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Women in Physics

Published: 5 July 2020

In the late 19th century women still battled for recognition in scientific institutions, access to resources and, in some places, even the right to education.

Find out about three extraordinary women of physics and their fight to be acknowledged.

Hertha Ayrton: the first female electrical engineer

Hertha Ayrton (1854–1923) was a British suffragist, physicist, mathematician and inventor at a time when few women had access to opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Education and scientific instruments

Portrait of Hertha Ayrton, Girton College, University of Cambridge Public domain
Portrait of Hertha Ayrton, Girton College, University of Cambridge painted by Héléna Arsène Darmesteter.


Ayrton was born Sarah Phoebe Marks in Portsmouth in 1854 to a relatively poor immigrant family of Polish and Jewish origin.

In 1863, when Ayrton was nine, she went to live with her aunt Marion Hartog, who ran a school with her husband in north-west London.

Here Ayrton was introduced to science and mathematics and by the time she was 16, she was living independently and working as a governess. Ayrton was determined to study at Cambridge University, even though it did not award degrees to women.

Ayrton passed the Cambridge University Examination for women and in 1876 began studying mathematics at Girton College, thanks to financial support from fellow members of feminist and social justice communities.

While studying at Cambridge, Ayrton began working on her first invention and patent, a line divider. A line divider is a mathematical tool and engineering drawing instrument and Ayrton patented the device after she graduated.

Her 1884 British patent was the first of 26 patents she was granted during her lifetime. The line divider was positively reviewed by users and in the scientific press but was not a commercial success. 

Electric Arcs

In 1884 Ayrton began attending evening classes at Finsbury Technical College in London, where she was just one of three women alongside 118 men studying electricity and physics. These two fields of study would define the rest of her career and research.

Ayrton’s lecturers included physics expert and renowned electrical engineer Professor William Edward Ayrton, who she married in 1885. In the early 1890s, Ayrton began assisting her husband with his research on the properties of electric arcs, an early and powerful form of electric lighting. She soon she took over the research herself and established two key points in the working of electric arcs.

Hertha Ayrton in her home laboratory, taken by J Russell & Sons, 1910. © The Mistress and Fellows, Girton College, Cambridge. © The Mistress and Fellows, Girton College, Cambridge.
Hertha Ayrton in her home laboratory, taken by J Russell & Sons, 1910.

First, she discovered that the problems with electric arc lighting such as hissing, flickering and instability were the result of oxygen coming into contact with the carbon rods used to create the arc. Secondly, she found that when oxygen was excluded, a steady arc was obtained.

Hence she was able to establish the 'Ayrton equation'—a linear relationship between arc length, pressure and potential difference.

Between 1895 and 1896, Ayrton published a series of 12 journal articles on electric arc lighting research and analysis in The Electrician, the premier electrical engineering periodical of the age. With these articles, she overtook her husband’s earlier work in this field and established her own credentials as an expert on electric arcs and in the field of electrical engineering more generally.

This recognition led to increased opportunities, including the invitation to deliver her own paper on electric arcs to the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE, now IET), the first woman to do so. In 1899, Ayrton was elected a member of the institution (MIEE), a prestigious and widely recognised professional qualification. Thus Ayrton became the first female member of the IEE and the first professionally recognised female electrical engineer.

Ayrton anti-gas fan

In the early 1900s, Ayrton’s interests turned to researching the physical properties of air and water vortices as they moved over sand ripples. In 1904, she became the first woman to read a research paper—'The Origin and Growth of Ripple Marks'—in front of the Royal Society, Britain’s premier scientific society.

In 1906, Ayrton was awarded the society’s prestigious Hughes Medal in recognition of her original experimental research on the electric arc and sand ripples. In April 1915, the German Army first used poison gas at the Second Battle of Ypres. A few months later Ayrton developed the ‘'Ayrton anti-gas fan', based on her research into fluids in motion.

Left: Ayrton anti-gas fan © Imperial War Museum; Right: Illustration of Ayrton fan in use, source unknown.

The anti-gas fan was a simple hand-held device consisting of a sheet of waterproof canvas supported and stiffened by a frame of cane and held by a hickory handle. It was used to clear poisonous chemical gases from front-line trenches during the First World War.

