she faced both gender and racial discrimination when she applied for positions at white hospitals. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities available to black female physicians in Massachusetts, Ferebee moved to Washington, D.C., where she became an obstetrician serving the African American community at Freedman’s Hospital, now Howard University Hospital.

5. Marie Curie, physicist (1867–1934)

Marie Curie, whose groundbreaking work was partially funded by AAUW, won the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics and the 1911 Nobel Prize in chemistry, becoming the first person ever to receive two Nobel Prizes. Yet despite her major accomplishments, Curie was never seen as an equal by many of her male colleagues. In 1911, Curie’s application to join the French Academy of Sciences was rejected, with an academy member, the physicist Emile Amagat, claiming that “women cannot be part of the Institute of France.” Instead, the membership was awarded to a less-qualified male scientist, a biased trend that still continues today for many women in the sciences. Today, Curie is one of the world’s most famous and influential scientists, inspiring women and girls across the globe.

These courageous scientists widened the path for today’s women and girls. Yet even 100 years later, gender discrimination in science remains a problem. Breaking down the barriers for women in science will take effort from all of us. AAUW’s report, Solving the Equation, details what you can do to help advance women in STEM, whether you’re an employer, professor, professional, or parent.

Photos of Richards, Hyde, Bascom, Ferebee and Curie courtesy of AAUW.



Suzanne Gould is AAUW’s archivist and records manager.