International Womens Day

#IWD – 3 Influential Women in Science

As it’s International Women’s Day today, I wanted to bring about a happy reminder of 3 influential women in science. In a male-dominated area (especially at the time), these women proved their worth and it’s nice to see it highlighted so here goes…

  • Angelina Fanny Hesse

Wife of Walther Hesse, Angelina was responsible for educating her husband on agar-agar. Prior to agar, gelatin was the common media used in culturing bacteria but Walther found that at the temperatures needed, this would often liquefy and this would destroy the cultures. On a picnic during his sabbatical as a county physician; working in Robert Koch’s Imperial Health Agency, Walther asked his wife why her puddings and jellies never liquefied in the heat of the summertime. She pointed out to him that she used agar-agar rather than gelatin in her cooking after recommendation from an old neighbour from the Netherlands. Following this, a revolution in microbiology began due to its high melting point, resistance to microbial enzymes, sterilisation and storage ability (particularly helpful in TB studies). In a paper by Koch in 1882, he mentions his switch to agar but failed to note the reason for this switch and so the Hesse family received no credit for the discovery. Without Angelina Hesse’s suggestion to her husband, microbiology as we know it would not have been born (at least around the time it was). So, thank you Angelina!


  • Dr Elizabeth Lee Hazen

Hazen was one of the first female students from Colombia University to graduate from a postgraduate course, attaining a PhD in Microbiology. Following this she worked for the New York State Department of Public Health and along with Dr Rachel Fuller Brown, she was able to find the first antifungal antibiotic Nystatin. Streptomyces noursei; an actinomycete strain collected from a friends dairy farm was found to produce two antifungal substances. One of these were found to be toxic, but following purification, the other was to become Nystatin (patented in 1957).

elizabeth hazen

  • Dr Dorothy Hodgkin

Probably best known for her discovery of the structure of vitamin B12; in which she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964, she was also the first to confirm the structure of penicillin and highlight the beta-lactam ring. In 1944, she confirmed this structure using x-ray crystallography to produce the 3-D structure of the antibiotics. This was towards the end of the war and was revolutionary in the development of semi-synthetic antibiotic derivatives of penicillin and through its research has gone on to save millions of lives. In the apocalyptic time of antibiotics we’re currently entering, we could really do with a few more Dorothy Hodgkin’s!


These are just a few of the many incredible and influential women in science every day and we should celebrate them all. So, thank you and carry on being amazing!


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