By Arunima (Rooney) Sen
August 2, 2020.
The world as we know it today has advanced dramatically in the past few centuries. This rapid advancement can be credited to inventions and discoveries in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). When we talk about who changed the world, women are conveniently left out of the conversation. Women are as smart, curious, and inventive as men, but the playing field was never levelled for them, especially in terms of recognition.
While there are hundreds, if not thousands, of women the world doesn’t know of that changed the world with their breakthrough discoveries and innovations, here are some French women that you should know about who influenced and impacted different STEM fields.
1. Marie Curie
We all have heard of Marie Curie, the Polish-born French chemist and physicist who was the first-ever woman to win the highly-coveted Nobel Prize in the early 1900s. Did you know she was also the first-ever person to win two Nobel Prizes?
Inspired by Henri Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity in 1896, Marie along with her husband Pierre Curie started researching and analyzing radioactivity in 1898, which ultimately led them to isolate polonium, an element which would then be the newest addition to the periodic table. Their work on radioactivity fetched them the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics, alongside Becquerel, making Marie the first-ever woman to win a Nobel Prize. After her husband’s tragic death in 1906, Marie gracefully continued the legacy of her and her husband’s work forward. She filled in her late husband’s professorship chair and became the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris.
Twelve years after the couple first isolated polonium, Marie discovered and consequently isolated pure metal radium. For this, she was awarded the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Marie’s groundbreaking work on radioactivity and the discovery of polonium and radium immensely contributed to finding treatments for cancer. Marie is a feminist forerunner. She overcame hurdles — in both Poland and France — that were placed because of her gender, and continues to be a scientific icon and inspiration years after her death.
2. Irène Joliot-Curie
Irène Joliot-Curie, born in 1897 to parents Marie and Pierre Curie, was a French physicist and chemist who did significant work in nuclear physics, transmutation of elements, and radioactivity – both natural and artificial. Irene and her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie were jointly awarded the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of artificial radioactivity.
Their research helped both nuclear physics and medicine as radioactive elements could be prepared artificially now. And Irène wasn’t just working in a lab; she was also a passionate politician who worked for the advancement and education of women. Badass, right?
3. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi
Françoise Barré-Sinoussi is a world-famous virologist who won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, along with Luc Montagnier and mentor Harald zur Hausen, for the discovery of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Her groundbreaking work was fundamental in identifying HIV as the cause of AIDS and helped in containing the massive AIDS outbreak in the 1980s.
Along with her scientific work, she is also an outspoken advocate for research on AIDS and access to AIDS drugs. It was because of her undying efforts as both a scientist and advocate that AIDS became a manageable chronic disease from a death sentence. She believed in equality and health for everyone and worked in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Africa for HIV prevention.
Françoise’s work absolutely rocked the world of virology! She remains an undoubted inspiration for many.
4. Émilie du Châtelet
Émilie du Châtelet was a French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher who was famous for her commentary on, and translation of, Isaac Newton’s work Principia Mathematica. She was instrumental for the French community’s acceptance of Newtonian physics through her published work Institutions de physique (The Foundations of Physics).
Her contributions to philosophy and mathematics remain unparalleled. She was also an ardent supporter of women’s education. “By denying women a good education, society prevents women from becoming eminent in the arts and sciences,” she said. To this day, Emilie remains one of the very few women whose contributions were recognized in the development of mathematics. Her work inspired legions of mathematicians and scientists who came after her.
5. Sophie Germain
Born Marie-Sophie Germain in 1776, Sophie Germain was a prolific French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher. Intrigued by mathematics at a young age, Sophie spent hours and hours reading books written by Isaac Newton and Leonhard Euler. At a time when public education was not open to women, she faced resistance from her family when she shared her wishes for an education. Sophie used the pseudonym Antoine-Auguste Le Blanc to submit her work to Joseph-Louis Lagrange, a celebrated mathematician, fearing that her gender identity would make her a piece of mockery.
Fortunately, Lagrange didn’t mind that she was a woman and later became her mentor. She is best known for her work in the theory of elasticity and the number theory, both of which are very important to the field of mathematics today.
Her life has become a symbol of perseverance and hard work. The Sophie German Prize was later established to honor French mathematicians for research in the foundations of mathematics to continue her brilliant legacy.
6. Marguerite Perey
Marguerite Perey, who was born in 1909, was a French physicist who discovered the element francium. Under her mentor Marie Curie, Marguerite studied the isolation and purification of radioactive elements. In the present day, such a remarkably hard discovery would require huge particle accelerators and large groups of people. Mind you, she was only 29 years old when she discovered francium, a highly unstable element with a lifespan of milliseconds, by herself. In 1962, she became the first woman to be elected to the French Academy of Sciences.
Despite being nominated for the Nobel prize five times and not once receiving it, she is still considered to be one of the influential women scientists ever.
7. Yvonne Choquet-Bruhat
Yvonne Choquet-Bruhat, born in 1923, is a trailblazing French physicist and mathematician whose work was heavily used in the detection of gravitational waves. In the 1950s, her work under Albert Einstein at Princeton University helped demonstrate the skillful constitution of the Einstein equations, which later started the study of dynamics in General Relativity making her one of the pioneers in that field. Her Choquet-Bruhat theorem is considered to be one of the milestones of mathematical general relativity.
Yvonne is a recipient of the Légion d’honneur (the highest French order of merit for military and civil merits) and was also the first woman to be elected to the Académie des Sciences Française (French Academy of Sciences) in its 300-year history.
8. Jeanne Villepreux-Power
Jeanne Villepreux-Power was a French naturalist and marine biologist who is best known for her invention of the modern aquarium that she used to carry out experiments with aquatic organisms. During her time in Sicily, she developed sustainable aquaculture principles and also documented Sicilian natural heritage in the 19th century.
Despite being self-taught, her pioneering work led her to be known as “the mother of aquariophily”, a title given by the British anatomist and paleontologist Richard Owen.
Jeanne was a true visionary.
9. Yvette Cauchois
Yvette Cauchois, a French chemical physicist born in 1908 in Paris, was best known for pioneering and spearheading the European synchrotron research. In the early 1930s, a new x-ray spectrometer — named the Cauchois spectrometer — was named after her whose fundamental principles she helped establish. Her work helped develop the physics behind radiation as we know it today. Because of her involvement, the Laboratory of Physical Chemistry was the only French center associated with fundamental research in x-ray spectroscopy for a long time. After Marie Curie, Yvette became the second woman to be named president of the French Society of Physical Chemistry.
She produced over 200 publications until she worked, most of which continue to be massively used to this day. In addition to her work, she was also involved in helping underprivileged and young people. She unfortunately died of bronchitis in 1999 but her legacy remains proof that women can achieve anything in the sciences.
These women fought against societal norms and stereotypes, broke orthodox rules, and stood up for what they were passionate about. Their intelligence, confidence, strength, and charisma have inspired a new generation of young girls and women to be fearless in their pursuit of STEM. As the world continues to grow, we only hope that the incredible achievements of these inspiring women don’t remain in the shadows any longer.