Gone in 2020: Remembering 20 Pioneering Women in STEM
As 2020 has come to a close, it is time to reflect on those who’ve left us over the past 12 months. It was, of course, a year filled with immense challenges related to the coronavirus, politics, racial injustice, climate change, and more. But there were triumphs as well, and one in particular — the unprecedented speedy development of vaccines aimed at halting a raging pandemic — has reminded us of the critical importance of both basic and applied research. With this in mind, let us take a moment to commemorate some of the women, gone in 2020, who over their lifetimes made significant improvements to science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and related disciplines.
It’s worth noting that in years past, it was difficult to find even 10 obituaries of prominent women in STEM (here are remembrances from 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017). 2020, however, yielded a much longer list of women whose discoveries, innovations, and teaching advanced their fields. Tragically, some on this year’s list would still be with us were it not for the devastating effects of Covid-19. But other forces seem to be contributing to a rise in women’s obituaries in these areas. One is the inevitable march toward a time when the scholars we mourn are no longer outliers: Those we remember, more and more often, began their careers when it was not unusual for a woman to pursue a career in science, engineering, or medicine. Importantly, though, publishers are also starting to make more space for such women, especially women of color, who all too often have previously been overlooked. This trend has been stoked by numerous campaigns over the past decade aimed at raising the profiles of women in the STEM fields — whether on social media, Wikipedia, or elsewhere.
With gratitude for their contributions, here are 20 remarkable women in STEM who left us in 2020.
Frances “Fran” Allen was a path-breaking computer scientist whose work on optimizing compilers helped lay the groundwork for better, more efficient software development. She was a longtime researcher at IBM, and in 2006 became the first woman to win the Turing Award — often considered the Nobel Prize of computer science — “for pioneering contributions to the theory and practice of optimizing compiler techniques that laid the foundation for modern optimizing compilers and automatic parallel execution.” Allen died on Aug. 4, her 88th birthday, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
Austrian-born American biologist Angelika Amon was “a force of nature” best known for her work on aneuploidy, the condition of having too many or too few chromosomes in a cell, and its effects on diseases such as cancer and Down syndrome. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she was an exemplary professor and an outspoken champion of women and other minoritized groups in science. In 2019, she was awarded the prestigious Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for her work on chromosomal imbalances. Amon died of ovarian cancer at age 53 on Oct. 29.
E. Margaret Burbidge, a British-born American astrophysicist who became a towering figure in her field and a trailblazer for women in astronomy, died on April 5 at age 100 from complications following a fall. Among her many contributions was foundational work on the origin of chemical elements within stars, including a key paper that established the science of how we are all made of stardust. Burbidge served variously as director of the Royal Observatory in England, as a longtime professor at the University of California at San Diego, and as president of both the American Astronomical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She received the U.S. National Medal of Science in 1983.
Deborah Washington Brown
An expert in speech recognition and artificial intelligence, Deborah Washington Brown broke barriers when she became one of the first Black women in computer science to earn a doctorate in the United States, and the first to do so in applied mathematics at Harvard University. Brown worked in industry for four decades as a speech technology specialist, and was granted at least 10 patents for work in this area over the course of her prolific career. She was also an award-winning pianist who performed, taught, and even earned a level 10 certification from the Royal Conservatory of Music. Brown died of cancer on June 5, at age 68.
British vertebrate paleontologist Jennifer Clack was renowned for her work on the evolutionary transition from fish of the Devonian period (419 million years ago) to four-legged animals known as tetrapods, who first walked on land during the Carboniferous period (359 m.y.a). Through fieldwork in Scotland and Greenland, Clack, a professor at the University of Cambridge and the curator at the Museum of Zoology there, collected several hundred tetrapod fossils. Resulting papers described novel structures that revolutionized scientists’ understanding of the water-to-land transition. She received numerous honors, including the Eliot Medal from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Clack died of cancer on March 26 at age 72.
Maria De Sousa
Prominent Portuguese immunologist Maria de Sousa specialized in hemochromatosis, a genetic disease related to the absorption of iron. Her early work on the immune system, which she undertook as a professor and researcher in the United States, led to a better understanding of the role of T-cells in the body. After returning to her home country in the 1980s, she continued her studies and also became well known for her efforts to strengthen Portuguese science research and education. For her endeavors, she was awarded one of the country’s highest honors, the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint James of the Sword. De Sousa died on April 14 at age 80 from Covid-19.
A pioneering solar physicist, Joan Feynman made important contributions to the study of our nearest star. She was known especially for her work on how particles and fields emanating from the sun affect the Earth, and on the origin of auroras. Later in her career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Feynman was also interested in the science of climate change. Encouraged to pursue science by her older brother, physicist Richard Feynman, she became a strong supporter of women in physics, and she was the first woman to serve as an officer of the American Geophysical Union. Feynman died of heart failure on July 22 at age 93.
Although she had become a leading neuropathologist well before the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Mary Fowkes gained notoriety this year when her early autopsies of deceased Covid-19 patients revealed blood clots in organs throughout the body, including in the brain. Her work led to a marked increase in the use of blood thinners at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, where she had been head of neuropathology and autopsy, which yielded improved outcomes in some patients. Fowkes, who was president of the New York Pathological Society at the time of her death, had also specialized in cancer research and pushed for increased use of autopsies in medical training. She died of a heart attack on Nov. 15 at age 66.
An influential immunologist at Scripps Research, Wendy Havran was an authority on immune cells known as T cells, particularly gamma-delta T cells, which play a key role in wound healing. One of her important studies in the 1990s suggested that T cells in the skin contribute to wound healing, a finding that she and her collaborators later confirmed in humans. She also helped establish that T cells are found in and help to protect the intestine. At the time of her death on Jan. 20 from complications of a heart attack, Havran and her colleagues had been working to translate their discoveries into treatments for wounds and for cancer. She was 64.
