Women Who Advanced Genetic Science

By Jennifer McCreight & Ava Daniel


To honor Women’s History Month, 23andMe is sharing stories of a few female scientists who contributed to the field of genetics, each of whom made their mark despite great societal and institutional obstacles.

 

Nowadays most people have heard of Rosalind Franklin, the X-ray crystallographer who along with Watson and Crick famously contributed to the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA. But for years her contribution was not recognized. It took a concerted effort to draw attention to her important contribution, making her a classic example of the hidden woman in science.

 

The reality is that women have been contributing to scientific research for hundreds of years, but institutionalized sexism has long prevented them from getting the credit they deserve. The field of genetic research is no exception. Here we would like to do our part in setting the record straight by highlighting some of the women who made important discoveries that built the foundation for modern genetics research.

Janaki Ammal, Ph.D. (1897-1984)

An Indian botanist and cytologist who studied the variation in chromosome number, or ploidy, across a wide range of garden plants. This led to many insights into how species and varieties of plants evolved. She was the first woman to attain a Ph.D. in botany in the US, and the Janaki Ammal Award of Taxonomy was created in 1999 to encourage students and scholars to pursue this field of work. 

 

Charlotte Auerbach, Ph.D. (1899-1994)

A German Jewish geneticist who was a pioneer in studying what causes genetic mutations. She authored a total of 91 papers and was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Society of London. She was also a recipient of the 1976 Darwin Medal.

 

Martha Chase, Ph.D. (1927-2003)

An American geneticist credited with confirming DNA as the genetic material of life. She and Alfred Hershey created and performed the notable Hershey-Chase experiment, which proved that DNA, not protein, held and transmitted genetic information. Hershey was awarded a Nobel Prize for the achievement, but Chase was not.

 

Marie Maynard Daly, Ph.D. (1921-2003)

An African American biochemist. She was the first Black woman to earn a doctorate in biochemistry in the U.S. She is most notable for her research involving the creation of proteins, as well as histones, which are the proteins that help package DNA into chromosomes. Watson cited Daly’s research as having contributed to research into the structure of DNA.

 

Margaret Oakley Dayhoff, Ph.D. (1925-1983)

An American physical chemist and pioneer in the field of bioinformatics. She was one of the first scientists to integrate mathematics, computation, and biochemistry. She is known for originating point accepted mutations (PAM) and creating the one-letter code for amino acids – those As, Ts, Cs, and Gs. 

 

Esther Lederberg, Ph.D. (1922-2006)

An American microbiologist who pioneered the field of bacterial genetics. She developed the microbial technique of replica plating, which can be used to investigate antibiotic resistance. Lederberg also discovered the ? bacteriophage, a virus frequently used as a tool in genetics experiments, as well as bacterial F-plasmid, a piece of DNA that gives bacteria the ability to transfer DNA to each other. She also founded and directed the Plasmid Reference Center at Stanford University. 

 

Mary Frances Lyon, Ph.D. (1925-2014) 

A British geneticist best known for her discovery of X-chromosome inactivation. This is a process by which one X chromosome is inactivated in some female mammals, including humans. Calico cats are a fantastic visual representation of the phenomena. A Cambridge graduate, she was the recipient of over a dozen notable awards in the field of genetics for her work.


Barbara McClintock, Ph.D. (1902-1992)

An American maize cytogeneticist who discovered transposable elements. These are DNA sequences that can change position within a genome, and their discovery helped illustrate how genes affect physical characteristics. McClintock also demonstrated fundamental genetic ideas like recombination, crossing-over, and the role of telomeres and centromeres. She is the only woman who has received an unshared Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

 

Ruth Sager, Ph.D. (1918-1997)

An American geneticist known for pioneering the field of cytoplasmic genetics. She is credited with discovering the transmission of genetic traits through chloroplast DNA, which is found in plants. She also conducted groundbreaking cancer genetics research on tumor suppressor genes in the early 1970s. 

 

Nettie Stevens, Ph.D. (1861-1912)

An early American geneticist credited with the discovery of sex chromosomes (X and Y). She was the first American woman acknowledged for her contributions to science. Her work expanded the fields of modern genetics, cytology, and embryology. 

 

Know of any other women in the realm of scientific advancement? Join the conversation by commenting below.