Four Influential Female Biologists You May Not Have Heard Of

Camille Hnat lists four notable women in biology who have been influential characters in their scientific fields.

  1. Rosalind Franklin

“In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success”

Rosalind Franklin is now one of the most famous figures in Biology, credited with playing an instrumental role in discovering the structure of DNA – but this was not always the case. Franklin was a pioneer in developing X-ray imaging techniques and used these to create pictures of the DNA helix. A colleague of Franklin’s, Maurice Wilkins, sent these images without her knowledge to a pair of competing researchers, James Watson and Francis Crick. Wilkins, Watson and Crick went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their double-helix model of DNA, which was heavily based on the work Franklin had unknowingly contributed. Franklin died in 1958, having had an extremely successful career of her own, but never fully recognized for her work on the structure of DNA. Franklin’s story opened up a wider conversation about women in academic professions. Anne Sayre, a long-time friend and noted feminist, wrote the biography “Rosalind Franklin and DNA”, which served to expose the sexist practices faced by female scientists at that time.

  1. Julia Serano

“The hardest part has been learning how to take myself seriously when the entire world is constantly telling me that femininity is always inferior to masculinity”

Julia Serano is an American biologist, author, performer, and transgender activist. She has published several papers on genetics, evolution and development, and has a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics from Columbia University. Serano, who identifies as a trans woman, has written multiple books on the subject of transgenderism and transfeminism that have received critical acclaim.  As stated on her website, “Her understanding of biology, along with her life experiences as a trans woman, give her a unique perspective on gender and sexism that challenges many commonly held beliefs”. Listen to her talks, poems and presentations to hear more about her individual insight into feminism and LGBTQ+ issues.

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  1. Dian Fossey

““When you realize the value of all life you dwell less on past and concentrate more on the conservation of the future.” “

Dian Fossey contributed a huge amount to research on Primates and was one of three women (along with Jane Goodall and Birutė Galdikas) considered leaders in this field, jokingly referred to as the ‘Trimates’. Fossey spent almost 20 years deep in the Rwandan forest, studying the mountain gorilla populations in the area. This study remains the longest ever undertaken in the wild.  As well as conducting her research, Fossey also spent her time educating on conservation and fighting against the illegal hunting, animal trading and wildlife tourism that was decimating wild Gorilla populations, despite opposition from poachers and animal traffickers. Tragically, Fossey was found murdered in her mountain cabin in 1985, 19 years into her study. Before her death, she published a book about her scientific and personal experiences in Rwanda, titled “Gorillas in the Mist” (1983).

  1. Barbara McClintock

“If you know you are on the right track, if you have this inner knowledge, then nobody can turn you off… no matter what they say.”

During the 1940s and 50s, Barbara McClintock discovered transposition; the ability of pieces of DNA to “jump” from one place to another within the genome. Her research was mostly dismissed by other academics, as it went against the mainstream genetic theories that were accepted at the time. However, experiments in the 1960s and 70s proved that McClintock’s theory was correct. McClintock went on to win the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1983, becoming the first and only woman in this category to be given an unshared Nobel Prize. Transposons are now a hugely powerful tool in genetics, inspiring future research into genetic engineering and expanding the biological and medical fields.

Illustration by Calypso Latham. 

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