Who Is The Most Underrated Woman In History? People From Around The World Answer

Who Is The Most Underrated Woman In History? People From Around The World Answer

Let's face it: most of the 'big names' in history have been men, while the accomplishments of women have too often been left ignored and unheralded.

Well, no more! These people from all over the world recently went online to share the women who they think are the most underrated in history. How many have you heard of before now?

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30. "Your diagnosis: hysteria"

Nellie Bly is my personal favorite! She was a journalist in the 1890s who was given an assignment to investigate the Woman’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island due to accusations of the mistreatment of patients. She got in there by faking insanity and getting herself committed to the asylum, and when she was finally released, she ran an exposé in the New York World called “Ten Days In A Madhouse” that exposed the awful treatment of patients inside the asylum. This was considered a revolution in investigative journalism.

Plus, she read “Around The World In 80 Days”, basically decided she could do better, and went around the world in 72 days. She was also an inventor, and was one of the primary journalists to cover the suffragette movement. One of my favorite historical figures who doesn’t get enough attention!

24178544643_062c1809c6_o-300x277.jpgDave Miller/Flickr

29. She kept her silence

Mary Ann Bickerdyke a.k.a. "Mother Bickerdyke."

Responsible for restoring sanitary conditions to over 300 hospitals during the Civil War, she saved the lives of countless soldiers.
45 years old, barely 5 feet tall, she worked on the front lines in a tattered and burned dress. (“I catch on fire a lot, but my boys always put me out,” she said.) She was absolutely fearless and would not take no for an answer when it came to the welfare of "her boys," the soldiers.

She once ordered that the walls of an old fort be pulled down in order to provide firewood for the hospital. When she was asked by what authority she could give orders like that, she replied, "By the authority of the Lord God Himself! Have you got any higher?"

After the war, she worked to help identify the countless thousands of unknown soldiers buried in mass graves at battlefields all across the country.

Later, having received her law degree, she spent her remaining years helping wounded veterans get assistance.

When some officers complained to General William Tecumseh Sherman about her, Sherman shrugged and said, "She outranks me."

Mary_Ann_Bickerdyke_cph.3a02337-221x300.jpgWikimedia Mary Ann Bickerdyke.

28. Get with the program

Admiral Grace Hopper. She invented the compiler which is the tool computer programmers use to turn their code into software. She was told computers were for doing calculations and not for running programs, so it couldn't be done. But she figured it out anyway and changed the world forever. She might be the most important woman of all time. Nobody knows who she is.

480px-Commodore_Grace_M._Hopper_USN_covered-240x300.jpgWikimedia Rear Admiral Grace N. Hopper.

27. Which witch?

In World War 2, there was a group of Russian lady bombers called the “Night Witches” who would scare the crap out of German lines. The thing is, they had they noisiest and worst planes in the world. Like, the engines would shut off mid-air, so they would have to climb out on to the wings to restart them.

The planes were also so noisy that to keep the Germans from hearing them, they would climb up to a certain height, coast down, drop their bombs, restart their engines mid-air and get away before they got hit.

Their leader flew over 200 missions and was never captured. The Germans called them “Night Witches” because you couldn’t hear them. They basically appeared out of the night as if they were flying on brooms and dropping bombs.

800px-Mariya_Dolina-300x199.jpgWikimedia Mariya Dolina, leader of the Night Witches.


26. My revenge

The Lioness of Brittany, Jeanne de Clisson. My favorite woman in all of history.

She was a noblewoman and her husband was executed on charges of treason. She was furious. She sold off all his lands and estates, everything, and used the money to buy three ships that she had painted black and used red sails. They became known as The Black Fleet and they struck fear and terror into the hearts of many Frenchmen as she sailed around taking her vengeance.

She would kill everyone but one or two dudes that she left alive just to tell the story and help spread the fear, she was basically the origin of a lot of pirate fiction. People were terrified of her. She even put coastal towns and fortresses to the sword and torch.​

France screwed her, so she screwed France back. She teamed up with the Brits to secure their supremacy over the English Channel and all that good stuff. She wasn't in it for profit, duty, or anything else, she was just there to screw France in any way she possibly could. Her flagship that she captained herself was called My Revenge.

