Together, as partners, as teams, as allies, we lift each other up and accomplish great things.
Consider Émilie du Châtelet and Voltaire. Born in Paris in 1706, du Châtelet was a mathematician and physicist who translated (and critiqued) Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica—and whose version remains the standard French translation to this day. Until recently, du Châtelet was remembered in large part due to her relationship with writer and philosopher Voltaire, with whom she lived for years (while married to the Marquis Florent-Claude du Chastellet-Lomont). Voltaire recognized du Châtelet as his scientific superior and said she “was a great man whose only fault was being a woman.” Du Châtelet was celebrated for, among other works, her Institutions de Physique, or Foundations of Physics (1740)—but she was also the muse who prompted Voltaire to produce at a higher level, both together and in competition with her, resulting in their collaborative Elements of Newton’s Philosophy (1738).
Consider also astronomers Caroline and William Herschel. Caroline was born in Germany in 1750 and moved to England in 1772 with her brother, Sir William Herschel, who later discovered the planet Uranus and was named King George III’s court astronomer. Caroline, who is considered the first professional woman astronomer (as the king paid her to be William’s assistant) executed many of the calculations for her brother’s studies and was the first woman to discover a comet (35P/Herschel-Rigollet). She ultimately cataloged 560 stars, 2,500 nebulae, and many star clusters. In 1828, the British Royal Astronomical Society awarded Herschel its gold medal. Caroline was able to be paid for her work thanks to her partnership with her brother—and he achieved his success thanks to her intellectual support.
Think about mathematicians and friends Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke Byron (who also studied mathematics), was born in 1815 in London. She met Babbage in 1833 and was fascinated by his calculating machine, the “Difference Engine.” He was planning the even more advanced “Analytical Engine,” and Lovelace wrote many mathematical sequences for the machine, one of which would calculate the Bernoulli numbers. Many historians consider this the first computer program, and Lovelace has been called the “prophet of the computer age.” The Ada programming language is named for Lovelace, and we celebrate women’s contributions to STEM on Ada Lovelace Day, the second Tuesday in October.
[Ada] Lovelace has been called the 'prophet of the computer age.'
And, of course, we salute Marie and Pierre Curie. Maria Salomea Sklodowska was born in Poland in 1867 and moved to Paris to pursue her education. She met French physicist and husband-to-be Pierre, with whom she later earned the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics (along with Henri Becquerel), for their work developing the theory of radioactivity. In 1911, five years after her husband died, Madame Curie won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering the elements polonium (named after her native Poland) and radium. She later directed the world’s first studies to use radioactive isotopes to treat neoplasms. Marie and Pierre’s daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, followed in their footsteps and won the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with her husband, Jean Frédéric Joliot, in recognition of their synthesis of new radioactive elements. It is unlikely that Pierre would be remembered the same way today were it not for Marie.
Consider the research team of McCance and Widdowson. Dietitian and nutritionist Elsie Widdowson was born in Surrey, England in 1906 and studied chemistry at Imperial College, earning her PhD in 1931 for her thesis on the carbohydrate content of apples. She met Robert McCance at King’s College Hospital while studying dietetics. Widdowson pointed out an error that McCance had made in his analysis of the fructose content of fruit, and, impressed, he obtained a grant for her to analyze and correct all of his data, leading to a lifelong collaboration. They co-authored The Chemical Composition of Foods, which was first published in 1940 and continues to be updated. It is now referred to as McCance and Widdowson’s The Composition of Foods, and is still considered the dietitian’s "bible" in the UK.
Widdowson pointed out an error that McCance had made in his analysis of the fructose content of fruit, and, impressed, he obtained a grant for her to analyze and correct all of his data, leading to a lifelong collaboration.
Remember also Yalow and Berson, who together developed the radioimmunoassay technique, or RIA. Rosalyn Sussman Yalow was born in the South Bronx in 1921 and, inspired in part by Marie Curie, studied physics, graduating early and with honors. Yalow went on to earn her PhD in nuclear physics and later joined the Veterans Administration Hospital in the Bronx, developing the Radioisotope Service to explore the medical applications of radioactive isotopes. When Sol Berson joined the VA, in 1950, it was the start of a 22-year research collaboration. While they initially attempted to use radioisotopes to estimate blood volume, they later applied those methods to insulin (in part because Yalow’s husband, Aaron, was a diabetic). Yalow and Berson ultimately transformed biological research with the RIA, and Yalow was awarded the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Finally, consider Jean and Herman Rubin and their son Arthur. Jean Hirsh Rubin was born in 1926 in New York City and earned her PhD at Stanford in 1955 with her dissertation on Bi-Modal Logic, Double Closure Algebras and Hilbert Space. Known for her research on the axiom of choice, she taught mathematics at Purdue University and wrote five books, two with her husband, Purdue professor of statistics Herman Rubin. Jean also partnered with their son, Arthur, a mathematician and aerospace engineer, co-authoring her first paper with him when he was only 13.
Each of these stories is unique. They all celebrate brilliant women of science. Their unifying theme is partnership. Because when we create environments that enhance opportunities for everyone, we all benefit—we are truly better together. The more doors we open, the more we listen, and the more we collaborate—the more we discover, the more we create, and the more we grow as a community.
While it is fun to look back at successful partnerships from the past, I encourage us all to focus on creating productive partnerships now—partnerships that will be remembered and celebrated in the future. Together can we move science forward on an order that none of us can achieve alone.
Happy Women’s History Month—and thank you to all the women of SPH-B who are making history today.
David B. Allison, PhD
[Prepared in collaboration with Rebecca Lipscomb.]
Émilie du Châtelet
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