International Women’s Day celebrates the profound impact and achievements of women around the world. On March 8, 1908, women working in New York City's textile industry marched in protest of working conditions, child labor, and women’s suffrage. Since 1910, March 8th is globally recognized as International Women’s Day.
Two years later the concept of a “women’s day” began on March 19, 1911, in Europe, and quickly sparked rallies of solidarity across the world.
Despite this day's global recognition, there are women who have contributed to scientific discovery and influenced the evolution of society and are largely unknown. In celebration of International Women's Day, we are highlighting four powerful women in history and the present day: Gertrude Benham, Meeman Chang, Henrietta Lacks, and Margret Hamilton.
The Forgotten Mountaineer: Gertrude Benham
Gertrude Benham was a naturalist, and hard-core adventurer, who traversed more than 300 mountain peaks in her lifetime. She was born in 1867 in London, England and often traveled to the Swiss Alps during the summer with her father, which contributed greatly to her love for the outdoors. By the time she entered her early 20s, she had already climbed nearly 130 mountain peaks, including the Matterhorn, which is known for its dangerous climbing conditions.
To finance her trips, she traded knitted and embroidered items for supplies. She traveled alone, carrying three books: "A pocket Shakespeare (for drama), Richard D. Blackmore’s “Lorna Doone” (for romance), and a copy of the Bible (for spiritual uplift),” according to The New York Times.
Benham traveled all over the world to explore various mountains, keeping detailed botanical records, photographs, and sketches of her adventures. Benham is considered the first woman to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa (1909). Although Benham is the namesake of the Truda Peaks in the Rocky Mountains, she is not a very well-known figure in history despite her remarkable impact on the fields of ecology, geography, and botany as discovered by her travel documentation from adventuring to new heights and going where no man had gone before.
Paleontologist: Meeman Chang
Dr. Meeman Chang was born in China in 1936. She is a paleontologist and contributed to monumental discoveries about the evolution of organisms, as well as increased interest in the field of paleontology in China.
Before attending college, Dr. Chang dug and searched for fish fossils following “The Great Leap Forward” a period in China where the earth sciences were given high importance and the search for useful resources like oil was top on the agenda for the Chinese government. During this time, Dr. Chang fell in love with the fields of geology and paleontology, unknowing that her newfound interest would soon take her all over the world.
However, it wasn't until after spending 15 years imprisoned in a labor camp under the control of the Chinese Government and brought about by the Cultural Revolution of 1966, that Dr. Chang eventually became the first female director at Beijing’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP). Her research was imperative to outlining the direct evolutionary connections between fish and the land (air-breathing) creatures that lived on Earth over 400 million years ago. This allowed her to create widely accepted theories for how fish evolved to become terrestrial organisms. Her work has led scientists around the world to name species after her- including an extinct fish called Meemannia.
In 1992, Dr. Chang became the president of the International Paleontological Association and was also elected the president of the Paleontological Association of China. One of the many awards she has received includes the highest honor available for a paleontologist: the Romer-Simpson Medal (2016). Today, Dr. Chang is still researching and studying her field at the age of 86.
A Pioneer for Modern Medicine: Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia. In 1951, Lacks was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer at John Hopkins Hospital. At the time, John Hopkins Hospital was one of the only hospitals in the United States of America that treated patients regardless of their race or economic status, and as a Black woman, this was her only option for care. Doctors made a biopsy and discovered that her cells were unlike any others; instead of arriving at the lab dead like every other sample of tissue, Lacks’ cancer cells were alive and doubling approximately every 20 hours.
Realizing the immense medical applications these cancer cells would have, the doctors from John Hopkins Hospital shared these cells with researchers, who- in turn- continued to share Lacks’ cells with other scientists around the globe. Unfortunately, this was done without her consent. The cell line discovery was named “HeLa” after Lacks and essentially made her immortal since her living cells are still being used for research to this day- most notably in the development of the COVID-19 vaccines. However, there is no patent on these cells because of how they were collected and distributed without Lacks’ consent. In fact, along with her cells, her name, medical records, and cellular genome were released to the public without her family's knowledge.
Although Lacks passed away in 1951 at the age of 31 due to cervical cancer, the HeLa cell line is still prominent in medical research, especially in the areas of oncology, immunology, in-vitro fertilization, and infectious disease. Today her family, as well as civil rights and ethics advocates, are still fighting for justice on her behalf. Lack's granddaughter, Jeri Lacks-Whye told Nature, "I want scientists to acknowledge that HeLa cells came from an African American woman who was flesh and blood, who had a family, and who had a story”.
Margaret Hamilton: The Code Behind the Apollo Missions
Margret Hamilton was born in 1936 in Paoli, Indiana. She is a computer scientist and a pioneer of computer programming, where she created meteorology software to predict weather patterns when she worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Hamilton is also credited for coining the term “software engineer” since there were no schools teaching software engineering at the time and the practice was largely self-taught.
After her involvement in creating a defense system to detect enemy aircraft for the United States Government in the 1960s through MIT, Hamilton applied for a position in MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory, where technology for NASA was being produced and the race to put a man on the moon had begun. She was hired as the first programmer for the Apollo project and was the head of her software team. Hamilton and her team developed “the guidance and control systems of the in-flight command and lunar modules of the Apollo missions,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
On July 20, 1969, outfitted with software and software programs created by Hamiton and her team, the Eagle lunar module of the Apollo 11 mission successfully landed on the moon. Hamilton’s work was instrumental in the development of Apollo 11 and largely responsible for its success. In 2003, NASA awarded Hamiton with the Exceptional Space Act Award, and - in 2016- she was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
Without women who fought against gender stereotypes, like Gertrude Benham, Chang Meemann, Henrietta Lacks, and Margret Hamilton, the world of science would be a completely different place today. This International Women’s Day remember the powerful women around the world who made and are making a difference. To learn more about International Women’s Day and how to get involved, visit internationalwomensday.com.