Initially the War Office dismissed her invention, but by 1917 Ayrton had developed an improved mechanical version of her fan. After some delay, it was brought into use by the British Army and eventually over 100,000 Ayrton anti-gas fans were ordered. The fans were used to clear trenches, dug-outs, shell holes and mine craters of poisonous gases, although there was some dispute as to their true effectiveness.

Ayrton’s legacy

Hertha Ayrton was supported in her education and professional ambitions, first by better-off family members and later by the wider suffrage community—almost all of them women. With this support she made an immense and diverse contribution to mathematics, physics and electrical engineering.

Spanning four decades and three subject areas—mathematics, electrical engineering and physics—Ayrton's work had a deep impact on these specialist technical and scientific subjects, as well as on the emerging roles available to women in engineering.

Marie Skłodowska Curie: first person to win two nobel prizes

Marie Skłodowska Curie (1867–1934) is one of the most famous scientists of all time,  celebrated for her Nobel prize-winning research on radioactivity.

Life and Education in Poland

Marie Curie was born Maria Skłodowska on 7 November 1867 in Warsaw, which was at the time under Russian tsarist rule. She was the daughter of two teachers who sought to contribute to the Polish resistance movement through education, teaching mathematics, physics, Polish language and history.

Marie Curie and her sister
Marie Curie, then Maria Skłodowska (left) and her sister Bronya (right) c.1886. (Image in public domain)

Her family’s emphasis on education was instrumental in Curie’s decision to pursue science. Her lifelong career in scientific research began with conducting chemistry and physics experiments with her father at an 'underground' Polish university in Warsaw.

Early research in Paris

Marie Curie with her husband, Pierre © Institut Curie / Science & Society Picture Library
Marie Curie and her husband Pierre on a cycling holiday, c.1900.


In 1891, Curie moved to Paris to continue her education, taking on the French version of her name, 'Marie'. In 1893, she gained a master’s-level degree in physics, and the following year earned a similar degree in mathematics.

It was around this time that she met Pierre Curie, a physicist, through a mutual friend, because Marie was looking for space for her industrially funded experimental research on the best steel for making magnets. Pierre Curie provided research space and the two married in 1895.

As a scientist, Pierre was particularly supportive of his wife’s chosen career—and crucially, as a male scientist, became Marie’s intermediary and advocate in male-dominated scientific circles. 

Marie’s work was legitimised in the eyes of her peers through her association with her husband.

It was like a new world opened to me, the world of science, which I was at last permitted to know in all liberty.

from Marie Curie's biography of her husband (1923)

Radioactivity and Curie's first Nobel Prize

A couple of years after her marriage to Pierre (and after the birth of their first child, Irène), Curie decided to study for a doctorate in the new field of radioactivity, a significant turning point in her career.

A few years prior to this, Henri Becquerel had discovered that uranium emitted energetic rays, and Curie decided to research whether other elements did too. She quickly discovered that thorium also emitted rays and coined the term 'radioactivity' to describe this phenomenon.

Henri Becquerel produced this image in 1901, depicting beta ray emission from uranium. His research in this area was published in 1903.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Henri Becquerel produced this image in 1901, depicting beta ray emission from uranium. His research in this area was published in 1903.

When testing samples of pitchblende, a uranium ore, Curie found them to be several times more radioactive than expected. This suggested to her that they contained another unknown and highly radioactive element.

Specimen of pitchblende Science Museum Group Collection
A specimen of pitchblende, a uranium ore, produced by British scientist Sir William Crookes.

Her husband joined her in her efforts to isolate this new element, and later that year they successfully extracted a sample. Curie named this new element polonium, after her native Poland.

While extracting polonium from pitchblende, the Curies noticed that another extremely radioactive element must be present. This led to the discovery of radium, which the pair announced in December 1898.

In 1903, Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel were nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on radioactivity.

Swedish mathematician Gosta Mittag-Leffler, an ardent advocate of women in science, argued that Marie should be considered alongside her husband for her work on radioactivity. Eventually the 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded jointly to Marie and Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel.

Professor Curie and the proof of radium

Glass flask used by Marie Curie to hold radium Science Museum Group Collection
A flask used by Marie Curie to hold radium—the radioactivity of radium caused the glass to turn purple.


