Would you struggle to name a famous Irish scientist? How about an Irish woman who broke the STEM mould? Time to educate yourself.
Science Week from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) showcases how science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is part of everyone’s daily lives and also celebrates Ireland’s successes as a scientific nation.
Unfortunately, a survey commissioned by SFI from Amárach Research found that 69pc of the public did not know of any Irish scientists, past or present, and 72pc could not name any Irish scientific achievements.
Even if about a third of the population can name the likes of Robert Boyle, Ernest Walton or Francis Beaufort and celebrate their Irish heritage, we’d still be missing the all-too-obscure history of the great Irish women in STEM.
The 10 women below have made a pioneering mark on science, engineering, maths and technology. Their stories are worth committing to memory.
X-ray crystallographer and professor Dame Kathleen Lonsdale achieved many firsts and, in 1966, a rare form of hexagonal diamond was named ‘lonsdaleite’ in her honour.
Lonsdale made important investigations into natural and synthetic diamonds, and the mechanism of diamond synthesis. She proved the benzene ring was flat by x-ray diffraction methods in 1929 and was the first to use Fourier spectral methods while solving the structure of hexachlorobenzene in 1931.
She was one of the first two women elected as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1945, the first woman tenured professor at University College London (UCL), the first woman president of the International Union of Crystallography, and the first woman president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
She died in April 1971, aged 68. The chemistry building at UCL was renamed the Kathleen Lonsdale Building in her honour, and tributes to her are also found in Ireland, such as the Kathleen Lonsdale Building in the University of Limerick, and a commemorative plaque at her former family home in Newbridge, Co Kildare.
Alicia Boole Stott
Alicia Boole Stott, a self-taught mathematician, was one of the first people to explore four-dimensional geometrical figures, for which she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Groningen University.
Born in Cork city in 1860, Alicia’s father was none other than George Boole, the renowned logician and mathematician.
By manipulating models, she discovered that in four dimensions there are six regular ‘hypersolids’, or polytopes. Despite never learning analytical geometry, she made three-dimensional central cross-sections of all six using Euclidean constructions and synthetic methods.
Working alone and as an amateur, she was unaware that the six polytopes had been discovered by Ludwig Schläfli (in 1840, rediscovered by other mathematicians, and then by herself. She had constructed her models purely from curiosity.
In 1930, she began a collaboration with noted geometer Harold Scott MacDonald Coxeter. Together, they investigated the Gosset four-dimensional polytope, and Boole Stott was the first to point out that its vertices lie on the edges of another polytope, dividing them in golden section. She suggested the idea of partial truncation and invented the processes of expansion and contraction, which led her to discover various uniform polytopes.
She died in Middlesex in 1940.
Dorothy Stopford Price
In 1904, 16pc of all deaths in Ireland were attributed to tuberculosis (TB), and this epidemic remained the country’s most pressing public health problem until 1950. The continuing crisis was averted in no small part by the efforts of Dorothy Stopford Price.
Born in Dublin in 1890, Trinity College Dublin graduate Stopford Price obtained an MD in 1935. She was the first to introduce the BCG vaccination to Ireland in 1937, vaccinating infants in St Ultan’s Hospital in Dublin. Her subsequent work with the vaccine helped its eventual rapid roll-out after the Irish Government adopted it in the late 1940s.
Stopford Price became an acknowledged international expert on childhood TB, as well as founder and honorary secretary of the Irish league. She lessened her active work in the fight against TB in 1950, due to ill health, and died four years later from a stroke-related illness.
Kay McNulty Mauchly Antonelli
Kay McNulty Mauchly Antonelli is one of the six original programmers of the ENIAC, the first general-purpose electronic digital computer. Born in 1921, in the Creeslough area of Co Donegal, she moved with her family to Philadelphia at the age of three.
In the 1940s, with her mathematics degree, she went to work for the US army, calculating trajectories for shells and bullets. Soon, the war effort was requiring faster calculations, heralding the arrival of the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), which had to be programmed by hand. Antonelli and five of the other best women ‘computers’ at Moore School were assigned to work on ENIAC, essentially teaching themselves how to program.
Antonelli was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame and, in 1986, Letterkenny Institute of Technology introduced the Kay McNulty medal and prize for its top computer science student.
McNulty died after a brief illness in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, in April 2006. She was 85.
Lilian Bland was the first woman in Ireland to build and fly an aircraft, and quite possibly the world’s first woman to build her own aeroplane.
Born in Kent in 1878, she moved to Carnmoney near Belfast after her mother died and was raised by her aunt and her father.
Part of the pioneering aviation era sparked off by the Wright brothers in 1903, Bland built an experimental glider out of spruce, bamboo and other materials. The Mayfly was the first biplane constructed in Ireland and passed its first test on Carnmoney Hill in 1910 where it became briefly airborne. Bland continued to tinker with her creation, adding a 20 horsepower engine and improvising with her aunt’s ear trumpet and a whiskey bottle to fill in for a fuel tank. The new engine enabled the Mayfly to remain airborne for more than a quarter of a mile and at an altitude of about 30ft.
