ALD23: Clara Immerwahr, Chemist

Clara Immerwahr

Clara Helene Immerwahr was a German chemist and the first woman to be awarded a doctorate in chemistry from a German university.

Born into a Jewish family on 21 June 1870 in eastern Prussia – now part of Poland – Immerwahr initially trained as a teacher, one of few higher educational paths open to German women at the time. However, she was determined to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a chemist. She embarked on gruelling private lessons and exams to gain entry to the University of Breslau to study chemistry, where she was required to attend lectures as a guest, female university students technically being barred under Prussian law.

At university, Immerwahr became fascinated by the rapidly developing field of physical chemistry. After completing undergraduate studies, she became the first woman to undertake a PhD at the University of Breslau, receiving her doctorate in chemistry magna cum laude in 1900. She reached this milestone after eight semesters of study, two more than was required for male doctoral candidates.

Immerwahr’s research focused on solution chemistry – a central focus of chemists at the turn of the 20th century – examining issues such as solubility, ion concentration and electrochemical potential. She conducted experiments involving cadmium, copper, lead, mercury and zinc and published three papers, as well an erratum and a supplement. Her investigations didn’t break new ground in chemistry, but her presence as a female scientist in a laboratory did. When Immerwahr defended her PhD thesis on the solubility of heavy metal salts in the university’s main hall in central Breslau, many young women came to watch, intrigued by the city’s “first female doctor”.

Not long after receiving her doctorate, Immerwahr married the German chemist Fritz Haber. The rigid gender norms and societal conventions of early 20th century Prussia meant this effectively marked the end of Immerwahr’s own scientific research career, although she did try to maintain her connection to science, including by delivering public presentations on the role of chemistry and physics in the household. She is also believed to have contributed to Haber’s work, albeit with scant public recognition, including by translating some of his papers into English.

The curbing of Immerwahr’s career, along with the start of World War I and the tragic accidental deaths of two close friends (including her PhD supervisor and academic mentor), are believed to have contributed to her increasing unhappiness. She died by suicide on 2 May 1915, aged 44. The same night, her husband – sometimes referred to as the “father of chemical warfare”, due to the instrumental role he played in developing poison gases for use on the battlefield – had been at a party, celebrating the “success” of the German army’s first chlorine cloud attack against Allied troops.

There has been much debate about Immerwahr’s political beliefs, and whether her death was linked to her discomfort with her husband’s role in the German war effort. What is clear is that she was a determined and ambitious scientist whose career was curtailed by the limitations placed on women’s lives at the time. Her husband would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918.

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.

ALD23: Professor Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Virologist

Professor Françoise Barré-Sinoussi

Françoise Barré-Sinousi is a French virologist who, alongside colleagues at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, discovered the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in 1983. Now Emeritus Professor at the Institut Pasteur, Barré-Sinousi has dedicated her career as a scientist and activist to helping stop the spread of AIDS.

Barré-Sinoussi grew up in Paris, where she was born in 1947. As a biomedical science student at the University of Paris, she began volunteering in Jean-Claude Chermann’s lab at the Institut Pasteur. She later returned to this lab after earning her PhD, where she researched the link between retroviruses and cancer.

In 1982, Barré-Sinoussi’s unit at the Institut Pasteur received a call from a French clinician. A mysterious and devastating new illness was driving people, predominantly gay men, into Paris hospitals. The clinician wanted to know whether a retrovirus could be behind this unknown disease. By the following year, the 35-year-old Barré-Sinoussi had detected enzyme activity that suggested – for the first time – that AIDS symptoms may be caused by a virus.

Working with Chermann, Luc Montagnier and others, Barré-Sinoussi isolated and grew a retrovirus from a biopsied swollen lymph node of a patient at risk for AIDS. This would later be named the human immunodeficiency virus. The team’s findings were confirmed in 1984, a step that allowed blood tests to be administered to diagnose and help control the spread of HIV. Their discovery also laid the groundwork for antiretroviral medications, which transformed AIDS from a death sentence into a chronic but manageable disease.

In the mid-1980s, Barré-Sinoussi travelled to Africa to see how AIDS was affecting patients across the continent. Her experiences there motivated her to work extensively in Africa and southeast Asia throughout her career, contributing to AIDS education and helping establish test and treatment centres. She co-founded the International AIDS Society (IAS) in 1988, setting up her own lab at the Institut Pasteur the same year. She has described herself as an activist as well as a scientist, saying: “There has been enormous scientific progress – and yet people are still dying of AIDS. How can I accept this? I cannot. It’s a matter of equality. Everybody has a right to live.”

In 2008, 25 years after they identified the cause of AIDS, Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. “Never before has science and medicine been so quick to discover, identify the origin and provide treatment for a new disease entity,” read the award’s announcement.

Barré-Sinoussi authored and co-authored 270 original publications over her career, furthering understanding in areas including mother-to-child HIV transmission and the adaptive immune response to viral infection. French mandatory retirement laws forced her to cease active research when she turned 68 in 2015, but she remains a tireless advocate for people with AIDS, holding senior positions in organisations including the Institut Pasteur and Inserm (the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research).

Barré-Sinoussi’s research and activism has enabled life-saving scientific advancements and shaped policy on the treatment of people living with HIV. But when reflecting on her individual contribution to the fight against AIDS, she is pragmatic. “We are all in it together, and we each make up a tiny piece of the puzzle,” she has said. “That’s all I am: a piece of the puzzle.”

She has received more than 10 major awards in addition to her Nobel Prize, and is a Grand Officer in France’s National Order of the Legion of Honour.

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.