On 19 April 1906, Pierre Curie was tragically killed in a road accident. A fortnight after he died, Curie was offered her late husband’s position as an assistant lecturer at the Sorbonne university. Two years later, she was made a full professor, the first female professor in the history of the 650-year-old institution.

Not long after this, Curie faced another obstacle with the potential to undermine her work. British scientist Lord Kelvin announced that radium was not in fact a new element, but a compound of lead and helium.

Kelvin’s claim related to impurities in the sample of radium the Curies had produced.

After four years of arduous work, Curie managed to isolate pure radium by electrolyzing molten radium chloride, proving Lord Kelvin wrong and defending her scientific reputation.

A scandal and a second Nobel Prize

In 1911, reports emerged of a romantic affair between Marie Curie and Paul Langevin, a colleague at the Sorbonne and former student of her husband’s. A scandal was whipped up in Paris’ right-wing newspapers, and rumours began to spread that it had been Pierre, and not Marie, behind the Curies’ great work. The public dissection of her private life almost ruined her reputation.

Curie’s public image was saved in the midst of this scandal when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of radium and polonium. She had received only two nominations, but one of these was from Svante Arrhenius, an influential member of the committee and supporter of women in science.

Arrhenius may have used his influence to sway the committee in favour of Curie. Not only was the discovery of two new elements clearly worthy of Nobel recognition, but Arrhenius may have seen that allowing the work of a woman scientist to be unfairly discredited would undermine the status of all female scientists.

Curie won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of radium in 1911. It was awarded to her and her alone, reasserting her position as an accomplished scientist in her own right.

Madame Curie’s legacy

In the 1920s a variety of radium 'health' products became available. Many of these were quack cures that probably did more harm than good. However, medical professionals began using radium to treat cancer. This is a practice we still see today, with radiotherapy used for the treatment of tumours.

Radium teletherapy device, c.1930, used to treat cancerous tumours.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Radium teletherapy device, c.1930, used to treat cancerous tumours.

As well as for her scientific achievements, Curie is remembered for an impressive list of 'firsts': she was the first woman to receive a PhD in France; the first person to win two Nobel Prizes; the first female professor at the Sorbonne; and the first woman to be honoured at the Panthéon, Paris, on her own merit. There, her ashes are entombed alongside those of her husband.

As we remember Curie for these firsts and her accomplishments in research, we must not forget about the obstacles and unfair treatment she faced, and how in many cases it was thanks to the support, advocacy and intervention of more well-placed peers that she received the recognition she deserved—an advantage that many female scientists have not had.

Lise Meitner: co-discoverer of nuclear fission

Lise Meitner was an Austrian physicist who co-discovered nuclear fission, the process whereby an atom's nucleus is split, producing two different nuclei and releasing huge amounts of energy.

Early life and education

Lisa Meitner in Vienna Image in public domain
A young Lise Meitner in Vienna, 1906


Meitner was born on 7 November 1878 in Vienna and developed a love for physics from an early age.

She sought to continue her studies beyond the age expected of women at the time. She was one of only four women admitted to the University of Vienna in 1901 and in 1905 she became the second woman to receive a doctorate from the University.

After completing her doctorate, Meitner moved to the University of Berlin to pursue scientific research in radioactivity. It was here that she met German chemist Otto Hahn, with whom she would work on the discovery of nuclear fission.

Hahn secured office space for Meitner in the basement of the Institute of Chemistry, despite women being effectively barred from the building. In 1912, the pair moved to the newly completed Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in the south-west of Berlin, where Meitner was given an assistant’s position with a modest salary.

Over the next 14 years, Meitner continued her innovative research into radioactive processes and substances, and she became the first female physics professor in the country in 1926.

In 1934, Meitner collaborated with Hahn again to follow up on curious findings by Italian physicist Enrico Fermi and his research team. These findings had been made during unsuccessful attempts to create new synthetic elements heavier than uranium by bombarding naturally occurring heavy elements with neutrons.

Through their investigations, Meitner, Hahn and their research team discovered what they believed to be nine new elements. Meitner was not fully satisfied with these findings, remaining puzzled by their theoretical explanation.

During the course of this research, though, Germany’s circumstances changed drastically. After years of growing unrest, economic instability and support of fascism and racism, Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. By 1938, Meitner was forced to flee Nazi Germany for her own safety.