The most amazing part is she terrorized France until she was 50 or 60 years old and her ship was finally sunk, but still she survived. I guess she figured she'd terrorized them hard and long enough and was getting too old for this stuff, so she retired and married an English noble, living the rest of her days with him.

Exe%CC%81cution_dOlivier_IV_de_Clisson_1343-300x285.jpgWikimedia The execution of Jeanne's husband Olivier, which sparked her revenge rampage.

25. "I will die a hero"

Mala Zimetbaum was a Jewish Polish/Belgian woman who got deported to Auschwitz in September of 1942. She was fluent in multiple languages like Polish, German, French, Dutch, and English so the SS assigned her to "administrative duties" within the camps and she worked as a interpreter/messenger for them. This work allowed her to get slightly better treatment -- as in more food/decent clothing and less nightmarish living conditions in the camps. The SS trusted her and needed her so they let her survive there for two years.

Many survivors talk about how she always tried t0 help as much as she could and never used her privileges against people. She snuck food/letters in the camps, would falsify the list of people sent to be gassed in order to save as many lives as possible and tried to save women from very harsh work.

In 1944, with her lover, another inmate who worked occasionally in the women's camp, she managed to escape for about 2 weeks before getting caught by the SS. She was very close to the Slovakian border and almost escaped. Instead she was brought back to the camp, mistreated for weeks and sentenced to public hanging.​

All Jewish women were forced to watch her execution. Before her hanging, the commandant started a speech about how escaping is useless. But while he was talking, Mala took a razor blade from her hair and opened her veins. The commander grabbed her arm and she slapped him in the face.

Her last words differ from version to version but she apparently screamed "I will die a hero while you will die like a pig" before the guards started beating her and the commandant ordered them to bring her alive to the crematorium.​ Fortunately, it seems she died before they got her there.

She is mentioned in almost all female survivor testimonies.

419px-Mala_Zimetbaum_1918-1944-210x300.jpgWikimedia Mala Zimetbaum.

24. Take you to school

Fatima bint Muhammad Al-Fihriya Al-Qurashiya (phew, long name).

Founder of the oldest university still in operation. After her dad and her husband ate dirt, instead of sitting around and basking in her enormous wealth, she decided to start the world's first degree-granting university.

It's been running since 800CE.


23. The duelling singer

Julie D'Aubigny had a fascinating life. She was, improbably, both an opera singer and swordswoman.

The daughter of a royal secretary, she was married at 14 to a slightly richer royal administrator, who moved to the south of France for work after their wedding. It was assumed Julie would follow, but instead she ran off and had an affair with a duelist named Sérannes. She gave up the comfortable life of a wealthy lady in order to study fencing with a man who soon thereafter would be sought by police for killing someone in a duel. For anyone else this would have been a disastrous choice. For Julie, it worked.

She proved herself to be an exceptionally skilled fencer, surpassing the talents of even her lover. They made a living touring France as exhibition fencers, often staging mock duels with members of the audience. If I'm remembering correctly, an onlooker once allegedly accused Julie of being a man at one stop, saying that no one of her skill could possibly be a woman. In response, she ripped off her shirt to show he was very much wrong. On the side, Julie also used her natural singing talent make some extra money performing in taverns.

Julie actually turned out to be such a good singer that she made a career out of it in Paris, after breaking up with Sérannes. She was able to impress several retired performers, who in turn provided her with training to refine her considerable skills, and eventually helped her to enter the prestigious Paris Opera. On stage Julie proved herself to be every bit as good of an actor as she was a singer, and she quickly rose to a staring role.

You might think that her androgyny, violent temper, and open bisexuality would anger the fairly conservative French public, but she was actually a massive crowd favorite. Her skill and popularity made Julie wealthy, providing a comfortable lifestyle. At this point, she could have relaxed and lived a simple life of leisure... But this is Julie d'Aubigny we're talking about though, so of course she didn't.

Once she rose fully to fame, Julie remained just as volatile as ever. When a male co-star was harassing female singers, Julie challenged him to a duel. He wisely decided to decline, but that didn't stop Julie from beating the crap out of him with her cane anyways.

Later, Julie attended a royal ball dressed as a man, and majorly angered the eager bachelors by charming the crap out of the single women there and pulling them away to dance. Things came to a head when she kissed one of these women, leading three noblemen to challenge her to a duel. They lost.