Katherine “Kitty” Hoffman, a chemistry professor, textbook author, administrator, and iconic figure at Florida State University, died of Covid-19 at age 105. After turning down an opportunity to study at Duke University Medical School due to a rule requiring female students to remain unmarried, she earned a master’s at Columbia University and worked her way through the ranks at FSU, becoming a full professor in 1959. In the 1960s she served as dean of women — a position she later said she was proud to make obsolete — and in the 1980s was president of the faculty. For her many contributions, FSU awarded her an honorary doctorate of science in 2007.
Trailblazing NASA mathematician and space scientist Katherine Johnson was best known for calculating and verifying trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo programs — including the Apollo 11 mission that first landed humans on the moon. Her work had lasting effects on the science of spaceflight and is still relevant today. While she and many of her Black colleagues were invisible to the public at large during her career, Johnson gained notoriety late in life thanks to a 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama; a Hollywood biopic, “Hidden Figures,” based on a nonfiction book of the same title; and other honors from around the nation. Johnson died on Feb. 24 at age 101.
A lion of conservation science, British ecologist Georgina Mace was best known for recalibrating the Red List of endangered species, which provides governments and other groups with a set of criteria for prioritizing which troubled species should receive special protections. Mace also championed the idea of “natural capital,” which posits that the environment plays a significant role in sustaining human lives and economies around the globe. An authoritative professor of biodiversity and ecosystems at University College London, she was the first woman to lead the British Ecological Society, and was made a dame of the British Empire in 2016. She died of breast cancer at age 67 on Sep. 19.
Prominent American environmental scientist Nina McClelland died on Aug. 16 at age 90 after suffering from heart problems. She spent a lifetime working toward improved water quality and environmental standards, most notably as a longtime chair and CEO of NSF International, a nonprofit that certifies products and writes standards for food, water, and consumer goods. McClelland, who held degrees in biology, chemistry, and public health, served as well in numerous leadership positions with government and other entities, including chair of the board of directors of the American Chemical Society.
Dr. Susan Moore, a physician based in Indianapolis, inspired calls for the reexamination of racism in health care settings after she posted publicly about her struggles with her own care as a Covid-19 patient in early December, and then died from the disease shortly thereafter. In a viral Facebook video, Moore alleged that she “had to beg” for proper medical care at an Indiana hospital, and that she was inappropriately discharged. Her death on Dec. 20 prompted commentary stressing that her case exemplified medical-care biases that Black and Brown women continue to face in the United States. Moore, who had trained in both engineering and medicine before launching her career, was 52 at the time of her death.
Noted cancer researcher and environmental activist Beverly Paigen died on June 26 at age 81. She was best known as the scientist who spoke out about toxic waste at Love Canal, a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, that became contaminated after decades of toxic dumping. Though she clashed with state officials who refused to acknowledge her findings, Paigen’s research showing high rates of birth defects near the area eventually led to the resettlement of homeowners near the waste site. She later served as a senior research biochemist at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California, and as a senior staff scientist at Jackson Laboratory in Maine.
Plant biologist Barbara Pickard was well known for her influential work on plant mechanosensing, the way in which plants respond to hormones, proteins, and external stresses. In the 1980s she helped to identify so-called stretch-activated ion channels in plant cells, and she later helped discover channels that detect mechanical, electrical, chemical, and thermal stresses. More recently, she worked to understand cells of the plant Arabidopsis thaliana, which appear to react to the sound of caterpillars chewing on its leaves by synthesizing toxins that can deter the insects. Pickard, a longtime faculty member at Washington University in St. Louis, died Dec. 6 following complications from hip surgery.
A leading HIV/AIDS researcher and tireless voice for the improvement of women’s health in South Africa, Gita Ramjee died of Covid-19 on March 31 at age 63. Born in Uganda, Ramjee moved to South Africa for her doctoral work on childhood kidney diseases and thereafter performed pioneering research on the use of vaginal microbicides as a means to prevent HIV transmission. She became an expert on HIV/AIDS in South Africa, leading studies and drug trials and advocating for improved prevention mechanisms for women in particular. Co-author of some 200 research articles, she was chief scientific officer at the Aurum Institute in Johannesburg at the time of her death.
Dr. Suhaila Siddiq, a highly respected Afghani surgeon who was the first woman to rise to the rank of lieutenant general of her nation, died on Dec. 4 at age 81 or 82 from complications of Covid-19. Siddiq led the country’s public health ministry from 2001 to 2004 under the transitional government led by Hamid Karzai, and in that time was responsible for helping to bring polio under control in Afghanistan through vaccination. She later returned to surgery and teaching, and was especially influential for young women, many of whom saw her as a feminist role model.
A rising star in biology, Lynika Strozier died on June 7 of complications from Covid-19 at age 35. Strozier began her career as an intern at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, sequencing lichen DNA. Over the last decade she had continued to study DNA at the museum, earning master’s degrees in biology and in science education along the way. In March, the Gantz Family Collections Center at the Field Museum had granted her an honorary appointment of collections associate, and she had recently become an instructor at Malcolm X College.
Flossie Wong-Staal was a highly influential molecular biologist whose virus-hunting work helped to determine HIV as the cause of AIDS. Born in China, Wong-Staal came to the U.S. to study bacteriology at UCLA. She then made history when she and her colleagues became the first to clone HIV-1 and create a map of its genes. Her later discoveries led to the use of drug cocktails to manage AIDS, and to a second-generation blood test for HIV. According to one report, she was the most-cited female scientist of the 1980s, with some 7,800 citations. Wong-Staal died on July 8 from pneumonia at age 73.