Heuristic Rotating Header Image

Ada Lovelace Day

Look to the sky

I admit it, I wrote fiction last night instead of writing my Ada Lovelace Day post. Tsk. But I wanted to tell you about a woman of science anyway, even a day late.

In 2009, I wrote about a woman who’d influenced me even though she was long dead. Last year I wrote about a woman who helped to pave the way for others to enter traditionally male fields like medicine and science.

This year, I chose Maria Mitchell, the first female professional astronomer in the United States. Born on Nantucket in 1818, she attended Cyrus Peirce’s school for young ladies but was largely self-educated.

Discovering a telescopic comet in 1847 was the result of much hard work, study, and time spent behind a telescope, but it seems to have been what brought her to the notice of the scientific establishment. Prior to that, she was a teacher and librarian, both acceptable female professions.

Afterward, her life must have changed dramatically. She became the first woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848 and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850. She became the first professor of astronomy at Vassar College in 1865.

Mitchell was also active in the women’s suffrage movement, and in protesting slavery. She must have been ferociously brilliant, and worked very hard at her passions, but also stood up for what she thought was right.

If you’d like to know more, Google books has a collection of Mitchell’s writings published in 1896, seven years after her death.

(And yes, I did recently read Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary, by Pamela Dean.)

Changing the Lady

For the past two years, Ada Lovelace Day has been celebrated on March 24. If you’ve been waiting impatiently to find out which obscure scientific woman I’m going to feature in 2011, I’m afraid you have a bit of waiting to do.

This year, Ada Lovelace Day will be on October 7. That gives me lots of time to choose and research someone fascinating.

An elaborate practical joke

Elizabeth Blackwell wanted to go to medical school. She’d been reading medicine at home, but wanted proper training and formal education. She was rejected from all the first-rate schools, and most of the rest. Only one medical school even considered her application. When the Geneva Medical College received her application, the administration asked the students whether they’d be willing to work with her. The students thought it was a practical joke and agreed.

Not so, and when Elizabeth Blackwell showed up for school she met with a great deal of hostility. She was persistent, doing all the hands-on work along with the men in her class, and on 11 January 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to earn a medical degree.

Abolitionist, feminist, doctor – Elizabeth Blackwell was a woman of strong convictions and very ready to act on them. She wrote, taught, treated, advocated for what she believed in. And by becoming the first female doctor she led the way: by 2005 nearly half of all US medical school graduates were women.

Elizabeth Blackwell

You can learn more about Dr. Blackwell from the NIH here or here.

That’s right, it’s Ada Lovelace Day again. You can also read last year’s post.