As it turns out, though, thoroughly embarrassing the French nobility at their own party was the final straw, and Julie was forced to flee to Brussels. Far from laying low however, Julie continued performing as an opera singer, and started up yet another affair, this time with a Bavarian prince. Their relationship soured quickly, likely in no small part because Julie made the decision to stab herself with an actual dagger when performing on stage.

Trying to get out of the relationship, the prince offered her a considerable sum of money to break things off quietly. Finally accepting gender norms, Julie quietly accepted this payment and allowed their affair to come to a close amicably, despite her wishes to the contrary.

Just kidding, she threw the bribe back in his face and, by some accounts, kicked the prince down a flight of stairs.

She later returned to France and went into a convent after the death of one of her female lovers left her disconsolate, and that was where she died.

Despite only making it to 33 (or 37, her birthday is disputed), Julie d'Aubigny lived a life studded with more adventure and excitement than most people could experience over several lifetimes.

Beardsley_de_Maupin_BW-183x300.pngWikimedia Julie D'Aubigny.

22. Just put her on the 20 already!

Harriet Tubman. People know who she is, but it's easy to forget just how extraordinary her life was.

She suffered from a traumatic brain injury for her entire life, but she still escaped from slavery and then went on to return to the South thirteen times to help others escape, risking her own freedom in the process. Her fuccboi husband left her for another woman while all this was going on, but she didn't let that slow her down. Once war broke out, she acted as a spy for the Union, and after the civil war she campaigned for women's suffrage.

Harriet_Tubman_c1868-69_cropped-242x300.jpgWikimedia A young Harriet Tubman.

21. High flyer

Bessie Coleman.

Saved up money from being a manicurist and chili slinger try to go to aviation school. Was denied for being female and black, and eventually was financially backed to travel to France to earn her aviator's license, which she did in 1921. She came back to the US as the first woman of black and Native American descent to earn an aviation license and the first person of black and NA descent to earn an international aviation license.

To make a living as a civilian aviator, she became a barnstormer and exhibition aviator. She died five years later when the plane she was flying went into a spin and she was thrown out at 2,000 feet.

39207181535_b5d788a4c5_o-300x201.jpgIIP Photo Archive/Flickr Bessie Coleman.


20. She bought a tank

Mariya Oktyabrskaya. After her husband was killed by Germans during WWII, she bought herself a tank, wrote to Stalin asking permission to go to the front lines, and on her first maneuver killed 30 Germans.

She wrote to her sister: "I’ve had my baptism by fire. I beat the [bleeps]. Sometimes I’m so angry I can’t even breathe.”

Maria_Oktyabrskaya_photo.jpgWikimedia Mariya Oktyabrskaya

19. The undisputed champion of the world

Khutulun. Born in 1260 as the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan, Khutulun was Mongolian royalty best known for her independent spirit and incredible wrestling abilities, which were recorded in history by Marco Polo.

As her father taught her the inner workings of the military and encouraged her political ambitions, he also desired that his daughter should have a husband who truly deserved her. So, not particularly wanting to be married off, Khutulun set forth a challenge: she would marry any man who could beat her in a wrestling match, but any man who she beat would have to give her a horse.

She wound up with 10,000 horses.

Qutulun_daughter_of_Qaidu.jpeg-300x186.jpegWikimedia A medieval rendering of Qutulun, though likely not terribly lifelike.

18. That stings

The Wasps. They were a group of women who flew aircrafts for the U.S. during WWII. Their duties were always aviation-based, but they did pretty much anything in that field that the military wanted at any time.

They were all well-trained pilots but were still not allowed to be considered part of the military when it came to benefits. This meant that they got hand-me-down uniforms from male personnel and weren't treated with the same respect. Even better yet, men had to learn to fly one or two specific aricrafts, while these women learned how to fly almost all the different types at the time, and use every one had different instrument panels and such. (This was because they often ferried aircraft from place to place.)

Only in 1977 did the women who served win consideration as veterans and receive veteran honors. I highly recommend reading about them.

160302-O-ZZ999-111-300x208.jpegDepartment of Defence Women Airforce Service pilots Frances Green, Margaret "Peg" Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn, leave their B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft, "Pistol Packin' Mama," during ferry training at Lockbourne Army Airfield, Ohio, 1944.

