Rachel Nichols, a Certified Health Physicist (CHP) and an associate radiation safety officer at the University of Missouri, says the most influential women in radiation history shared much in common: sharp intelligence, keen insight, a strong work ethic and a genuine love for their profession.
And, unfortunately, one more thing.
“Their contributions were too often overlooked,” she says. “The credit sometimes went to someone else—another colleague, a husband. Sometimes they didn’t get cited because they were women, or because their advisor wanted to list their name as the author first.”
But that’s changing fast.
Women past and present are now more recognized for their innovations in radiation—and for good reason. These pioneers in science significantly reshaped—or are reshaping—established principles in radiation safety, chemistry and nuclear medicine, among other key areas in health physics.
Below are six famous barrier breakers who overcame stereotypes and contributed to the development of health physics, radiation protection and radiological safety as we know it today, and how we can help inspire the next generation of women in STEM.
Marie Curie’s groundbreaking research in radioactivity is the inspiration for various documentaries as well as the Hollywood motion picture “Radioactive.”
Here’s why: Curie’s work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries changed the world’s understanding of radiation and laid the foundation for many modern applications of radioactive materials we use today.
For instance, with her husband, Pierre, she discovered two new radioactive elements, polonium and radium. Her research revealed that these materials emitted powerful rays that could penetrate solid objects and that this emission was an intrinsic property of the atoms, not a reaction caused by external chemical changes. This discovery challenged preexisting scientific paradigms and positioned radioactivity at the forefront of physics and chemistry research.
Curie also recognized the potential of these rays for medical applications, especially in X-ray imaging. During World War I, she developed mobile radiography units nicknamed “Little Curies” that helped battlefield surgeons locate bullets and shrapnel inside wounded soldiers. By bringing X-ray machines to the front lines, she helped save countless lives and popularized the use of X-rays in medical diagnosis.
Simply put, Curie “might be the most famous woman in the history of science,” Nichols says.
Marie Curie’s contribution to radiation research didn’t stop with her work. It continued with her daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, who aided additional innovations in radiochemistry and health physics.
Alongside her husband, Frédéric Joliot, Joliot-Curie discovered artificial radioactivity, a breakthrough that allowed scientists to produce radioactive isotopes without relying on naturally occurring materials. This discovery revolutionized medical treatments, particularly cancer therapy, by providing a steady and controllable radiation source. The couple’s work earned them a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1935 and played a pivotal role in advancing medical research and treatments with controlled radiation.
Joliot-Curie also advocated for safety measures in laboratories and medical environments, emphasizing the importance of understanding and mitigating the risks associated with radiation exposure. Her dedication to the promise and the peril of radioactivity helped shape the early radiation protection protocols in health physics.
Edith Quimby passed in 1982, but Nichols still sees her some early mornings—Quimby is pictured on one of Nichols’ coffee mugs, which her first boss gave her after a Health Physics Society conference.
“It’s a gift that reminds me how important Quimby was to educators in health physics,” Nichols says.
Quimby was an American medical physicist and a forerunner in nuclear medicine. She is most remembered for establishing radiation as a viable treatment for cancer in the first half of the 20th century. Her work led to considerable advancements in therapeutic uses and dosages of radium and X-rays.
She was also among the first to highlight the differences between therapeutic and harmful radiation doses. This distinction helped minimize radiation risks and underline the importance of precise measurements and protocols to avoid overexposure.
Lise Meitner was the first female university physics professor in Germany, a national achievement that shot her to fame until the rise of Nazis forced Meitner, who was Jewish, to flee and continue her work in Sweden. Her name was subsequently left off scientific papers in Nazi Germany.
Still, her achievements both prior to and following her departure will always be remembered.
Meitner is renowned for many achievements, two made the most headlines. She helped discover the radioactive element protactinium and played a leading role in finding the phenomenon known as nuclear fission, the splitting of an atomic nucleus. This latter discovery with German chemist Otto Hahn was foundational to the development of nuclear energy and pivotal in the subsequent creation of atomic weapons.
Controversially, Hahn—not Meitner—won a Nobel Prize for the nuclear fission discovery. Historians still contest the overlooking of Meitner’s contribution. Nevertheless, her work remains a testament to the transformative power of women in science—so much so that, in 1997, element 109 was named in her honor: meitnerium.
In northern Chicago rests an annual top 100 in best medical universities named after Rosalind Franklin, whose revolutionary use of X-ray diffraction techniques made important contributions to the field of molecular biology.
The British scientist’s most notable achievement was capturing the “Photo 51”, an X-ray diffraction image of the DNA molecule. This image was instrumental in revealing the helical structure of DNA, a discovery that proved to be one of the most significant breakthroughs in the history of biology.
Ultimately, however, James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins were awarded a Nobel Prize for their role in determining the structure of DNA. Franklin’s contribution was posthumously recognized.
History had corrected this blemish, crediting Franklin’s experimental work and the precise images she obtained as integral to the discovery of the double helix structure.
There’s a reason Chien-Shiung Wu is often referred to as the “First Lady of Physics.” An immigrant who came to the U.S. from China, her body of work includes critical input in the historic Manhattan Project and in other experimental physics.
One of her most notable achievements was her experimental work that confirmed the theory of the violation of parity in weak nuclear reactions, which refers to the discovery that certain subatomic processes are not symmetric and distinguish between left-handed and right-handed configurations. This realization contradicted previous assumptions in physics.
Wu’s groundbreaking discovery later won a Nobel Prize in physics—but the honor wasn’t awarded to her. Instead, it was awarded to her colleagues, Chen-Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee. Wu was notably omitted.
Still, in a time when few women held prominent roles in fields like physics, Wu’s accomplishments made the history books, making her a beacon for many aspiring female scientists. She actively championed women’s rights and participation in the sciences, challenging stereotypes and advocating for greater female representation in her discipline. Her achievements and advocacy solidified her reputation as a pioneering figure for women in STEM.
How CHPs are Leading the Future in Health Physics for Women
Like many of her colleagues, Nichols didn’t plan on becoming a CHP in high school and college. But like the history makers before her, her skillset fit too well.
She always excelled in STEM classes, and during her senior year of undergrad, she started working in an environmental radiochemistry lab. She kept the job through graduate school and beyond.
“It wasn’t like I had to work with radioactive materials or in health physics. It was a place where I could effectively apply what I learned to earn my chemistry degree,” Nichols said. “It was a great opportunity for me.”
However, concerns linger about recruiting more women into similar health and medical physics opportunities. While more women are in STEM than ever—women now make up about a third of the STEM labor market—the percentage is significantly less than those in the overall U.S. workforce (56.8%). Nichols sees it, too. Most of her classes had more men than women.
What to do?
“To get more women in science and health physics, you have to emphasize the importance of STEM education at a very early age,” Nichols says. “Encourage women in high school to focus on the core studies that will deliver them the skills they need today to earn the accolades they’ll want tomorrow.”
Now that history has righted itself, current and future women in STEM stand to gain the one thing their predecessors missed out on during their careers: proper credit.
If you’re interested in becoming a CHP or want to learn more about how AAHP is educating and recruiting more women to enter health physics and become CHPs, contact us today.