A couple of my loyal readers have requested me to write a blog featuring influential women. My research has identified hundreds of women who have contributed significantly to society through the ages, beginning with Sappho in the 6th Century BCE. Unless you are a Greek scholar chances are you have never heard of her. She was one of the first female writers and poets, and the renowned Plato considered her to be one of the top ten poets of the day.
Some, such as Queen Victoria and Oprah Winfrey, are well known. Others, such as Margaret Thatcher, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, have already been the subject of one of my blogs. I have chosen not to focus on any of them. Rather, I selected a few who, despite having made significant contributions to society, are not well-known to today’s public. In my view, they and their contributions are underappreciated or, perhaps, forgotten.
Curie was a physicist and a chemist who was renowned primarily for her ground-breaking research on radioactivity. She was the first female to win a Nobel prize, the first person and only woman to win two of them, the only person to win one in two different disciplines, the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris, and the first woman to be entombed (on her own merits) in the Pantheon in Paris.
Maria Salomea Sklodowska was born on November 7, 1867 in Warsaw, but she moved to Paris at the age of 24 and lived most of her life there. It was there that she completed her education and married fellow scientist Pierre Curie.
Her most significant work was with radioactive materials and the theory of radioactivity. She perfected techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes; she discovered two elements – polonium and radium; pioneered the treatment of neoplasms using radioactive isotopes, and founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and Warsaw, which to this day are major centers of medical research. Oh, and along the way, as noted above, she won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1903 (sharing it with Pierre) and the 1911 Prize in Chemistry.
Her discoveries had many practical uses. One of polonium’s uses is in photography; one of radium’s uses is in cancer treatment. Perhaps, the most significant application is in assessing and treating battlefield injuries. Two examples were the X-ray machine and mobile radiography units, which became known as petites Curies. In addition, Curie served as director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and established France’s first military radiology enter in 1914.
In addition to the aforementioned Nobel Prizes, Curie was the recipient of several awards, honors and tributes. In a 2009 poll conducted by New Scientist magazine she was named “the most inspirational woman in science.”
Curie died in 1934. Sadly and ironically, the cause of her demise was radiation poisoning. At the time, the dangers of handling radioactive material were unknown and the extensive precautions that are standard today were not taken.
Helen Keller was an author, lecturer and an advocate for women’s rights. And, by the way, she was deaf and blind. She was not born with those afflictions. At the age of 19 months she contracted a mysterious illness that her doctors diagnosed as “an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain.” She recovered but was left blind and deaf.
In those years such a condition would normally have consigned a person to a life of irrelevance and dependency, perhaps, in an institution. Not Keller. She became the first deaf-blind person to earn a BA degree. Her entire life was a living testament that a person with her afflictions could accomplish anything that a person without those afflictions could.
Helen Adams Keller was born on June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, AL. Her family tree was quite interesting. Her father had been a captain in the Confederate Army; her mother was the daughter of a Confederate general; and her paternal grandmother was a second cousin of Robert E. Lee, the Commanding General of the Confederate Army.
The turning point of Keller’s life was when her parents hired a 20-year -old visually impaired young lady named Anne Sullivan to tutor her. Sullivan and Keller “clicked,” and, as they say, the rest was history.
As I said, Keller, became an inspiration for all impaired people, not just women. She became a strong advocate for women’s rights, particularly suffrage, a prolific writer, publishing more than a dozen books and articles, and a tireless lecturer. Politically, she was a socialist and a strong advocate for the working class.
In the 1960s Keller suffered a series of strokes and spent the last few years of her life at home, essentially bedridden. In 1964 President Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 1965 she was elected to the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Her likeness is on both a postage stamp and the Alabama state quarter (in braille).
She died on June 1, 1968, but she left behind a powerful legacy that one should not allow himself to live as a victim of his or her physical limitations.
Keller’s story was portrayed in the 1962 movie, The Miracle Worker, which starred Patty Duke as Keller and Anne Bancroft as Sullivan. It is a very powerful movie, and I recommend it.
Florence Nightingale was a social reformer and a statistician, but she is primarily known as the founder of modern nursing. She rose to fame during the Crimean War for training nurses and tending to wounded soldiers. She was a tireless caregiver, even making rounds of the wounded at night carrying a lamp. Thus, she became known as “The Lady with the Lamp.” Although some historians have claimed her contributions during the war were exaggerated by the contemporary press, her post-war achievements in the nascent field of nursing cannot be denied.
Florence Nightingale was born on May 12, 1820 in Florence, Italy. Her name is derived from the city of her birth.
Her family was wealthy and well connected. When she developed an interest in nursing her family was strongly opposed. Florence was expected to conform to the social norms of the day for wealthy, well-bred women – marry well and raise children. However, Florence was not to be denied. She educated herself as to the science of nursing and eventually her family accepted her desire to become a nurse.
In 1853 the Crimean War broke out on the Balkan Peninsula (southeastern Europe) between Britain, France, Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire on one side and Russia on the other. It was a particularly brutal war and many more soldiers were dying from illness than battle wounds. Florence convinced the British government to permit her to travel to the area accompanied by some 38 nurses she had trained. She found the sanitary conditions to be appalling. Medicines were scarce; proper hygiene was non-existent; hospital tents were overcrowded and poorly ventilated; and mass infections of typhus and cholera were common. The simplest wound was often a death sentence. Reporting back to the British government she convinced them to improve conditions.
It was during this time that she earned the moniker “The Lady with the Lamp.” It was derived from a story filed by a reporter for the London Times, which read, in part: “she is a ‘ministering angel’ … every poor fellow’s face softens with gratitude at the sight of her… she may be observed alone, with a little lamp in her hand, making her solitary rounds.” Whether exaggerated or not, there seems to be little doubt that Florence’s contributions saved thousands of lives.
After the war Florence continued her work, advocating for improved sanitary conditions and training nurses. For example, she spent time in India where she noted that contaminated water and poor drainage were contributing to illness. Many of the nurses she trained when on to ply her philosophy in other countries, notably the US during the Civil War.
Florence died on August 13, 1910 in London, but her contributions to society will live on.
Limitations of time and space limited me to just the above three women. We all know that there have been many, many more. Please advise me of others that I may have omitted.