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Lost Women of Science

Author: Lost Women of Science

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For every Marie Curie or Rosalind Franklin whose story has been told, hundreds of female scientists remain unknown to the public at large. In this series, we illuminate the lives and work of a diverse array of groundbreaking scientists who, because of time, place and gender, have gone largely unrecognized. Each season we focus on a different scientist, putting her narrative into context, explaining not just the science but also the social and historical conditions in which she lived and worked. We also bring these stories to the present, painting a full picture of how her work endures.
79 Episodes
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When Laura J. Martin decided to write a history of ecological restoration, she didn’t think she would have to go back further than the 1980s to uncover its beginnings. What she found, however, deep in the archives, was evidence of a network of early female botanists from the turn of the last century who had been written out of history. Wild by Design: The Rise of Ecological Restoration sets the record straight. It tells the stories of Eloise Butler, Edith Roberts and the wild and wonderful gardens they planted and studied. 
In our final episode, we explore Dorothy Andersen’s legacy — what she left behind and how her work has lived on since her death. Describing her mentor’s influence on her life and career, Dr. Celia Ores gives us a rare look at what Dr. Andersen was really like. We then turn to researchers, physicians, and patients, who fill us in on the many areas of progress that have grown out of Dr. Andersen’s work. These major developments include the discovery of the cystic fibrosis gene, the tremendous impact of the drug Trikafta, and the lifesaving potential of gene editing techniques. We end the episode with an update on the effect Trikafta has had on the lives of many CF patients, who can now expect to live a normal life. 
The missing portrait of Dr. Andersen takes us on a journey into the perils of memorialization and who gets to be remembered. Dr. John Scott Baird, Dorothy Andersen’s biographer, looks for the portrait, and Drs. Nientara Anderson and Lizzy Fitzsousa, former medical students at Yale University, explain how “dude walls” — the paintings of male scientists that line institutional walls — can have an insidious effect on those who walk past them every day. And we go back to Columbia University to give you an update on the hunt for the missing portrait.
Our associate producer, Sophie McNulty, rummages through boxes in a Connecticut basement, looking for clues to Dorothy Andersen’s life story. Pediatric critical care physician Dr. John Scott Baird, who published a biography of Dorothy Andersen in 2021, suggests we take a second look at the conventional wisdom surrounding the evolution of cystic fibrosis research in the 1950s. And in this updated episode, we interview science historian Margaret Rossiter, who coined the term “Matilda Effect” to describe how credit for work done by female scientists too often goes to their male colleagues. We examine how this affected Dorothy Andersen and her groundbreaking research into cystic fibrosis.
A few important things have happened in the three years since we first aired The Pathologist in the Basement, the story of Dr. Dorothy Andersen, the first to identify cystic fibrosis. It’s safe to say that Dr. Anderson is now a little less lost. In Episode 1, Dr. Andersen sleuths her way to the discovery of cystic fibrosis, a fatal disease that affects the lungs, the pancreas, and a host of other organs. So, who was Dorothy Andersen, and how did she come to make this seminal medical contribution?
When poet Jessy Randall started researching the lives of female scientists she became angry. And we certainly can relate here at Lost Women of Science. So many women made important discoveries but received little recognition. In this episode of Lost Women of Science Conversations, Randall talks to Carol Sutton Lewis about Mathematics for Ladies: Poems on Women in Science, the collection of poems born of that anger. They discuss what it means to be the first in a field, the ethics of poetic license, and the importance of female role models in STEM. Randall’s poems are about some of the women we’ve featured in our podcast, including the first Black female doctor, Rebecca Lee Crumpler, and the physicist Lise Meitner.
“We were each put on earth to torment the other,” says cognitive scientist Steven Pinker of Elizabeth Bates, a psychologist who challenged the prevailing theory about how humans acquire language. Bates believed that language emerges from interactions between our brains and our environments, and that we do not have an innate language capacity. To many, that sounds like an innocuous statement. But in making these claims, Bates challenged formidable linguists like Pinker and Noam Chomsky, placing herself at the center of a heated debate that remains unresolved half a century later.
Melba Phillips, who grew up on a farm in Indiana at the turn of the 20th century, was one of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s first graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley. Together they discovered the Oppenheimer-Phillips Process, which explained a particular kind of nuclear reaction. In this episode, we explain what that is, with a little help from generative AI. Phillips did not follow Oppenheimer to Los Alamos, and was vocal in her opposition to nuclear weapons. During the McCarthy era, she lost her teaching job, and did not return to academia until 1957. In 1962, then in her mid-fifties, she finally became a full professor at the University of Chicago.
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was in her early 20s when she figured out what the stars are made of. Both she and her groundbreaking findings were ahead of their time. Continuing the legacy of women working at the Harvard College Observatory, Cecilia charted the way for a generation of female astronomers to come. This Best Of episode of Lost Women of Science follows Cecilia’s journey of discovery, journals her drive and determination against all odds, and takes you to the Harvard College Observatory itself to walk in Cecilia’s footsteps.
The year is 1897 and Annie Maunder, an amateur astronomer, is boarding a steamship bound for India from England. Her goal: to photograph a total solar eclipse. Like the many people whose gaze will turn upwards in North America on April 8, Maunder was fascinated by the secrets of the sun and was determined to travel the globe and unlock them. She understood that the few minutes of darkness during a solar eclipse presented a special opportunity to explore the nature of the sun. Her observations led to our greater understanding of how the sun affects the earth, but like so many early female scientists, her contributions and achievements have been forgotten.
In this episode of Lost Women of Science Conversations, Michelle Nijhuis talks to historian Catherine McNeur about how she rediscovered the lives and work of Elizabeth and Margaretta Morris, two natural scientists who made significant contributions to botany and entomology in the mid-19th Century. Elizabeth collected rare plant species and sent them to institutions around the world, and Margaretta not only discovered new insects but also helped farmers combat the pests that were devastating their fields. Nevertheless, by both design and accident, these women were lost to history. McNeur tells us how that happened and how, piece by piece, she recovered their stories.
While working at the Salk Institute in California, Ursula Bellugi discovered that sign language was made up of specific building blocks that were assembled following strict rules, much like in spoken language. Her subsequent discoveries about the complexities of sign language led both to linguistic breakthroughs and to changes in the way deaf people felt about signing. Bellugi demonstrated that sign language is as rich and complex as any spoken language. Her work deepened our understanding of what it means to communicate as humans.
Katharine “Kay” Way was a nuclear physicist who worked at multiple Manhattan Project sites. She was an expert in radioactive decay. But after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, she became increasingly concerned about the ethics of nuclear weapons. Dr. Way signed the Szilard Petition and worked to spread awareness of the moral responsibility surrounding atomic weaponry, including co-editing the influential One World or None: a Report to the Public on the Full Meaning of the Atomic Bomb, remaining an outspoken advocate for fairness and justice.
“Hoots and derision, which did not worry me at all,” Lilian Bland wrote, describing her visit to an airshow in Blackpool, England in 1909. She’d been telling everyone there that she intended to build and fly her own airplane. They were unimpressed. Lilian was undeterred. She built a DIY plane of bamboo, wood, and fabric, with a bicycle handlebar for steering and an engine she carried from England back to her home in Ireland. But would the Mayfly, as she called it, fly?
In the first of a new series we’re calling Lost Women of Science Conversations—and a fitting choice for Black History Month—we talk to Maria Smilios, author of a new book that tells the story of Black nurses who were lured from the Jim Crow South to work at a tuberculosis (TB) hospital called Sea View on Staten Island, N.Y. Facing unsanitary conditions and racial prejudice, these “Black Angels” cared for TB patients for decades before a cure that they helped develop was found. It’s a story of bravery and dedication that Smilios pieced together from oral histories and medical records because there were no archives that described these nurses’ work.
Sara Little Turnbull was a force in the world of material science and industrial design. It’s safe to say most people will have used something that started life on her drawing board, but few will know her name. She worked with engineered fabrics at 3M, designing a moldable bra cup that inspired the design of the N95 mask. Later 3M disputed her role in coming up with the mask. She also worked on clear glass cooktop development, the early microwave, storage systems, and many other products.
The Australian physicist Ruby Payne-Scott helped lay the groundwork for a whole new kind of astronomy: radio astronomy. By scanning the skies for radio waves instead of the light waves we can see with our eyes, Ruby and her colleagues opened a window into the universe and transformed the way we explore it. But to keep her job as a woman working for the Australian government in the 1940s, Ruby had to keep a pretty big secret.
Sallie Pero Mead was first hired at AT&T in 1915 as a “computer”—a human calculator—shortly after completing her master’s degree in mathematics at Columbia University. Before long she started working on the company’s transmission engineering team as both a mathematician and an electrical engineer. She and her team developed and tested hollow metal tubes used as waveguides: structures that confine and direct electromagnetic waves. In 1933 they discovered a new way that hyperfrequency waves could propagate down these tubes, and this made radar technology possible—just in time for use in World War II.
Scientist Leona Zacharias was a rare woman. She graduated from Barnard College in 1927 with a degree in biology, followed by a Ph.D. from Columbia University. But throughout her career she labored behind men with loftier titles who got the bulk of the credit. In the 1940s, when premature babies born with healthy eyes were going blind, Dr. Zacharias was part of the team that worked to root out the cause. In this best of Lost Women of Science episode, host Katie Hafner visits the archives at M.I.T. and The Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston to try to understand Dr. Zacharias’s role in rooting out the cause. For host Katie Hafner, it's personal: Leona Zacharias was her grandmother.
Vera Peters began her career studying treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma. She used techniques that had seen positive outcomes on Hodgkin’s to treat breast cancer patients, and she discovered a treatment that was equally effective and much less invasive than the radical mastectomy, saving hundreds of thousands of women from that life-altering surgery.
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Comments (9)