Discovery of fission

After fleeing Berlin, Meitner accepted an offer to work at the Nobel Institute for Experimental Physics in Stockholm, Sweden, but did not have access to a laboratory. Hahn continued their experiments around the nine new elements they believed they discovered.  The two used the overnight postal service between Stockholm and Berlin to discuss their research and results.

In December 1938, Meitner and Hahn discovered that barium was formed from uranium through the bombardment of neutrons. All the 'new' elements discovered through these experiments, which had so puzzled Meitner, were simply isotopes of known elements, also known as fission products.

Black and white photographic print, showing a cloud-track photograph of the track of a fission product from uranium, produced by Lise Meitner
Science Museum Group More information about Black and white photographic print, showing a cloud-track photograph of the track of a fission product from uranium, produced by Lise Meitner

Meitner, with the help of her nephew Otto Frisch, sought to explain this process using theory. They noted that the mass of the uranium was significantly greater than the combined mass of the fission products. Following the immutable laws of conservation, this difference in mass must be accounted for somewhere.

Using Einstein’s famous equation 'E=mc²', which states that mass and energy are interchangeable, Meitner and Frisch suggested that the missing mass was being released as energy. Frisch returned to his lab in Copenhagen to perform the confirmatory experiments, and then he and Meitner rushed to share their results with Hahn.

Hahn’s research team identified the fission products as barium, and thus the process of fission was discovered: a heavy uranium nucleus is bombarded with neutrons, which causes the nucleus to split into lighter nuclei and simultaneously releases a huge amount of energy. This ground-breaking discovery revolutionised nuclear physics.

Overlooked for a Nobel prize

After this monumental discovery, Hahn and his team hurriedly published their findings in Nature. However, Meitner and Frisch were not listed as co-authors. In fact, they were hardly mentioned at all, despite being responsible for the theory and its proof. Hahn was therefore lauded as the discoverer of nuclear fission.

Hahn never addressed why he claimed sole credit for this work, but it's possible it was due to the social and political climate at the time. He may have felt that being associated with not only a woman, but a Jewish woman, would harm his credibility and his professional reputation.

Thus, in 1944, Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of fission. In a highly unusual move, the Royal Academy reconsidered this decision the following year, debating whether the decision should be revised to reflect the contributions of others. Unfortunately, members of the academy voted to respect the original decision, and Meitner remained uncredited.

Meitner’s legacy

Until recently, Hahn was accepted as the sole discoverer of nuclear fission. Though Nobel Prizes cannot be awarded posthumously, in 1992 element 109 was named 'meitnerium' in Meitner’s honour.

The fission process has had a tremendous impact on science and technology, with many practical applications in use today—nuclear power plants to produce electricity, nuclear propulsion engines to drive marine vessels, and the creation of nuclear weapons.

A model of the NS Savannah, the first nuclear powered merchant ship (1959).
Science Museum Group Collection More information about A model of the NS Savannah, the first nuclear powered merchant ship (1959).

Due to various circumstances including her gender and heritage, Meitner did not get the credit she deserved until recently.

But her contributions to both theoretical physics and its practical applications have been profound, and continue to impact on our world today.

Women's fight for recognition

By the late 19th century, few women had access to university education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Relatively few girls' schools provided the scientific and mathematical foundation required for further study.

Those women studying, researching and working in in science, technology, engineering and mathematics had to fight for recognition in scientific institutions and even to be granted the same resources as their male counterparts

Nonetheless, through collaboration and support from their female and at least some of their male peers, women such as Hertha Ayrton, Marie Curie and Lise Meitner began making in-roads into science, particularly physics, at the turn of the 20th century.

But as these stories demonstrate, much still had to be done in granting recognition equally to male and female scientists for equal work. 

Further reading

Books

  • D Jaffé, Ingenious women: from tincture of saffron to flying machines, 2003
  • E Curie, Madame Curie: A Biography, 2001
  • OS Opfell, The Lady Laureates: Women Who Have Won the Nobel Prize, 1978
  • N Pasachoff, Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity, 1996
  • E Sharp, Hertha Ayrton: A Memoir, 1926
  • RL Sime, Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics, 1996

Online

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