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Women in History

Tuesday 21 July 2015 at 1:50 pm.

The Harvard Computers

Don’t be confused by the computers we use today. Harvard “Computers” (shown at left) in the late 19th and 20th centuries referred to a group of women who analyzed and categorized star data at Harvard University. Also known as Pickering’s Harem, because of being hired by Edward Charles Pickering, this group of skilled mathematicians processed astronomical data. Frustrated with his male assistants, Pickering said his maid could do a better job. So he hired his maid, Williamina Fleming, who actually did a much better job. Her success prompted Pickering to hire more women for his calculations and classifying.  

Many of these women found “astronomical breakthroughs,” however their research and essays were given credit to Pickering. In fact many scientists didn’t even know women worked for him. Pickering published the first Henry Draper Catalog, which classified more than 10,000 stars according to their spectrum. Pickering had nothing to do with the book, except having his name on the cover, the group of women had done all the research and wrote the book.

Along with Williamina Fleming, Pickering also hired Annie Cannon, Henrietta Leavitt, and Antonia Maury. Annie Cannon and Antonia Maury. Many went on to improve and redesign the star classification system, and publish many papers and books. However, their work was ignored until long after their deaths. Pickering recruited women for many reasons, mostly so he could pay them lower salaries. He could employ much more staff for the same budget, if he used men over women. Even though all of the women were astronomy graduates, their wages were those of unskilled workers, earning 25 to 50 cents an hour, which is about 5 to 11 dollars today. It was important that they could hire many people because they had an overwhelming amount of astronomical data, and not enough of observatories to process it. 

Grace Hopper

Have you ever used the word “debugging” when you fix a computer problem? Grace Hopper coined this term after taking an actual moth out of her computer. Grace created the first compiler, a special program that turns written statements into machine language. The compiler allows a human to type in code, the compiler then translates the code into computer language, then the compiler returns the computer's output into code that is readable by other humans. It was the first way of using words and symbols, instead of numbers. The computer and and her compiler helped end World War II, by computing how to crush an atom, which was the only piece of information left to make the atomic bomb. She also wrote the first high-level programming language, called COBOL, which is still in use today.

Grace was also the oldest active women in the military. She joined the US Navy during World War II. She barely made the cut off, at age 37 when she applied. She continued to program after her service time (for the military and her own personal pleasure), but was asked to rejoin many times after her career, and after she “retired”. She applied again at age 60, and became a US Navy Admiral.

The Grace Hopper Celebration was created two years after her death, encouraging young women to take an interest in programming, and holding many conferences and conventions just for women in the tech industries.  

Inge Lehamn

Inge Lehmann discovered the inner Earth. She came up with a good explanation of why seismic waves (from an earthquake) appear to slow down as they travel long distances through the Earth. Before Lehmann, scientists thought the Earth had only one core. She discovered that there were two cores.

While Lehmann was born in Denmark, she studied at Cambridge University. However, her college schooling was interrupted by poor health. During her leave of absence, she learned computational skills and worked as a local office secretary. She resumed her studies and graduated in physical science and mathematics. She was hired as an assistant in seismology department at the Geodetical Institute of Denmark. She then worked her way up until she became the head of the department.

Because of her remarkable work, which changed how we think of the earth, and many of the physics and astronomy principles with it, she won numerous amount of awards, and Asteroid 5632 was named after her. In 1997, the American Geophysical Union established the Inge Lehmann Medal to honor her “outstanding contributions to the understanding of the structure, composition, and dynamics of the Earth’s mantle and core.” 

Mary Anning

Mary Anning grew up on the cliffs along the English Channel. She spent so much time on the cliff’s that the tongue twister “she sells seashells by the sea shore” was actually inspired by Anning. As a young girl she helped out at her father’s fossil store. However, after her brother’s, father’s, and mother’s early death, she took over the store and began fossil collecting.

Anning learned so much about the fossils she collected and sold, that she knew more than the paleontologists of her time. However, even though being a girl in science (especially in the 19th century) was challenging, it wasn’t her biggest worry. The English Channel is full of sharp rocks and steep cliffs, the water slapping against its side was enough to drag a person off shore in a matter of seconds. However, she spent all of her free time picking away at the rocks, despite the horrible weather and water around her. She was also extremely slow at uncovering these fossils, which is probably why they are so perfectly preserved.