Susanne Bittner

Get fully well soon!

Apr 27th
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Pony Co

perfect subject for a podcast

Apr 13th
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Sara Shahriari

This episode was great 👌🏻

Feb 18th
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Billy Weinheimer

I did not know that! “Since her death in 1979, the woman who discovered what the universe is made of has not so much as received a memorial plaque. Her newspaper obituaries do not mention her greatest discovery. […] Every high school student knows that Isaac Newton discovered gravity, that Charles Darwin discovered evolution, and that Albert Einstein discovered the relativity of time. But when it comes to the composition of our universe, the textbooks simply say that the most abundant atom in the universe is hydrogen. And no one ever wonders how we know.” — Jeremy Knowles, discussing the complete lack of recognition Cecilia Payne gets, even today, for her revolutionary discovery. (via alliterate) OH WAIT LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT CECILIA PAYNE. Cecilia Payne’s mother refused to spend money on her college education, so she won a scholarship to Cambridge. Cecilia Payne completed her studies, but Cambridge wouldn’t give her a degree because she was a woman, so she said to heck with that and m

Jan 17th
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Fatemeh Dehqan

that was excellent 👌🏼😍

Sep 27th
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Sara Shahriari

this podcast is amazing 👏 😍 keep going 💪🏻

Jun 23rd
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rocetpally

m.h xxxx

Jun 9th
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