Early Women Scientists

Hypatia, Hildegard of Bingen, Caroline Herschel, and Ada Lovelace

Brief profiles of early women scientists involved in various male-dominated fields.

Early women scientists have been involved in science development but their work had little recognition, either ignored or left out in science books.

Hypatia of Alexandria (A.D. 370-415)

Hypatia was one of the early women scientists. Born in Alexandria in Egypt, she taught mathematics and philosophy. Most of her writings have been lost, but there are number of them referred to by other scientists. Her most important work was in algebra and geometry, and she was also interested in mechanics and technology. She designed several scientific instruments, including a plane astrolabe, which was used for measuring the positions of the starts, planet and the sun.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

Hildegard was an Abbess of a convent in Germany. She was educated in a wide range of subjects, including music and medicine. She wrote many books on religion and a natural history encyclopaedia called Liber simplicis medicinae, which described animals and minerals, as many as 230 plants and 60 trees. Hildegard devised a number of maps of the universe; in her first plan, the earth lies in the middle surrounded by the stars and planets.

Anne, Countess of Conway (1631-1679)

She was an English mathematician and philosopher born in London. Her brother, who was her tutor, supplied her with books and introduced her to the ideas of René Descartes. Her country house at Ragley Hall became a well-known place for scholars. Her book, The Principles of the most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, was published eleven years after her death by Francis van Helmont, a Dutch chemist. The book had great influence on German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz. Sadly, her work was primarily attributed to van Helmont rather than her.

Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)

Herschel was born into the family of German musicians, herself a concert soprano. In 1772 she moved to England with her astronomer brother, William Herschel. After learning from her brother, he made her his assistant. In 1787, she became the first woman appointed assistant to the Court Astronomer. Independently, Caroline Herschel discovered many new comets and won awards for her work, including the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828. She opened up astronomy to other women of her day.

Mary Somerville (1780-1872)

Somerville was a Scottish science educator who made important contribution. Her first scientific paper “On the Magnetizing Power of the More Refrangible Solar Rays,” was submitted to the Royal society by her husband since that time women were banned from the organization. In 1831, she published A Mechanism of the Heavens. Although it was partly an interpretation of the work of French scientist Pierre Laplace, it also contained many of her ideas. For many years, it became the standard text in the study of advanced mathematics.

Ada, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852)

Ada Lovelace is often considered the first computer programmer. Daughter of a famous father, the poet Lord Byron, she studied astronomy, Latin, music and mathematics. Later, she worked with English mathematician Charles Babbage as the designer of arithmetical operations for his calculating machines, the forerunners of today’s computers. Her ideas and work were published in 1843. Like her other predecessors, her work was also considered unsuitable, and largely forgotten.

Much as they might have wanted to, women were unable to attend universities and excluded from scientific societies and laboratories. Many of them could only serve as assistants to male scientists. The situation has improved immensely in the present times.

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