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Ada Lovelace portrait

Brainy British female scientists who changed the world

Image: Ada Lovelace | Public Domain

British women have persisted in science despite having fewer civil rights, fewer opportunities, and greater obstacles that prevented them from receiving the same education as their male counterparts. Without their efforts in the face of adversity, we might not be so scientifically advanced today.

Here are four female scientists whose discoveries and contributions have changed the world forever.

1. Florence Nightingale

Born into an affluent family in the Victorian era, when Florence Nightingale told her parents that she wanted to pursue nursing as a career, they were less than impressed. Women of Florence’s social standing were expected to marry a man of standing, not pursue a career in a job considered menial labour.

Despite this, Florence devoted her life to creating better conditions and providing a more structured approach to healthcare for her charges. The pioneer for modern-day nursing, Florence’s approach to healthcare and the care of her patients revolutionised how the world practiced medicine. Throughout her career, Florence championed better and cleaner conditions for the patients in her care.

During her career as a nurse, first in a cholera ward and then on the front lines of the Crimean War, Nightingale noticed that poor hygiene practices were leading to higher casualties. Nearly a decade before Louis Pasteur presented his germ theory to the world, Nightingale insisted on cleaning practices that prevented the spread of germs and diseases.

Once she returned from Crimea, with funding from Queen Victoria, Nightingale went on to create the Royal Commission into the health of the army. Taking statistics of the loss of life in the Crimean War and translating them into an easy-to-read diagram, Nightingale could prove with no uncertain doubt that the changes she implemented as a nurse in the Crimea had drastically improved the mortality rate of the soldiers in her care.

For her work, Florence was made the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society and continued to change the face of nursing in Britain. Using her own money, Nightingale funded hospitals and training schools for nurses and remained an advocate for healthcare reform. Despite becoming bedridden from a mysterious illness at just 38, Nightingale continued to work towards better healthcare until her death at the age of 90.

2. Ada Lovelace

When Ada Lovelace was born in London in 1815, women weren’t allowed access to formal school education. In fact, it was another 50 years before women could go to university, which meant that any woman who wanted to gain a higher education would have to teach herself.

Ada received a private education throughout her childhood; however, as a young teen, she showed a natural aptitude for mathematics. Encouraged to pursue the subject by her mother, who was concerned that Ada might inherit the ill-temper of her father, Lord Byron, Ada continued to study the subject under the guidance of Augustus De Morgan - the leading professor of mathematics at the University of London.

In 1833, Ada was introduced to fellow mathematician Charles Babbage, who she worked alongside on his theoretical machine, The Analytical Engine, a room-sized mechanical engine that is now considered the first computer.

While the machine was hypothetical, Ada managed to create computations and functions that the device would be capable of running, proving that the machine could work and inadvertently creating the first computer programs in history.

3. Mary Anning

Mary Anning was born in 1799 in the famous seaside town of Lyme Regis - one of the most fossil-dense parts of the UK’s Jurassic Coast. Mary had no formal education but was able to read. Through reading, she taught herself about geology and anatomy.

While Mary’s father was a carpenter, times were tough thanks to the Napoleonic War, so he taught Mary and her brother how to hunt for and clean fossils, which he could sell in the family shop to help supplement their income. When her father died unexpectedly, Mary’s mother encouraged her to keep hunting for fossils that they could sell to help pay off the family’s growing debts.

Mary’s first big discovery came at just twelve years old when she and her brother discovered an odd skull buried just beneath the surface. Mary went on to unearth the first found complete skeleton of what was later called an Ichthyosaurus. Her next big find came twelve years later when she discovered the first complete skeleton of a Plesiosaurus.

Palaeontology was still a new field of science at the time. There was a lot of speculation around the validity of Mary’s discoveries, with much of the scientific community discrediting her finds simply because of her sex. Despite this, Mary continued her work unearthing fossils and once again made a new discovery when she uncovered the fossil of the first pterosaur to be unearthed outside of Germany. She even started the study of coprolites (that’s fossilised poo, to you and me).

While it might have taken the scientific community a long time to recognise Mary’s work, the public interest in her discoveries spread like wildfire. People travelled from all over the country to see her displays and discoveries, and she helped to fuel the growing national interest in palaeontology and fossils.

Sadly, Mary died of breast cancer at the age of 47. However, over two centuries later, museums around the world are still displaying her fossils, and she has posthumously been recognised for the importance of her contributions to the world of palaeontology.