10 Super Star Scientists You’ve Never Heard Of (Hint: They’re Not Men)
By Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD
Did you know that in the eleventh century, Italy had female doctors, and female scientists, who instructed female students – in the latest methods in eye surgery?*1
I’m not making this up.
Italy’s attitude toward educating women in medicine was one of the most advanced in history from the 1100s through the 1800s.
And it’s surging forward again today.
Female geniuses have cut a milky way-like swath through the firmament of science.
Yet, few of us actually know about any of these women.
Are you up for meeting some of the world’s greatest scientists almost no one’s heard of?
In order to do this, we’ll need to take a ten-stop imaginary voyage.
We’ll begin in the Middle Ages and end in 2021.
Ready? Let’s fly through time.
Time Tour-Italian Style
If you were a woman who longed to practice medicine in the late 1100s, your dream destination would have been southern Italy.
Because there you could have joined the Salerno School.
The Salerno school sprung up there because of a perfect storm of historic events.
Right around that time Latin translations of Islamic and Greek medical texts were just starting to pelt the shores of Sicily and North Africa. Two places where both men and women were allowed to contribute to the medical renaissance taking place there.
In Salerno, you would have wanted to study under a certain, famous female physician named Trotula.
Our First Great Female Scientist
Trotula of Salerno (late 11th-12th century) was an expert diagnostician and clinician.
Ever heard of The Trotula?
It’s one of the most important medical books of the middle ages. Actually, it’s a trio of texts.
The Trotula is the collected teachings and writings of doctors and healers, starring the work of Trotula of Salerno.
Trotula was famous for her expertise in the then perplexing treatment of birth complications.
But what would a medically inclined gal like you do after the eventual decline of the Salerno School in the 1300s?
Perhaps you hocked your trousseau and rode to Northern Italy?
Because it was there you could study at one of pre-modern Europe’s most prominent institutions of learning.
Here you would become a scholar at the place women and science were reaching unprecedented heights in the Western World.
At the University you might have met the Persiceto-born lady anatomy professor Alessandra Giliani.
Our Second Great Italian Female Scientist
Alessandra Giliani (1307-1326) began her career as a surgical assistant to Mondino de Luzzi (believed to be the seated figure holding the big book in the image here).
Look closely to notice Mondino is watching a woman (believed to be Giliani) expertly working away at a cadaver.)
Giliani was famous for being the only known female “qualified prosecutor” (or pathologist) in Europe at the time.
It was the brilliant Giliani who invented a method of replacing cadaver blood with dyes to better observe the intricacies of the human circulatory system.
This invention, (like much of women’s intellectual and artistic work from the past) can no longer be found and is lost to history.
But an antique plaque detailing Giliani’s contribution to medicine still exists in the church of San Pietro e Marcellino in Rome.
Let’s say you were born later. Maybe in the 1400s instead. You would have gotten to study under Naples-born science star, Dorotea Bucca.
Our Third Great Italian Female Scientist
Dr. Dorotea Bucca (1360-1436) held both the chairs of medicine and philosophy at the University of Bologna for forty years.
Come the 1600’s you might have headed to Venice to go to the University of Padua and be close to a newborn star who’s our fourth scientist.
Our Fourth Great Italian Female Scientist
Mathematician and polymath Elena Cornaro Piscopia (1646-1684) has been compared to Leonardo DaVinci.
Before the age of eleven the “prodigy of Venice” dazzled audiences with pyrotechnic displays of genius in math, music, and astronomy.
And she did it in six languages.
Around 1677 Piscopia astonished her University of Padua doctoral examiners, by breezing through every difficult question tossed her way.
In 1678 over twenty thousand spectators packed into Padua Cathedral to hear Piscopia’s lecture.
Afterward, the crowd was said to have cheered wildly as she was crowned with laurel and become one of the first female doctorates.
Like many of our ten here, Cornaro decided against marriage and children in order to pursue her research.
But not so for our fifth scientist, the 18th century’s Laura Bassi.
Fifth Great Italian Female Scientist
Physicist Laura Bassi (1711-1788) played a crucial role in the introduction of Newtonian physics to Italy.
Bassi published twenty-eight articles on physics and hydraulics during her tenure as a professor and science chair at Bologna’s University.
And Bassi did this while rearing eight children.
In 1745 the pope elected Bassi to an elite roundtable of scholars known as the Benedettini.
