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Three in Millions

By Asal Mohammadi and Francesca Vidal


The passion to create and discover could be considered parts of human nature. For as long as humans have walked the earth, we have tried our best to explain the world around us and use its resources for creations that help our daily lives. From the creation of the wheel around 3500 B.C to rockets launched into space today, the steady progression of STEM in our world is undeniable. Responsible for these advancements are the many men and women who, through successes and failures, build upon each other’s knowledge as to create something better. Some of these people are familiar to the modern ear: Einstein, Curie, Hawking, and so forth; however, not many people know about their less acknowledged counterparts. Many in history have displayed their passion for STEM, and this month’s issue of Imagining showcases some of the brilliant minds who might not have a page in history books.

Born in 1821 in England, Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the United States to receive a degree in medicine. Blackwell belonged to a family of progressive activists who settled in Cincinnati, Ohio. At the age of 24, upon a visit to family friend Mary Donaldson, Blackwell was struck with the inspiration that would launch her passion and career in medicine.

Elizabeth Blackwell, photo/ Encyclopedia Britannica

Donaldson was suffering from an ailment similar to uterine cancer, and upon death, she wished that she had been treated by a female doctor. While also continuing her teaching career, Blackwell went under the wing of two physicians. She was ultimately admitted to a single school, the Geneva College in New-York, as a joke. She faced discrimination in college, being singled out by her male peers and eventually graduating first in her class. She pointed out doctors’ errors in not washing their hands between patients, emphasizing hygiene in healthcare. She opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children (1857); the clinic grew steadily, eventually running a medical school for women. Blackwell returned to London as a professor of gynecology and a founding member of the National Health Society. In doing so, Blackwell truly paved the path for women to pursue medicine, as well as for women to receive better treatments by those who truly understood their symptoms and ailments.

Katherine Johnson was born in 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She attended high school at 13 and later attended West Virginia State College. Johnson graduated with the highest honors and became the third-ever African American to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics. She taught at a black public school in Virginia for a couple of years. In 1952, Johnson applied and got accepted for a position at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, which later became known as NASA).

Katherine Johnson, photo/ Encyclopedia Britannica

There, she worked on analyzing flight tests and the cause of a plane crash. In 1957, with the launch of Sputnik, she became a part of NACA’s Space Task Force. She worked with trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s mission Freedom 7 (the first human spaceflight). Johnson and Ted Skopinski, an engineer, co-authored Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position, a report about equations describing an orbital spaceflight. She became the first woman to receive credit for a research report. Johnson correctly calculated the orbit equations for John Glenn’s orbital mission in 1962 and worked on the Apollo moon landing projects. She was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 by former President Barack Obama. Her brilliance and determination led her to revolutionize a new era of spaceflight.

Lise Meitner was born on November 7, 1878, in Vienna, Austria. She attended the University of Vienna and earned her Ph.D. in physics in 1906. She moved to Berlin the following year to study with Max Planck, a physicist, and Otto Hahn, a chemist. Hahn and Meitner later lead a section in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. They, together, discovered the element protactinium in 1918. In 1923, Meitner discovered the Auger effect, a radiationless transition.

Lise Meitner, photo/ Encyclopedia Britannica

She was forced to move to Sweden where, with little support from Manne Siegbahn, she continued her research at Siegbahn’s institute. Hahn and Meitner met in November of 1923 in Copenhagen to discuss how they could prove the existence of nuclear fission. At Hahn’s laboratory in Berlin, they were able to provide evidence for nuclear fission through conducting experiments. They published their findings in January 1939. In 1944, Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, but Meitner never received one as Hahn talked down about her work conducted with him. In 1966, Hahn, Meitner, and Fritz Strassman, a chemist, were awarded the Enrico Fermi Award. In 1992, after her death, the newly discovered element Meitnerium was named after Meitner. Although she never fully received the credit she deserved, Lise Meitner is, as many say, “the most significant woman scientist of the 20th Century.”



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