“The extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she had made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong….by reading and application she had arrived to that greater degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom” (Lady Harriet Silvester). 

Mary Anning’s discoveries were some of the most significant geological findings of all time. Her most famous discoveries include the first ichthyosaurus fossil, the first complete fossil of the plesiosaurus, the first British pterodactylus macronyx (a flying reptile), and the first Squaloraja (a fossilized fish and a transitional link between sharks and rays). 

Rachel Carson 

Rachel Carson was a marine biologist, writer, and environmentalist, who discovered the harmful effects of pesticides and fertilizers to the environment. Her work lead to the global environmental movement: a scientific, social, and political movement advancing green energy and the conservation of our environment.

She originally began her career in marine biology, studying fish populations and making brochures and articles for the public. In the 1950s, she researched the effects of pesticides on the food chain. Silent Spring, her most influential work, exposed the world to the environmental impacts of pesticides, especially DDT, a pesticide which was later banned.

Even though Silent Spring was a national best seller, it had mixed reviews. Before publishing the book, she was afraid she may be sued for libel (publishing a false statement that may hurt a person’s or business reputation). Due to radiation therapy to stop the spread of breast cancer, she did not have the energy to defend the book from the overwhelming amount of critics in the chemical industry and parts of the government, so she hired an agent to speak on her regard.

“Testifying before Congress in 1963, Carson called for new policies to protect human health and the environment. Rachel Carson died in 1964 after a long battle against breast cancer. Her witness for the beauty and integrity of life continues to inspire new generations to protect the living world and all its creatures” (Linda Lear, biographer of Rachel Carson).

Dr. Jane C. Wright

 By 1967, Jane C. Wright was marked the highest ranking African-American women in a United States medical institution. By 1971, she became the first women elected president of the New York Cancer Society. Her research of cancer chemotherapy (anti-cancer drugs) saved thousands lives, and is still in use today.

While originally graduating with an arts degree, Wright went back to school at New York Medical College under a four year scholarship. Her first job was at her children’s public school, as the school physician. Her father, the first African American to graduate at Harvard Medical School, established the Cancer Research Center at Harlem Hospital. After his death in 1952, Wright took over his position as the director of the center.

She became the head of the cancer chemotherapy research as well. She was the first to use chemotherapy to human subjects, setting the effective dosing levels. She also came up with new ways of how to apply these chemotherapy techniques. Her research and medicine is still in use, saving thousands of peoples lives who are battling cancer today.

Ada Lovelace

 Ada Lovelace is considered the first computer programmer. Living in 19th century Britain, she is still an inspiration to many aspiring mathematicians and computer scientists.

Her mother, Anne Isabelle, married Lord Byron, a poet with a “quick and moody temper”. They divorced weeks after Ada’s birth. To make sure her daughter would not inherit his unruly temperament, Anne taught Ada math, science and many languages. Even though such challenging subjects were not meant for girls at that time, her mother thought the rigorous and engaging studies would be good for her daughter. She hired doctors and tutors to teach Ada at a very young age. Ada’s mother would also make her stand still for long period’s of time to develop self-control.

She met a friend, who would later be her mentor, by the name of Charles Babbage. Babbage created the difference and analytical engine, which was meant to perform complex math calculations. Ada was asked to translate his work from French into English. However, she not only translated it, but added her own thoughts and opinions about the machine. Babbage’s original article turned out three page longer after the “translation.”

So far, computers were simply used to compute math equations and calculations, hence the name. However, Ada came up with the idea of using symbols and letters, along with numbers. She also introduced a concept that could make the engine repeat a series of instructions. This “looping” method is exactly what we still use today. Ada also included other concepts and methods that were way beyond her time. This is why she is known as the first computer programmer, because she programmed the computer with letters and symbols, rather than just inputting calculations and equations to solve.

The new paper was published in an English science journal where she used the initials A.A.L (Augusta Ada Lovelace). Ada’s contributions to computer science were not discovered until the mid 20th century, over 100 years after her death! Many computer languages are named after her and she received many awards, even though she was not alive to receive them.