From then until her death in 1788 Bassi taught experimental physics and electricity at the Institute of Sciences.
But what if all you cared about was math?
Well, our sixth female scientist and author would have been an ideal mentor for you.
Sixth Great Italian Female Scientist
Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799) is often referred to as the most important female mathematician since Hypatia.
In 1748 the Milanese Agnesi published the first book in the world that addressed both differential and integral calculus entitled Instituzioni Analitiche Ad Uso Della Gioventù Italiana.
But what if you dreamt of blossoming as a scientist in the post-Agnesi era?
No dice my friend.
The 1800’s imposed strongly defined gender roles that effectively barred women from enjoying formal scientific education.
It would take WWII to disrupt the suppression.
One innovator, our seventh scientist miraculously managed to make a great contribution anyway.
Let’s meet her.
Seventh Great Italian Female Scientist
Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was a math prodigy, scientist, physician, and philosopher from Chiaravalle, Italy.
Maria traveled the globe to promote a science-based, teaching method she invented.
The Montessori method was built upon years of research the doctor conducted with children in Rome’s San Lorenzo district.
Her method encouraged independent thinking.
And it changed the nature of childhood education forever.
Did you know that the two guys that created Google (Larry Page and Sergey Brin) along with the founder of Amazon (Jeff Bezos) said they owe their inventiveness to their Montessori education?
There’s something there right?
I had no idea Montessori also traveled the world to advocate for an end to war.
Or that she was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Our eighth great, female scientist did actually nab a Nobel, in 1986.
Eight Great Female Italian Scientist
Nobel prize-winning neurologist Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909 – 2013) was a Turin born Italian-Jewish doctor.
Levi-Montalcini’s and Stanley Cohen’s research resulted in the discovery of the Nerve Growth Factor; a chemical vital to science’s understanding of cell growth and organ regeneration.
She and her identical twin sister, (the painter Paola Levi-Montalcini) constantly encouraged one another. Both said they thought about their work through a dual-lens that featured art and science.
Prior to the Nobel, the science world largely ignored Levi-Montalcini’s contributions.
But now her works are seen as key in the fight against cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.
Levi-Montalcini rocked Italian-made, silk suits until her death at 103.
However, our 9th super-scientist, unlike Levi-Montalcini, was not fashion foward.
Ninth Great Italian Female Scientist
The practical and charming astrophysicist Margherita Hack (1922 – 2013) wore an overcoat-turned-inside out for her bridal gown.
Margherita loved telling Italian reporters that her “first and last” appearance in church was in 1944 to marry childhood playmate, Aldo De Rosa (to whom she remained wed for seventy years).
This full professor of astronomy at the University of Trieste (1964-1992) was literally a stellar astronomer.
Because she contributed to the spectral classification of stars.
The Florentine’s bold piloting of the Trieste Astronomical Observatory (1964-87) resulted in global recognition for the institution.
Margherita was an outspoken vegetarian and atheist with an impish wit. Her ability to explain complex theorems in a down-to-earth way led to her appearing often on Italian TV.
Hack won many fancy awards.
But rumor has it, what really thrilled her was when the European Space Agency named an asteroid (8558 Hack) after her.
That was right around the time that Time Magazine declared our tenth and final, female scientist as runner-up to President Barack Obama for “Person of the Year.”
Our 10th and Final Great Female Italian Scientist
Fabiola Gianotti Ph.D. (1960-)
In 2012 Roman-born, top experimental particle physicist Fabiola Gianotti announced something big to the world.
She’d led her Hadron Collider team of thousands at Cern to discover the elusive Higgs boson particle.
Scholars say her recent isolation of this subatomic element “completed the standard model of particle physics.”
Not bad, right?
Fermilab’s director Nigel Lockyer stated; “Fabiola is a superb scientist, led ATLAS to a great discovery and is respected and well known around the world.”
In fact, Gianotti became the first woman director of CERN in 2016.
And, at its 195th Session in 2019, the CERN Council selected Gianotti for an unprecedented7 second term as Director-General.
Her second five-year term began on January 1, 2021, and will go on until 2025.
Dr. Gianotti is well aware of the current disparity of women to men in the sciences. She insists: “In future, we will have to be very vigilant that young female scientists have the same opportunities as their male colleagues.”
So take note, if you are a woman in the 21st century who longs to study science, your dream destination may once again be Italy.
What do you think? Do you love science?
Does it ever inspire you creatively?
Let me know in the comments below.
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