Bland later went into business as a plane builder, advertising her biplanes for £250 and gliders for £80. She died in Cornwall in 1971, aged 92. Michael McCaughan, keeper of transport at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, called her “the flying feminist”.
Born in Skibbereen, Co Cork, in 1842, a young Agnes Mary Clerke was shown the planets through her father’s telescope, thus beginning a lifelong fascination with astronomy.
In 1877, while living in London, the Edinburgh Review published her first important article, Copernicus in Italy. She also went on contribute to the Dictionary of National Biography, the journal Nature, and the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Being fluent in every major European language, she consulted only primary sources, often quite obscure ones.
It was her 1885 book, A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century, however, that earned Clerke a worldwide reputation. The book, which cycled through four editions and was reprinted after her death, is still considered indispensable.
Clerke died in January 1907, having worked to the end of her life.
Botanist Phyllis Clinch paved the way for disease resistance and control in agriculture by investigating the viruses that can decimate commercial crops.
Born in Dublin in 1901, Clinch studied cytology (the structure and functions of cells) under Prof Alexandre Guilliermond in Paris before returning to Ireland to join research on plant viruses starting at the Albert Agricultural College.
After cracking the enigma of potato diseases, Clinch turned her attention to viruses of tomatoes and sugar beets, while responding to requests from Department of Agriculture officials to identify plant disease agents and make recommendations for their control.
She was the first women elected to membership of the Royal Irish Academy (1959) and, two years later, the first woman to receive the Boyle Medal for her scientific work and publications (indeed, the only one until 2011). Also in 1961, she became the first female professor of botany at University College Dublin.
She died in October 1984.
Margaret Lindsay Huggins
Born in 1848 in Dublin, the woman who would become Lady Margaret Lindsay Huggins engaged in a 30-year collaboration with her husband William, which laid the foundations for the development of astrophysics.
The Hugginses began their scientific life together as the first people to apply the dry gelatine photographic plate to astronomical spectroscopy. Their first jointly published papers, beginning in 1889, were studies of the spectra of the planets. They also studied the spectra of the Orion Nebula and Wolf-Rayet stars, and observed the bright nova of 1892, Nova Aurigae.
One of their projects concerned the spectra of calcium and magnesium, and their observational data were the earliest illustration of the Saha law, formulated as recently as 1920.
Though the 1897 Queen’s honours list entirely comprised men, William’s citiation as a knight commander of the Order of the Bath was noted “for the great contributions which, with the collaboration of his gifted wife, he had made to the new science of astrophysics”.
Margaret died in 1915 at the age of 66. A plaque erected in 1997 marks the house in Monkstown, Dublin, where she was raised and lived until her marriage.
Cynthia Evelyn Longfield was an international dragonfly expert and an intrepid explorer who came to be known as ‘Madame Dragonfly’.
Born in Cloyne, Co Cork, in 1896, she settled in London in 1925 with work at the Natural History Museum as an unpaid associate member in charge of dragonflies – the Odonata – an order of insects that, at the time, was not well studied.
Over time, Longfield became the British Museum’s resident expert and honorary member, and an international authority. She travelled the world on prolific expeditions that turned up species never before known to science. Recognising her many discoveries, two species have been named after her.
She became the first female president of the London Natural History Society and the first woman elected to the Entomological Society’s council. Retired at age 60, she returned to live at her childhood home in Cork. She died in June 1991.
Annie Russell Maunder
Astronomer Annie Scott Dill Russell Maunder was born in 1868 in Strabane, Co Tyrone. Study in mathematics brought her to work at the Astronomer Royal in 1891, where she was assigned to capture and examine daily photographs of the sun.
One of her photos from an eclipse expedition in India in 1898 showed a bright streamer reaching 10m km into space – the longest extension of the corona ever recorded by any observer at that time. Though widely published, the photograph was usually under her husband’s name, Walter Maunder.
Even the pair’s ‘butterfly diagram’, a graphical analysis of the 11-year sunspot cycle published in 1904, was generally attributed to Walter alone. The original drawing was restored, and Annie’s hand in its history revealed, in 2000.
In 1910, they published The Heavens and their Story, with Annie’s name appearing as the first author on the title page. Five years later, the ban on women in the Royal Astronomical Society was finally lifted, and she was made a fellow.
Annie died on 15 September 1947, aged 80, and she and her husband are individually commemorated by craters on the moon.
This list was originally compiled by the late Mary Mulvihill, an Irish science pioneer in her own right, in 2013. These profiles were made possible through material from Mulvihill’s books, Stars, Shells and Bluebells (1997) and Lab Coats and Lace (2009). We are forever grateful to Mulvihill for uncovering these stories and shining a light on the history of women in STEM.
Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.