17. And the Emmy goes to...

It's a shame that Emmy Noether hasn't been mentioned yet. Noether's Theorem is one of the most important and fundamentally beautiful results from the 20th century in math/theoretical physics, and that's just one of the many impressive things she accomplished. Yet seemingly nobody outside of those who studied those fields in college has heard of her.

It basically says that any symmetry in the laws of nature corresponds to a quantity conserved by those laws.

For instance because the laws are symmetric under time, energy is conserved. Because they are rotationally symmetric, angular momentum is conserved. And so on.

The perspective of studying physical systems by their symmetries has only grown more important in physics. It's fundamental to gauge theory, which is used to describe electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force.

Noether_petite_image-225x300.pngWikimedia Emmy Noether.

16. The first queen of the Nile

Pharaoh Hatshepsut -- the first female ruler of ancient Egypt and the first great woman in all of written history.

This woman was my hero when I was going through my elementary school Ancient Egypt phase. I went to the Met with my godparents to see a special exhibit about her and asked them why all of her busts had the noses torn off of them. While it is really common for noses to come off of ancient busts by accident, hers had apparently all been defaced by her nephew who was angry at her for being ruler.

Not only that, Egyptians who worked on the pyramids literally made explicit drawings of Hatshepsut with her lover. Considering that these were carved in, it means it wasn't sanctioned and was done by disgruntled Egyptians.

Considering the Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt was literally considered a God and Horus reborn, the old school Egyptians back in the day must have been absolutely furious at being led by a woman. She had more enemies than friends, it seems.

Hatshepsut-247x300.jpgPostdlf/Wikimedia A bust of Pharaoh Hatshepsut.

15. Alas, many greats are never recognized in their lifetimes

Edith Wharton.

She may finally be getting her due, entering the canon a great American writer, but most people don't know about how she led her life. She was born Edith Jones, and to an old New York family so rich and established they are literally the ones referred to in "keeping up with the Joneses." Her life was obviously not one of financial poverty, but emotional.

Her mother decided she was too ugly to make a good match, so they married her off to a much older man who was, literally, insane. He was abusive and she did something almost totally unheard of in her circles: she got a divorce. This expelled her from polite society and what little sympathy she might have had from her old connections was lost when she did something just as unacceptable -- she decided to pursue a profession as a writer.

Eventually, she could not bear the shunning in the US and became an expat living in Paris where she felt she could start again. During her lifetime, she was never considered to be a writer of equal intellectual status to her male contemporaries, such as Henry James, however, she made a good living and lived by herself by her own rules.

The tragedy of her life really was not her expulsion from "society" but that she never was able to find love, and it was what she wanted more than anything. I think she felt she had too many things against her -- a professional, tainted by divorce, and just too ugly (as her mother had reminded her many times).

All you need to do is read her books and see both how much she longed for romantic love, and that she cannot bear to see even her characters have what she was denied. She shared a lover with Henry James, actually, Morton Fullerton, and people think of him as Wharton's great love. She was very devoted, but the feelings weren't really mutual.

Wharton's big lucky break in life was that she had a father who loved her, and he valued her intellect and allowed her to, rather secretly, educate herself in his library and develop her mind in ways that were unacceptable for women at the time.

Edith_Wharton_by_Edward_Harrison_May-194x300.jpgWikimedia Edith Wharton.


14. The great one

A 33-year-old German woman stages a coup against her own husband 6 months into his reign, he's "mysteriously" assassinated by his own guards like a week later, and she declares herself Empress regnant of Russia. Ends up ruling for another 34 years as an enlightened despot and brings about a massive golden age for the country.

Catherine the Great really was like a Game of Thrones character come to life.

508px-Empress_Catherine_The_Great_circa_1770_D.G._Levitsky-254x300.jpegWikimedia Catherine the Great.

13. The other midnight rider

Sybil Ludington. Homegirl rode twice the distance of Paul Revere to warn nearby towns of the British attack. She was 16 years old.

800px-File-Sybil_Ludington_statue_close_up_Offner_museum-300x225.jpegWikimedia A statue of Sybil Ludington.

