Women’s History Month: Female Natural Scientists and Their Impacts Throughout History

Science has been exclusionary to women for a long time, but these women pushed past the extra challenges and made amazing impacts on the many fields of natural science.

Queen Hatshepsut (1479– 1458 BC)

One of only two known female monarchs of Eqypt, Queen Hatshepsut was an early botanist who made the first recorded expedition for live, foreign plants!1 To try and establish Egypt’s own supply of frankincense and myrrh for resin making, she ordered an expedition to bring back live trees.2 Her journey was successful and she planted these trees on her temple grounds, creating one of the first-ever botanical gardens!2 Her interest in plants may have inspired other Pharaohs to import live plants for resources and botanical gardens.2

Head from a statue representing Queen Hatshepsut.3 

Painting from Hatshepsut’s temple showing men carrying trees to a ship.4

Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179)

Hildegard of Bingen was a true renaissance woman: a nun, saint, founder of a convent, creator of her own language, and a medical genius of her time.5 Hildgard authored many books during her life, including a collection of 9 informational texts titled Physica, which outlined almost 1,000 plant and animal species.6 Along with a plethora of behavioral, physical, and geographical characteristics of these species, she also details their medicinal properties, especially focused on women’s health.6 This amazing woman is often considered the founder of scientific natural history in Germany!6

Stained glass depiction of Hildegard of Bingen in the St. Foy Church in France.7
An English translation of Hildegard of Bingen’s Physica.8

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647- 1717)

Maria Sibylla Merian was a German entomologist and naturalist who cataloged moths, butterflies, and other insects in her scientific illustrations.9 She was inspired by other scientists at the time and their dried specimens but felt it would be more valuable to study them live and in their natural habitats.9 So, she began to collect and raise insects for observation.9 Using the knowledge she collected, Maria published many illustrated books on both insects and plants!9

A page from one of Maria Sibylla Merian’s books, “Dissertation in Insect Genesis and Metamorphosis in Surinam”.9
Another illustrated page from “Dissertation in Insect Genesis and Metamorphosis in Surinam”.9

Mary Anning (1799 –1847)

Women in sciences have often been ignored and uncredited for their works, and Mary Anning is no exception. As a child, she taught herself geology and anatomy by reading, a skill that was rare for women a the time.10 Around 1811, she discovered the very first Ichthyosaur fossil, and in 1823, she discovered the first complete Plesiosaurus fossil!10 Throughout her scientific career, she made many more amazing fossil discoveries and pioneered the field of studying fossilized feces- coprolites.10 Unfortunately, her work at the time was met with a lot of criticism and much of her work was not credited until very recently.10

Portrait of Mary Anning by an unknown artist.10
Sketch from Mary Anning’s discovery of the first plesiosaur.10

Beatrix Potter (1866-1943)

Although she is best known for her work as a children’s author and illustrator, with books such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter was also a naturalist and mycologist!11 She studied and documented fungi species, even posing theories about spore germination.11 Throughout her lifetime, Beatrix Potter produced over 350 fungi and spore drawings.11 

An illustration from Beatrix Potter of Flammulina velutipes.11

Janaki Ammal (1897- 1984)

Janaki Ammal was India’s first female botanist as well as a cytologist, environmentalist, and conservation activist.12 She specialized in creating hybrid plants, especially focused on sugarcane hybrids.12 In fact, her sugarcane hybrids are still used today!12 She also made significant contributions to the study of chromosomes in plants.12 Later in her career, Ammal documented and obtained specimens of native plants across India and prioritized the preservation of Indigenous knowledge and hiring Indian botanists.12 Her activism spearheaded movements across India that protected land, biodiversity, and culture.12

A picture of Janaki Ammal from 1938.13

Rachel Carson (1907 -1964)

Marine biologist, environmentalist, and conservationist, Rachel Carson is often considered the “mother of the modern American environmentalist movement”.14 Carson authored Silent Spring, a book documenting the negative effects of excessive pesticide use and urging changes in the way we look at the world.14 Her documentation of the long-term changes in wildlife helped show people that we need to examine things as a whole and look at the effects of our actions.14

