Great Women in Biotechnology

March is women’s history month and we’re highlighting some of the amazing women of biotechnology past and present. Read about these innovative, determined, and resourceful individuals. Then share! Download, print, and put up the poster version of great women in biotechnology at the end of this post!

The Founding Mothers

Statuette of sumerian goddess. ArchaiOptix, CC BY-SA 4.0

Nothing like a goddess to start the bar high! Ninkasi (5500 C) was the Sumerian goddess of beer. While unlikely a single individual, historians agree that Mesopotamian women were the first to develop the key biotechnology of fermentation. This process is described in detail in the Hymn to Ninkasi, one of the earliest human writings discovered.

The Chinese empress Xi Ling Shi (2700-2640 C) discovered that silkworm cocoons unravel into bright, resistant, and very long threads. Moreover, she turned this discovery into a biotech business – planting trees to raise the worms, inventing a loom, and then distributing the product to the world!

17th through 20th Century Trail Blazers

Lady Mary Montagu Jonathan Richardson the younger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Lady Mary Montagu (1689-1762) introduced smallpox inoculation to western medicine. While researching and writing “Letters from Turkey” (the era’s version of a travel blog) she came across the practice. After immunizing her own son and daughter she lobbied Princess Caroline to vaccinate the royal family. She also published papers describing the procedure.

Genevieve D’Arconville (1720-1805) was a skilled translator, illustrator, and scientist who was interested in botany, anatomy, and most of all putrefaction. She carried out over 300 decomposition experiments and published her results anonymously in 1766. A reputed insomniac she also wrote histories, biographies, and novels.

Part of the dynamic “Cori” duo Gerty Cori (1896 -1957) won a Nobel Prize for her work on carbohydrate metabolism. Born in Prague she decided at sixteen to become a doctor. And she did! She graduated from med school and worked at a children’s hospital before coming to the US. In the US she studied insulin and sugar levels in humans and became a biochemistry professor – as well as an excellent mountain climber.

Science Leaders of Today and Tomorrow

Ruth R. Benerito. USDA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Ruth Benerito (1916-2013) lived through America’s Great Depression – but still managed to earn a BS, MS, and Ph.D. in chemistry before becoming a researcher at the USDA. (Along the way she had a few odd jobs including teaching driver EDs having never driven herself.) At the USDA her team discovered chemical treatments that made cotton fibers wrinkle-resistant – an invention that saved the cotton industry and saved use from constant polyester.

Barbara McClintock (1902-1992) was fascinated by the secrete lives of corn chromosomes. As a Ph.D. student, she developed cytogenetic staining methods and demonstrated the process of genetic recombination. Things got jumpy when she discovered transposons – moving chromosomal regions that alter a cell’s genotype and phenotype. While this discovery was met with initial skepticism, she continued to gather supporting evidence and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1983.

Mary Claire King (1946-) studies the role of genetics and the environment in HIV, lupus, deafness, and cancer. She was key in identifying the breast cancer gene BRCA1 and in mathematically demonstrating that humans and chimpanzees share 99% of genes. She’s also championed sequencing for humanitarian causes – traveling around the world to help identify individuals in mass graves and to reunite children who were adopted illegally.  

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw. Science History Institute, CC BY-SA 3.0

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw (1953-) is a biotech entrepreneur and managing director of Biocon Limited. Kiran was born in India, moved to Australia to become a brew-master, but returned to India in 1978 to run a small enzyme purification and discovery business. Today this business is a bio-pharmaceutical powerhouse that promotes affordable innovation in medical treatments. Kiran Mazaumdar-Shaw journey from a female brew-master who struggled to find a job in a male dominated business to one of the most successful biotech entrepreneurs in India and the world is impressive and best told by her. Check out this 2018 BBC interview.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Delve deeper into the life stories of these and other trail blazing scientists. Get started by printing out this women in biotechnology poster and putting it up in your class or lab.

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