-by Madison Arenchild, Clinical Research Currents contributor
If you didn’t know them in life, get to know them in legacy. These 10 women that we lost in 2016 were pioneers in their fields and barrier-breakers for female scientists across the globe.
Suzanne Corkin, American Professor of Neuroscience at MIT
Suzanne Corkin is known most for her lifelong work with subject Henry Gustave Molaison (H.M.), an otherwise healthy young man with epilepsy who at age 27 underwent an experimental “psychosurgical” procedure that left him with nothing but short term memory. She received her PhD in 1964 and was the driving force behind the Department of Psychology’s Clinical Research at MIT for 15 years. In 1981, Corkin was promoted to Associate Professor, a tenured position, at a time when females only comprised 10% of the faculty in MIT’s School of Sciences. Her lab was said to be “so original that even today it is more admired than emulated.”
Dr. Corkin published more than 100 research papers and co-wrote 10 books, covering topics including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and psychosurgery. She has been widely acknowledged for her advocacy for both women and minorities in science and education. Described by her daughter as “fiercely independent,” Dr. Corkin even climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro at age 65. She died of liver cancer, aged 79.
Yvette Fay Francis-McBarnette, MD
An immigrant from Jamaica who moved to Harlem, New York where at age 14 she enrolled in Hunter College, Yvette Fay Francis-McBarnette was most known as a pioneer in treating children with sickle cell anemia. Breaking down barriers of both race and gender, Francis-McBarnette was only the second black female to attend Yale School of Medicine. When Francis-McBarnette began her work, this patient population often did not survive into adolescence; She has become credited for using antibiotics to treat sickle cell anemia in her patients 15 years before the drug was confirmed to be effective.
Francis-McBarnette was able to overcome unimaginable obstacles as a black female professional during the Civil Rights movement and advocated for more black men and women to apply to medical school starting in her adolescence and continuing this advocacy throughout her life.
Ursula Franklin, Canadian Physicist
Bet you’ve never heard of another case where someone could persuade governments to end atmospheric nuclear testing by examining children’s teeth, right? A pacifist, feminist, and scientist, Canadian Ursula Franklin spent her life devoted to the support of all three of these interests simultaneously. Her undergraduate degree she was pursuing in Berlin was put on hold in 1940 when she was sent to Nazi internment camp where she spent 18 months before finishing her degree in Berlin and immigrating to Canada. Famous for her quote, “Peace is not the absence of war—peace is the absence of fear,” Franklin was both an example for women and an advocate for peace.
Her research in the 1960’s in which she proved that there was radioactive strontium-90 present in Canadian children’s teeth helped convince governments to abandon atmospheric nuclear testing during the Cold War. Dominating in a near exclusively male academic sphere, she became the first female professor of University of Toronto’s department of metallurgy and material sciences. Franklin went on to become the first woman named a University Professor at the University of Toronto , the highest honor of the institution, in 1984.
Jemma Redmond, Irish Biotechnologist
Founder and CEO of the successful bioprinting startup, Ourobotics, Jemma Redmond’s work revolved around bioprinting with living cells. Redmond was able to build computers that could support living cells, dubbed, “bio-ink,” to remain alive while being used in 3D printing. Redmond herself was born intersex and was fascinated by the possibility of being able to build a functioning uterus.
She dreamt of being able to help with the world’s shortage of organs available for transplants by creating biotechnology that could actually create organs. In one interview, Redmond said that even as a revolutionary biotechnologist, as a woman, she constantly felt like she needed to work harder to get noticed and to build credibility – a continued feeling shared by many female scientists. Redmond died in a tragic accident last year at the age of 38.
Ann Caracristi, American Cryptologist
Beginning her work in cryptology in 1942 after being recruited to break codes on behalf of the government for war efforts, Caracristi was no mathematician but rather a History and English major. At the time she began code breaking, it was less about mathematics than it was solving puzzling and finding patterns, and Caracristi had the ingenuity to excel. She was called back to work for a government agency that would become the NSA, this time breaking Soviet codes. She was a chief at the NSA from 1959 to 1980 in research and operations, became the first woman to be promoted to GS-18 in 1975, and became the first female Deputy Director of the NSA in 1980. She is credited as a pioneer of using early computers in cryptanalysis and even in her retirement served on numerous intelligence community panels and boards. Ann died at age 94 of complications from dementia.
Katharine Blodgett Gebbie, American Astrophysicist and Civil Servant
Remembered for her ability to help others succeed through the relationships she fostered as a manager in various labs, Gebbie received a Ph.D. in astrophysics from London’s University College and as a postdoc joined NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology), Boulder in 1968. Colleague Steven Rolston, JQI Co-Director and Physics Department Chair, said of Gebbie, “..without a doubt she was the best manager of a scientific organization that I ever saw. In her words, ‘get the best people, steer them in the right direction, give them the resources they need, and let them run.’”