12. Resistance is not futile

Sophie Scholl. She was a member/co-founder of the White Rose who were a resistance group against the Third Reich within Germany. She and her brother were students who risked their lives distributing pamphlets at the University of Munich explicitly condemning Hitler's policy and his party in general. They were caught. She was told she would be spared the death penalty if she denounced her previous beliefs and statements. She refused. She and her brother, along with other members of White Rose, were executed in 1943.

Sophie_Scholl-184x300.jpgWikimedia Sophie Scholl, circa 1942.

11. Wakey wakey

By 1943, Nancy Wake was the Gestapo's most wanted person with a 5-million-franc price on her head.

Wake was parachuted into the Auvergne in France, becoming a liaison between London and the local maquis group headed by Captain Henri Tardivat in the Forest of Tronçais. Upon discovering her tangled in a tree, Captain Tardivat greeted her remarking, "I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year", to which she replied, "Don't give me that French s***."

Wake described her tactics: "A little powder and a little drink on the way, and I'd pass their (German) posts and wink and say, 'Do you want to search me?'"

At one point Wake discovered that her men were protecting a girl who was a German spy. They did not have the heart to kill her in cold blood, but when Wake insisted that she would do it herself, they capitulated.

Her French companions, especially Henri Tardivat, praised her fighting spirit, amply demonstrated when she killed an SS sentry with her bare hands to prevent him from raising the alarm during a raid. During a 1990s television interview, when asked what had happened to the sentry who spotted her, Wake simply drew her finger across her throat.

Wake rode a bicycle for more than 300 kilometres (190 mi) through several German checkpoints to get to another group's wireless operator and send an important message to London. Unfortunately she could not convince the operator that she was with the SOE so she finally searched out the local maquis who did send her message. Wake then had to ride the bike back to where she started. Oh, by the way, she did all this in 72 hours.

Nancy_Wake_1945-197x300.jpgWikimedia Nancy Wake, 1945.

10. Thanks, Cyril

Hypatia, the earliest female mathematician who we know much about, and also a philosopher and astronomer. She was killed by a Christian mob in 415 CE.

Cyril, the bishop who probably motivated the mob to kill her (in astonishingly brutal fashion) was made a saint.

Hypatia_Sanzio-242x300.pngWikimedia This woman could be Hypatia -- or at least an imagined version of her.

9. Let's just call her 'Ethel' for convenience

Ever heard of Queen Æthelflæd? No? Well, it’s a crying shame, because if there’s ever a woman who deserves a movie about her, it’s this one.

She was the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great (yes, that Alfred, the one who unified England for the first time), born around 870 at the height of the Viking invasions. In 878, the English-controlled half of Mercia (the other half was under Viking control) came under the rule of Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, who then accepted Alfred’s overlordship, allowing Alfred to claim the title King of the Anglo-Saxons. In the mid-880s, Alfred sealed the alliance by marrying Æthelflæd to Æthelred.

Æthelred played a major role in dealing with Viking attacks during the 890s, helped by his brother-in-law, the future King Edward the Elder, but his health began to decline in the 900s and he died in 911. Æthelflæd had been taking an increasingly important role in the governing of her husband’s kingdom while he was ill, and when he died she succeeded him as Lady of the Mercians.

Let’s just say that again -- in the 900s, a woman was independently ruling a kingdom of her own, in a time of war. Long before Elizabeth I was Gloriana, the Virgin Queen, there was Æthelflæd, the only female ruler in Anglo-Saxon history.

She extended the network of fortifications that her husband had built; continued to donate money to Mercian churches and contribute to the building of new churches, namely St Oswald’s in Gloucester; planned and led expeditions into the Danelaw to attack the Viking settlers; and built forts right across the north of England to provide bases and defences.

In 917, she defeated three invading Viking armies and captured Derby, one of the five boroughs of the Danelaw and the first to be captured by the English, and in 918 she took Leicester, another of the boroughs. She also had diplomatic relations with the Scots, the Strathclyde British, and potentially the Welsh.

The Danes who were ruling York at the time offered to pledge their loyalty to her in 918 -- although no-one seems quite sure whether it was to secure her support against Norse raiders from Ireland or because they were expecting an attack from her. It’s worth pointing out that there’s no evidence that such an offer was ever extended to her brother, Edward, who was king at the time.