Picture of Rachel Carson.14

Wangarĩ Maathai (1940- 2011)

2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangarĩ Maathai, was an incredible activist and biologist.15 The first woman in East and Central Africa to earn her doctorate, Maathai used her intensive biological knowledge to found The Green Belt Movement, a campaign designed to improve the lives of women in Kenya while simultaneously helping the environment by planting trees.15 This movement helped to plant over 20 million trees and inspired similar movements across Africa.15 Her other work included being active in the National Council of Women of Kenya, and she was even the chairman of the council for 6 years.15

Photo of Wangarĩ Maathai.15


  1. Janick, Jules. “Plant Exploration: From Queen Hatshepsut to Sir Joseph Banks.” HortScience, vol. 42, no. 2, Apr. 2007, pp. 191–196, https://doi.org/10.21273/hortsci.42.2.191.
  2. Trust, The Gardens. “Hatshepsut and Thutmosis.” The Gardens Trust, 1 Feb. 2020, thegardenstrust.blog/2020/02/01/hatshepsut-and-thutmosis/.
  3. Metmuseum.org, 2021, www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/547553.
  4. “The King Herself.” Magazine, 1 Apr. 2009, www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/article/hatshepsut-1?loggedin=true&rnd=1677853292183. Accessed 3 Mar. 2023.
  5. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Saint Hildegard | Biography, Visions, Works, & Facts.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Hildegard.
  6. Maddocks, Fiona. Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age. Faber & Faber, 2 July 2013. Pages 146-155.
  7. Mark, Joshua. “Hildegard of Bingen.” World History Encyclopedia, 30 May 2019, www.worldhistory.org/Hildegard_of_Bingen/.
  8. https://bookshop.org/p/books/hildegard-von-bingen-s-physica-the-complete-english-translation-of-her-classic-work-on-health-and-healing-priscilla-throop/9088309?ean=9780892816613
  9. “Maria Sibylla Merian | Artist Profile.” NMWA, nmwa.org/art/artists/maria-sibylla-merian/.
  10.  Eylott, Marie-Claire. “Mary Anning: The Unsung Hero of Fossil Discovery.” Nhm.ac.uk, 2018, www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/mary-anning-unsung-hero.html.
  11. “Beatrix Potter (1866–1943).” The Linnean Society, www.linnean.org/the-society/history-of-science/beatrix-potter-the-tale-of-the-linnean-society.
  12.  McNeill, Leila. “The Pioneering Female Botanist Who Sweetened a Nation and Saved a Valley.” Smithsonian Magazine, 31 July 2019, www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/pioneering-female-botanist-who-sweetened-nation-and-saved-valley-180972765/.
  13.  “Dr. Janaki Ammal India’s First Female Botanist, Helped Preserve Biodiversity.” AWIS, 6 May 2021, awis.org/historical-women/dr-janaki-ammal/.
  14.  “Remembering Rachel Carson, Environmental Pioneer | the Franklin Institute.” Www.fi.edu, www.fi.edu/en/blog/remembering-rachel-carson-environmental-pioneer. Accessed 3 Mar. 2023.
  15.  The Nobel Prize. “The Nobel Peace Prize 2004.” NobelPrize.org, 2011, www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2004/maathai/biographical/.
  16. Cstraight Media – http://www.cstraight.com. “Wangari Maathai | the Green Belt Movement.” Greenbeltmovement.org, 2011, www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai.

Sources used to compile list:

“Inspiring Female Naturalists and Environmentalists through History.” Discover Wildlife, www.discoverwildlife.com/people/female-naturalists-and-environmentalists/. Accessed 3 Mar. 2023.

“Meet 13 Women Making Waves in Conservation | Stories | WWF.” World Wildlife Fund, www.worldwildlife.org/stories/meet-13-women-making-waves-in-conservation. Accessed 3 Mar. 2023.

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