Monday, June 3, 2013

Jewish Women in STEM: From Europe to America

Although the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields have been dominated by men throughout the past, there have been numerous Jewish women within the scientific field. Interestingly, a number of these women lived in pre-World War II Germany, and were forced to escape the country in the early 1930s to avoid Nazi capture.

One example is Lise Meitner, who has been described as the German Marie Curie. Born in 1878 to a Jewish family in Vienna, she went on to accomplish many firsts in her life. Her earliest achievement was receiving a PhD in physics from the University of Vienna, the second woman to do so. Although German theoretical physicist Max Planck did not even allow women to attend his lectures, he was so impressed by Meitner that he took her on as his assistant. While under Planck’s tutelage, Meitner became the first female full professor in physics in Germany. The Nazis disregarded her 1908 conversion to Christianity, and she was forced to flee from Germany. While taking refuge in Sweden, she, along with nuclear chemist Otto Hahn, co-discovered nuclear fission, which made nuclear warfare possible. Although Hahn was recognized with a Nobel Prize, Meitner did not receive any distinction for her share of the work. She is a prime example of how women’s accomplishments are routinely ignored by both the scientific community and the world at large. Although she did not get the Nobel Prize, her life’s work was recognized when element 109 was named meitnerium in her honor.

A Jewish woman mathematician born in 1882 was Emmy Noether. She was raised in an intellectual home, as her father was a famous mathematician. Noether , like Meitner, pursued a doctoral degree, but in mathematics. For several years, she taught university courses without receiving pay due to her sex. Mathematician David Hilbert took her on as his assistant at the University of Gottingen, where she taught courses in his name. After the Nazis dismissed all Jewish professors in 1933, she continued to teach math out of her home. Realizing that Germany was no longer a safe place for Jews, she accepted a position at Bryn Mawr College and moved to the United States. Happily, her contributions to mathematics were recognized, unlike Meitner’s fate. Albert Einstein said that Noether was “the most significant mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began,” as she revolutionized the theories of rings, fields, and algebras. Noether’s Theorem has become a fundamental tool of modern physics and calculus. Innumerable amounts of her students were inspired by her groundbreaking teachings to revolutionize algebra and number theory even further, furthering Noether’s legacy.

The founder of mammalian developmental genetics was another Jewish woman of this era, Salome Gluecksohn-Waelsch. Born in 1907 in Danzig, Germany, she dreamed of moving from Europe to Palestine. She decided to study biology, since she felt it would be practical knowledge for life in the Middle East. Although she received a doctorate in 1932, she was unable to find work due to her sex and religion. A year later, she realized that it would be unwise to remain in Nazi Germany, and fled to America. Her husband, a biochemist, found a position at Columbia University. Unfortunately, her sex doomed her to a job as an unpaid laboratory assistant. Although she published a groundbreaking paper on mouse embryology and genetic mutations in 1938, she worked at Columbia for 17 years without ever becoming a faculty member. When the Yeshiva University-affiliated Albert Einstein College of Medicine was established in 1955, she joined the faculty there. Her genius was finally recognized, and she became the chair of the genetics department by 1968. Glueckson-Waelsch was given several awards for her research, including the National Medal of Science and an honorary life membership of the New York Academy of Sciences.

I have no interest in science or math, and cannot even pretend to comprehend the contributions that Meitner, Noether, and Glueckson-Walesch made to physics, mathemathics, and genetics, respectively. However, I do understand that these women paved the way for modern-day girls to enter STEM fields. They were able to succeed, despite the fact that they were women in an era of kinder, kuche, and kirche and Jews in an anti-Semitic country that they were forced to flee. It is imperative that we remember these women, the groundbreakers who opened STEM open to girls today. We owe them everything.

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