Eunice Foote: The Almost Forgotten “Mother of Climate Change”

Eunice Newton Foote was born in Connecticut on July 17, 1819. She grew up in Bloomfield, New York, with her mother, father, and eleven siblings. As a distant relation of Isaac Newton, Foote had science in her blood and in her youth attended Troy Female Seminary—a school that believed in educating women in all subjects. After graduating, Foote married a progressive man—a judge, inventor, and mathematician—with whom she campaigned for women’s rights. Foote was a proud suffragist, and her signature can even be found on the Declaration of Sentiments (a document stating that men and women should be treated equally under American law). But first and foremost, Foote was a scientist—and one who would make a very significant discovery. Aptly named the mother of climate change, Foote discovered what we now call the greenhouse gas effect. 

Foote stayed up to date with scientific literature, perhaps inspired by the science she encountered in her schooling. It is speculated that she might have read a Scientific American volume that discussed theories about how the Earth is heated, spurring her to conduct an experiment of her own. Her experiment involved two glass cylinders containing thermometers. Into one, she pumped air, and in the other carbon dioxide. Placing both in sunlight, Foote found that the cylinder containing carbon dioxide trapped the most heat. She concluded that if the atmosphere were to contain increased levels of the gas, the temperature of Earth would rise. Of course, we now know this theory to be true, but Foote’s work was the first scientific investigation into this phenomenon. 

As is the case with many historical—and unfortunately, modern day—women in STEM, Foote’s work was disregarded. In 1956, her work was presented to some of the United States’ most elite scientists at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)—not even by her, but by a male colleague—and they failed to recognize its implications. Three years later, however, when Irish scientist John Tyndall published the same findings, it was celebrated as a major breakthrough. With that, Foote’s discovery fell into obscurity—only to be found more than 50 years later, in 2010, by a retired geologist. 

Before her death in 1888, Foote published only one more scientific study, choosing instead to spend her time campaigning for women’s rights and inventing with her husband. 

Grace Hopper: The Amazing Grace, “Mother of Computing

Grace Hopper, born on December 9, 1906, in New York City, was reported to have had an avid interest in engineering from a very young age. At age six, Grace dismantled alarm clocks to understand how they worked. At 17, Hopper was admitted to Vassar College and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics in 1928. She went on to obtain a master’s degree and a PhD in mathematics and mathematical physics from Yale University.

Following the United States’ entry into World War II, Hopper took leave from her job at Vassar and was sworn into the United States Navy Reserve (Women’s Reserve) in 1943. She was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University, where she worked for Howard Aiken, the developer of the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator—also known as the Harvard Mark I computer. Here, Hopper and her colleagues worked on top-secret projects to help with the war efforts, including computing rocket sweepers.  

Hopper remained at Harvard following the war, where she helped develop the Mark II and Mark III computers. On September 9, 1945, Hopper and her team encountered a problem with the Mark II, and upon investigation, discovered the first ever recorded “computer bug” inside the machine—not a programming bug, as you might expect, but a literal moth trapped inside a relay. Upon removing the moth, the machine continued to work as it should. At the time, Hopper commented that they were “debugging” the machine—and henceforth, this term has widely been used to refer to a computer programming malfunction. 

In 1951, Hopper wrote the world’s first compiler, a program that turns language statements into 0s and 1s, meaning that the programmer no longer had to do computing word by hand, leading to faster programming. During her long career, Hopper’s myriad accomplishments earned her the title of the “Amazing Grace.” At the time of retirement, she was the oldest active-duty officer in the US navy, at 79 years old.

Stephanie Kwolek: Inventor of Kevlar

Stephanie Kwolek was a Polish-American woman, born in New Kensington, Philadelphia, on July 31, 1923. From the age of 10, Kwolek was raised by her mother, a talented seamstress, after her father died. Kwolek initially wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps, and had a keen interest in fashion design. However, she changed career paths when she was told that she “was too much of a perfectionist” to work in the industry.

Kwolek inherited a love of science from her father and ultimately decided to become a doctor. Attending Margaret Morrison Carnegie College of Carnegie Mellon University, she earned a Bachelor of Science degree and hoped to attend medical school after graduating. However, Kwolek was hired to work as a chemist at Dupont Chemicals in Buffalo and later relocated to Wilmington. There, she developed a great passion for her work researching polymers and spent the remainder of her career. 

Kwolek engaged in many projects at Dupont, but her great breakthrough came in 1965 when she discovered a family of low-density synthetic fibers that, simply put, are very strong—the most notable being Kevlar (which is in fact bulletproof). Since Kwolek’s discovery, Kevlar has been used for myriad products, from gloves to bulletproof vests. Throughout the remainder of her career, Kwolek received a number of awards and devoted much of her time to mentoring women scientists.

Chien-Shiung Wu: The “First Lady of Physics”

Chien-Shiung Wu was born in a small town near Shanghai on May 31, 1912. The only daughter of three, Wu’s mother and father strongly believed in gender equality and wanted their daughter to receive a good education. In fact, Wu’s father, an engineer, felt so strongly about this that he opened one of the first all-girls elementary schools in China. There, Wu developed a strong love for math and science. With the support of her parents, she pursued her interests into high school and graduated top of her class in 1929. 

Following her studies, Wu worked as a research assistant, but she was encouraged by her supervisor to pursue advanced education in the United States. In 1936, Wu enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, completing her PhD, which focused on uranium fission products. In 1945, Wu found herself working in the Department of Physics at Colombia as the leading experimentalist in beta decay and weak interaction physics. Here, she was approached by two male physicists, Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang. Knowing of her expertise, Lee and Yang asked Wu to devise an experiment to prove a theory that they had regarding the law of conservation of parity. The experiment resulted in Lee and Yang receiving the Nobel Prize in 1957—and Wu’s work was not acknowledged. 

Despite this, Wu continued to make significant and revolutionary contributions to her field and won many awards—including the National Medal of Science and the first honorary doctorate awarded to a woman. During her career, Wu was an outspoken critic of gender discrimination in the field of science, famously stating at an MIT symposium in 1964: “I wonder whether the tiny atoms and nuclei, or the mathematical symbols, or the DNA molecules have any preference for masculine or feminine treatment.” Retiring in 1981, Wu spent the remainder of her life devoted to becoming a role model and advocating for young women scientists.