Æthelflæd died in June 918, before she could accept the offer of loyalty from York, and was buried in Gloucester, in the minster that she and Æthelred had built.

She was succeeded by her daughter and only child, Ælfwynn (it’s reported that Æthelflæd found the birth so difficult that she refused to sleep with Æthelred ever again) but she ruled for only around six months before Edward, her uncle and the king, removed her from power in December and took Mercia under his own control.

During the medieval period, people loved Æthelflæd. The Annals of Ulster completely ignore the deaths of Alfred and Edward, but called her ‘renowned Saxon queen’. Now, though, she’s all but forgotten except by historians, although there are statues to her in a couple of the towns which she originally fortified.

Elspeth Cowie

%C3%86thelfl%C3%A6d_-_MS_Royal_14_B_V-300x273.jpgWikimedia Æthelflæd.


8. The pen is mightier than the sword

Ida B. Wells. This incredible woman pulled a Rosa Parks 71 years earlier by refusing to move to another train car when they ordered her to.

When black people were getting lynched, she called out those racist cowards with her journalism, saying truth like: "Nobody in this section of the community believes that old threadbare lie that Negro men take white women by force. If Southern men are not careful, a conclusion might be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women."

When women were trying to get the vote, they tried to tell her to march at the back but you can take a guess on whether or not she listened to them.

Ida_B._Wells-225x300.jpgWikimedia Ida B. Wells.

7. Won't back down

Ryu Gwansun. A Korean resistance leader during the Japanese occupation, her parents were killed by Japanese soldiers at a protest. She organized protests of her and carried a smuggled copy of the Declaration of Independence. She refused to give up the names of her collaborators, even though she'd been beaten horribly. She died in a pit at the age of 17.​

She needs a biographical movie ASAP.

Yu_Gwan-sun-168x300.jpegWikimedia Ryu Gwansun.

6. Consolation prize

Lise Meitner. She was unjustly denied the Nobel Prize (which was awarded solely to her colleague Otto Hahn) for discovering nuclear fission.

On the bright side, her whole situation has been brought to light now (at least in the scientific community) and she has even had an element named after her, which is arguably an even higher honor than a Nobel Prize.

The scientific community has gotten better at going back and belatedly recognizing the women that did the work that men won the big prizes for.

Lise_Meitner12-192x300.jpgWikimedia. Lise Meitner.

5. The worst times bring out the best people

Irena Sendler.

She smuggled dozens of babies out of the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw, Poland. She would write down their names and keep them in a jar, then using her job as a Social Worker would make them fake papers and place the children in orphanages, willing Polish families, convents, and just about anywhere else where they would be safe.

She was eventually caught by the Gestapo and withstood horrific abuse to keep the names and locations of those children safe. She was sentenced to death but luckily managed to escape thanks to some last-minute bribery. During the end of the war she worked as a nurse under a different name, and was even shot at one point by a German-deserter looking for food.

When the war ended she became the head of the department of Social Welfare in Warsaw, and set about trying to reunite all the children she had saved with their parents. Those which she couldn't reunite with their parents she smuggled to Israel so they could at least be safe out of Poland.

After that, she continued to have a few high state positions, as well as be deputy director of two medical schools in Warsaw.

She died in 2008.

Irena_Sendlerowa_1942-236x300.jpgWikimedia Irena Sendler.

4. Maybe the first professional writer ever, in fact

Christine de Pizan. She was French courtier in the 14th and early 15th century. She was the daughter of a Humanist, who taught her how to read and write. After the death of her husband, she wrote to support herself and her children.

Her writing was resolutely prolific. She wrote several books of poetry and ballads, but also of philosophy, politics and ethics. One of her most famous books, La Cité des Dames (The City of Ladies) and Le Livre des Trois Vertus (The Book of the Three Virtues) are, respectively, a book defending women's rights as equal and valuable members of society, and their right to education in particular, and a manual for the instruction and education of women of all classes.

She is widely considered to be the first woman to have lived off of her writing in the French language; she was a feminist in the 1300s; she was a widely respected intellectual in an era where that was not something women were allowed to do. Honestly, it's a tragedy she's not more well-known.

Christine_de_Pisan_-_cathedra-279x300.jpgWikimedia. Christine de Pisan.

