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Women in Science: Looking Back at Scientific Pioneers

In honor of Women’s History Month, a three-part series looks to the past, present and future of women in STEM. Today, AAAS looks back to several accomplished women in its history.

Maria Mitchell

Women have had a role in AAAS dating back to its earliest days more than 170 years ago. In 1847, Maria Mitchell was a Nantucket librarian who had learned how to operate a range of astronomical instruments from her father, himself an amateur astronomer. She was scanning the skies with a telescope when she noticed an unusual movement in the sky. She published her findings early the following year as well as her calculations of the comet’s orbit, cementing her status as the first American to discover a new comet. She quickly became known for her discovery – today it is known as C/1847 T1, but in her day, it was best known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.” Mitchell continued her scientific work throughout her life, traveling the world to meet with fellow scientists and intellectuals, then serving for more than 20 years as a professor at Vassar College and director of the college’s observatory.

In 1848, AAAS was founded to promote the development of science and engineering across the country and to represent the interests of all scientific disciplines. In 1850, Mitchell became one of the first female members, along with entomologist Margaretta Morris and botanist and educator Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps. In the 1870s, Mitchell was honored as a AAAS Fellow.

Members of AAAS have met annually dating back to 1848. | Neil Orman/AAAS

Euphemia Lofton Haynes

Euphemia Lofton Haynes’ early life was marked by educational accomplishment: graduating high school as valedictorian, earning degrees in mathematics and psychology from Smith College while simultaneously teaching elementary school and earning a master’s degree in education from the University of Chicago. Yet she made history by becoming the first Black woman to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics, completing her degree in 1943 at the Catholic University of America.

She put her accomplishments to work by fighting for an educational system where young Black students could succeed. As a member of the District of Columbia school board, Haynes spoke out against a tracking system that resulted in a disproportionate number of white students in honors courses while Black students were relegated to less rigorous classes. When she became school board president, she dismantled that system, according to the school now named in her honor. Haynes was recognized by AAAS in 1962 when she was named a Fellow in mathematics and psychology.

Mina Rees

Mina Rees had an accomplished career as a mathematician and a pioneer of computing before being elected as the first female president in 1971. After earning her doctoral degree in 1931 from the University of Chicago, her long career took her back and forth between academia and the government. After teaching at Hunter College, her alma mater, she headed the mathematics branch of the Office of Naval Research, then became its deputy science director. She later served as a professor, dean of graduate studies, provost and, ultimately, graduate school president at the City University of New York. 

As president of AAAS, she called for ongoing federal funding for basic scientific research to ensure the continued success of the scientific enterprise, which she called “a major glory of the intellectual life of this nation” in a speech at the 1973 AAAS Annual Meeting. Rees’ legacy among AAAS leadership continues to resonate – the majority of AAAS’ presidents in the last 25 years have been women.

[Associated image: Wikimedia Commons]