For over 20 years she was the founder and sole director of the NIST Physics Laboratory. Her leadership extended especially to opening opportunities for women and underrepresented minorities in physics. A winner herself of the NIST Equal Employment Opportunity Award, the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Government Women’s Visionary Leadership Award (to name a few), Gebbie also was a co-organizer of a Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics. The conference brought together and encouraged more than a hundred female undergraduate physics majors. A tireless advocate, Gebbie was working on another conference for undergraduate minorities in physics when she passed away in August 2016.
Ruth Hubbard, Harvard University Professor of Biology
Famous for her work researching how eyes read and understand light, as well as for her book, The Politics of Women’s Biology, Ruth Hubbard was an active member of the Women’s Liberation Movement as well as a significant contributor to optical science. Hubbard was the first woman to receive a tenured professorship position in biology at Harvard University. She was known for her advocacy for women and people of color in the sciences by exposing the systematic bias against their success in the field. Her book explored how differences in biology due to gender were used to support the idea that women were scientifically subservient to men. The message? To embrace the biological differences that had been traditionally used to undermine female intelligence, and to show the power of that individuality and independence.
Hubbard’s research was pivotal to understanding vertebrate and invertebrate vision through increased understanding of the biochemistry and photochemistry of the eyes. Ruth passed away in September.
Deborah Jin, American Physicist
Jin, a fellow with the NIST and the JILA (Join Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics) and a Professor Adjunct with the Department of Physics at the University of Colorado, did her work in polar quantum chemistry. It was Jin’s team at JILA that in 2003 made a new form of matter by creating the first fermionic condensate. Winner of the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women In Science Award for North America, Jin and her team demonstrated quantum degeneracy and the formation of a molecular Bose-Einstein condensate by cooling fermionic atomic gases to less that 100 billionths of a degree above zero.
Her work laid foundations for the development of room-temperature superconductors and other advances in materials science and she won the Institute of Physics Isaac Newton Medal, among other awards. In September of 2016, Deborah passed away of cancer.
Susan Lindquist, American Professor of Biology at MIT
The first female director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Susan Lindquist was also one of the first women to be the head of any independent research organization of that scale. Her revolutionary research uncovering the nature of protein folding procured for Susan a reputation in biomedical innovation. She was not just a researcher, but an entrepreneur, a mentor, and an avid supporter of women in science. In her name, Johnson & Johnson established a the Susan L. Lindquist Chair for Women in Science, a $5 million endowment that will be awarded to a female scientist to advance biomedical research.
The National Medal of Science winner’s early experiments with fruit flies and brewer’s yeast showed that Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and paths for new trait evolution in organisms could result when protein folding in cells went awry. And Lindquist’s work was critical in understanding the role and behavior of protein folding in diseases such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. Her leadership and example are said to have opened the doors for women to enter research by changing labs into more welcoming places for female scientists.
Vera Rubin, American Astronomist
Everyone today knows, at least in name, what dark matter is. But several decades ago, that was not so. A trailblazer in the field of astronomy, Rubin’s work centered primarily on galaxy rotation rates. She was studying the behavior of spiral galaxies when she observed that stars at the edge of the galaxy were rotating at the same rate as stars in the middle, which seems to violate Newtonian gravitational theory. It was from this research that Rubin came to discover dark matter.
When Vera Rubin graduated was rejected from Princeton because they did not yet accept women into their astronomy program, she became the only astronomy major in her Vassar College graduating class of 1948. She was already pregnant with her second child when she began her PhD at the age of 23 at Georgetown. And in 1965, Rubin was one of the first women to use a major telescope to look at the night sky when she visited San Diego’s Palomar Observatory.
All ten of these women are among the brightest scientific minds of our time. Their contributions to physics, biology, astronomy and other fields are a testament to the achievements made possible by opening the doors of academia and other institutions to women and women of color scientists. But notice their ages at their time of death. They span from 38 to 94 years old. These scientists’ shared experience of career-long battles overcoming gender bias, and in some cases racial bias, as well, in their professional lives serves as a call to attention that barriers to access to research and scientific workplaces for women continue even today. These magnificent, powerful women have laid the groundwork for women in the sciences. As a community we have a responsibility, women and men alike, to continue this work for future generations.
How to Reference: Madison Arenchild, A Legacy for the Ladies: 10 Phenomenal Female Scientists We Lost in 2016. Clinical Research Currents February 6, 2017.
*This article is based on an article by Maia Weinstock, Gone in 2016: 10 Notable Women in Science and Technology, that was published in Scientific American on December 28, 2016.