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8 STEAM-powered women who changed history


Image courtesy of Pixabay

Happy STEAM Day! STEAM Day? Yes! Today, we celebrate science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics — STEAM. And did you know women throughout history have made huge contributions to each of these fields? They weren’t always written or spoken about much, but they changed the world! Keep reading to learn about a few of these amazing women who rocked some STEAM.

Ada Lovelace, 1815–1852

A portrait of Ada Lovelace.

Lovelace wrote the first computer program almost 200 years ago. Image by Alfred Edward Chalon - Biography.com, Public Domain via Wikimedia

Ada Lovelace was dreaming of the modern-day computer almost 200 years ago. Ada loved math, so when she met mathematician Charles Babbage, and he showed her the Difference Engine (a big mechanical calculator), she was hooked. When Charles said he was working on a bigger and better machine, Ada knew she had to get involved.

She translated an article from French to English so more people could learn about the machine. But that’s not all. Ada added her own notes, explaining how the machine could be used in the future — she saw the potential for computers far beyond calculating numbers before many others did. She also created a punch-card algorithm that would teach the machine how to calculate some numbers. Ada had just written the first computer program ever.

Margaret Knight, 1838–1914

A paper bag.
Amongst other inventions, Knight designed a machine to make paper bags. Photo by Martha W McQuade licensed CC BY 2.0

Margaret Knight was born to be an inventor. She always loved tinkering and making things. In 1850, when she was only 12, she adapted part of a loom to make it safer for cotton mill workers to use.

Margaret’s inventions only got bigger and better, and one led to something that we still use often — the flat-bottomed paper bag. Margaret came up with the design for a machine that could make these bags quickly and efficiently — paper bags were made by hand until her machine came along.

Margaret was eventually awarded a patent for the machine and became one of few women to have a patent at the time. So the next time you grab some take-out, remember you’re holding a piece of history!

Lise Meitner, 1878–1968

A portrait of Lise Meitner.
28th January 1946: Austrian physicist Lise Meitner (1878-1968) on her arrival in New York. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Lise Meitner is one of the most talented scientists you’ve never heard of. She made a bunch of discoveries, but in 1938, just as she was working on her biggest project, she had to go into hiding, because she was Jewish, and Nazism was on the rise in Germany.

But Lise continued to work, sending secret letters to her science partner Otto Hahn. In these letters, Lise wrote about their ongoing experiments, and explained to Hahn why they were able to break a nuclear atom into smaller parts. She had just explained nuclear fission!

Hahn published Lise’s theory in a journal without crediting her, and in 1944, he was awarded a Nobel Prize. Not cool at all. But Lise continued her work. She wrote papers on fission, gave lectures around the world — and she refused to work on the nuclear bomb. Super intelligent and principled — she was all-around awesome!

Marie Curie, 1867–1934

Marie Curie holding a test tube in her lab.
Polish born French physicist Marie Curie (1867-1934) in her laboratory. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Marie Curie was the first woman to ever win a Nobel Prize. She and her husband, Pierre, won the prize in 1903 for their discovery of radiation.

She was also the first person, male or female, to win TWO Nobel Prizes. She won the second prize in 1911 for discovering and researching two new elements: radium and polonium (named after her home country, Poland).

Throughout her life, Marie made amazing discoveries and inspired a new generation of scientists, including her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, who went on to win a Nobel Prize, too!

Alice Ball, 1892–1916

A graduation photo of Alice Ball.
Her leprosy treatment, known as the "Ball method" was used for years. Photo by University of Hawaii licensed Public Domain via Wikimedia

Throughout her short life, Alice Ball made history over and over again. She was the first woman and first Black person to graduate with a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii. She was the first Black professor of chemistry there, too. She was also the first person to develop an effective treatment for leprosy.

Scientists knew they could treat leprosy with a thick, sticky oil from a certain tree, but they didn’t know how to make it into a consistent treatment. The oil couldn’t be eaten, rubbed on or injected without a lot of side effects. Enter Alice. She figured out a way to thin the oil so it could be injected and then absorbed by the body. Her treatment (known as the “Ball method”) would be used for years.

Alice was only 24 when she died, but she saved countless lives.

Frida Kahlo, 1907–1954

Freida Kahlo poses outside
In this April 14, 1939 file photo, painter and surrealist Frida Kahlo poses at her home in Mexico City. (AP Photo/File)

Frida Kahlo was on her way to becoming a doctor, but a bus ride one day changed her life completely. The bus crashed into another vehicle, and Frida almost didn’t survive. She had to spend three months in hospital after the accident. So Frida started painting to pass the time. Her mom bought her an easel that she could use while lying in bed and fixed a mirror above so Frida could paint herself (self-portraits would become her specialty).

When she was able to walk again, Frida continued to paint. As her art got more attention, she was included in shows, and even had some dedicated just to her work. Frida’s fame really grew during the 1970s, and today, she is considered one of the most important artists in history.

Rosalind Franklin, 1920–1958

The structure of DNA
Before Franklin, no one knew what the DNA structure looked like. Image courtesy of Pixabay

Rosalind Franklin had a photograph taken that changed history. It’s true! It was a photograph of DNA, one that proved it had the double helix shape we now know so well.

But this photo and some of Rosalind’s research was taken without her permission and given to a pair of scientists named Watson and Crick. They were also trying to figure out the structure of DNA, and Rosalind’s research helped them solve the puzzle. Watson and Crick went on to win a Nobel Prize for their work. Rosalind received no credit for the role she played in this discovery until after her death.

Today, people recognize how important Rosalind was in discovering the structure of our favourite double helix — DNA.

Kenojuak Ashevak, 1927–2013

Kenojuak Ashevak Inuit artist unveiling red carpet.
Kenojuak Ashevak is inducted into the Walk of Fame in Toronto on June 1, 2001. (CP PHOTO/ J.P.Moczulski)

Kenojuak Ashevak was an Inuit artist who helped introduce Inuit art to the world. Animals were a common theme in Kenojuak’s art, especially birds. Her most famous print is The Enchanted Owl, which was picked up by Canada Post for a stamp in 1970.

Kenojuak continued to create art all her life, trying new techniques and styles. She also received many awards, including the Order of Canada and Governor General’s Award for Visual Arts. Today, her work is still admired and sold all over the world.