3. The accidental savior

This woman has likely saved your life.

She was not a world leader. She wasn’t an iconic singer or scientist or diplomat. However, she has saved more lives than anyone else in history. Her name is Henrietta Lacks.

Henrietta was born with the name Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, Virginia in August 1920. How she acquired the name Henrietta is not known. Lacks was born into a family that did not have a lot of money. In 1924, her family gave her to her grandfather Tommy Lacks who raised her in a two-story log cabin that was once the slave quarters on the plantation that had been owned by Henrietta's white great-grandfather and great-uncle. She shared a room with her nine-year-old cousin and future husband, David Lacks. In 1935, when Henrietta was 14 years old, she gave birth to a son and in 1939, her daughter Elsie Lacks was born. Both children were fathered by David Lacks.

When Henrietta was 30 she was pregnant again but this time around after giving birth, she started hemorrhaging blood profusely. Seeing no other cure, she visited Johns Hopkins hospital - the only hospital in the area that would treat black patients — who diagnosed her with cervical cancer. Her doctor took a piece of her tumor without telling her and sent it down the hall to scientists there who had been trying to grow tissues in culture for decades without success. No one knows why, but her cells never died.

Medical researchers use laboratory-grown human cells to learn the intricacies of how cells work and test theories about the causes and treatment of diseases. The cell lines they need are “immortal” — they can grow indefinitely, be frozen for decades, divided into different batches and shared among scientists.

Henrietta’s cells (called HeLa cells) were the first human immortal cell lines grown in culture and they quickly became invaluable to medical research. They were essential to developing the polio vaccine. They went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to cells in zero gravity. Many scientific landmarks since then have used her cells, including cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization.

Henrietta, however, would die soon after due to the cervical cancer which had metastasized throughout her body. For decades, her family would not know of her contribution to medical research. In 2010, an author, Rebecca Skloot, who was writing a book on the origins of the HeLa cells, would finally reveal this to her family. In 2017, a film starring Oprah Winfrey would be made on Henrietta’s life.

%E0%A6%B8%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%AC%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%AE%E0%A7%80_%E0%A6%A1%E0%A7%87%E0%A6%AD%E0%A6%BF%E0%A6%A1_%E0%A6%B2%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%AF%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%95%E0%A6%B8%E0%A7%87%E0%A6%B0_%E0%A6%B8%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%A5%E0%A7%87_%E0%A6%B9%E0%A7%87%E0%A6%A8%E0%A6%B0%E0%A6%BF%E0%A6%AF%E0%A6%BC%E0%A7%87%E0%A6%9F%E0%A6%BE_%E0%A6%B2%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%AF%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%95%E0%A6%B8.jpgWikimedia Henrietta Lacks.

2. Moonlight becomes you

Margaret "the human calculator" Hamilton. She led the MIT team assigned to develop code for Apollo 11's on-board flight software. She was so brilliant and so accurate, that she was asked to check the math performed by MIT’s computers. This, by itself, is remarkable. It gets better, of course: while preparing for the Apollo 11 flight, Hamilton urged her (male) superiors that the mission required additional back-up code, to act as a fail-safe in case something went wrong. She was criticized and ordered to do no such thing, because the astronauts "were trained never to make a mistake."

Defying orders, Hamilton programmed the code anyway.

And wouldn't you know it? Minutes before Apollo 11 landed on the surface of the moon, something did go wrong. An alarm was triggered and the moon landing was in peril. It was Hamilton's code that saved the mission. Without her, we likely would not have landed on the moon.

Margaret_Hamilton_in_action-300x233.jpgWikimedia Margaret Hamilton, hard at work.

1. Children of thalidomide

Frances Kelsey.

She was doctor who prevented the U.S. from selling a drug called thalidomide. Pregnant women in Germany took it to ease morning sickness because they thought that it wouldn’t affect their unborn child. But after many tests conducted by Frances and a bunch of deformed children from the pregnant women who took thalidomide, Frances was able to convince the U.S. not to allow the sale the drug.

She is truly the best.

President_Kennedy__Frances_O._Kelsey_FDA_172_8212346106-300x201.jpgWikimedia Dr. Kelsey meeting with President John F. Kennedy.