ALD23 Books: Preventable: How a Pandemic Changed the World & How to Stop the Next One, Devi Sridhar

Preventable: How a Pandemic Changed the World & How to Stop the Next One, Devi Sridhar

Professor Devi Sridhar has risen to prominence for her vital roles in communicating science to the public and speaking truth to power. In Preventable she highlights lessons learned from outbreaks past and present in a narrative that traces the COVID-19 pandemic – including her personal experience as a scientist – and details a vision for how we can better protect ourselves from the inevitable health crises yet to come.

In gripping and heartfelt prose, Sridhar exposes the varied realities of those affected and puts you in the room with key decision-makers at crucial moments. She vibrantly conveys the twists and turns of a plot that saw deadlier variants emerge (contrary to the predictions of social-media pundits who argued it would mutate to a milder form), countries with weak health systems like Senegal and Vietnam fare better than countries like the US and the UK (which were consistently ranked as the most prepared), and the quickest development of game-changing vaccines in history (and their unfair distribution).

Combining science, politics, ethics and economics, this definitive book dissects the global structures that determine our fates, and reveals the deep-seated economic and social inequalities at their heart. It will challenge, outrage and inspire.

Order the book on

About the Author

Devi Sridhar is an American public health researcher who is also a Professor at the University of Edinburgh, where she holds a Personal Chair in Global Public Health. She is Founding Director of the University of Edinburgh’s Global Health Governance Programme and holds a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award.

The recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship, Devi holds an MPhil and a DPhil from Oxford University as well as a B.S. from the University of Miami’s Honors Medical Program. She was previously a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford University, and an Associate Professor in Global Health Politics and Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford University. Following the West African Ebola virus epidemic, she worked with the Harvard Global Health Institute and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine to assess international responses to the outbreak and use this information to inform preparations for future pandemics.

Devi is the author of two previous books: Governing Global Health: Who Runs the World and Why? (OUP, 2017) and The Battle Against Hunger: Choice, Circumstance and the World Bank (OUP, 2008). Her work has been published in Nature, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet and The British Medical Journal.

You can follow Devi Sridhar’s work here:

Twitter: @devisridhar
Instagram: @profdevisridhar

With thanks to Synergy for their support.

ALD23: Professor Patrizia A Caraveo, Astrophysicist

Professor Patrizia A Caraveo

Professor Patrizia A Caraveo is an astrophysicist and Director of Research at the Istituto di Astrofisica Spaziale e Fisica Cosmica (IASFC, the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics). Her research played a key role in the discovery and understanding of Geminga, a neutron star in the constellation Gemini, through multiwavelength astronomy. She has also worked on several international space missions, including Cos-B, INTEGRAL and NASA Swift.

Caraveo graduated with a degree in physics from the University of Milan in 1977. Her first decade of research, conducted at IASFC, was devoted largely to analysing and interpreting data collected from the gamma astronomy satellite COS-B, as well as X-ray astronomy.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Caraveo identified the pulsar Geminga through multiwavelength astronomy. She conducted this work with her partner and collaborator, the Italian physicist Giovanni Bignami. While the pulsar was first spotted by gamma-ray satellites in the early 1970s, it remained a mystery for years, not having been identified in visible light. Caraveo and Bignami picked up X-rays from Geminga using the powerful Einstein Observatory satellite in 1983, and  in 1992 used data obtained by COS-B to work out that Geminga was 370,000 years old. At least one news report at the time assumed that Caraveo must be a male scientist, attributing this discovery to Bignami and “Patricio Caraveo”.

Caraveo and Bignami also co-authored research showing that Geminga had the key qualities of a neutron star, and was the closest known pulsar to the Earth. These investigations made use of a huge range of space and ground-based astronomy, pre-empting a surge in the study of unidentified X-ray sources by astrophysicists around the world.

Caraveo is currently Director of Research at IASFC, a position she has held since 2002. She is adjunct astronomy professor at the University of Pavia and has worked on several international space missions dedicated to particle physics, including the European INTEGRAL mission, the NASA Swift mission, the Italian AGILE mission and the NASA Fermi mission.

Her awards include the Bruno Rossi Prize of the American Astronomical Society (shared with colleagues in 2007, 2011 and 2012 for their work on the Swift, Fermi, and Agile projects); the Italian National Presidential Prize in 2009 for her contributions to understanding high-energy neutron stars; and the “Outstanding Achievement Award” from Women in Aerospace-Europe in 2014. She is a member of the 2003 Group for Scientific Research and 100 Women Against Stereotypes.

You can follow her work here:

Twitter: @CaraveoPatrizia

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.

ALD23: Jeanne Villepreux-Power, Marine Biologist & Inventor

Jeanne Villepreux-Power

Known as the “mother of aquariophily”, Jeanne Villepreux-Power was a French marine biologist and the inventor of the glass aquarium. At a time when women were excluded from the scientific establishment, she made revelatory discoveries about aquatic species, notably that the Argonauta octopus produces its own shells.

She was born Jeanne Villepreux in September 1794 in Juillac, Corrèze, a rural part of southern France. Legend has it that she walked all the way to Paris at the age of 18, where she eventually became a successful dressmaker and married the merchant James Power in 1818. The couple then moved to Messina in Sicily, a harbour city that would become the site of Villepreux-Power’s astonishing scientific achievements.

In Sicily, Villepreux-Power – who had no formal education but was able to read, write and sketch – could pursue her voracious interest in subjects including geology and natural history. She made careful observations and collected specimens of local flora and fauna during walks around Messina, becoming particularly fascinated with molluscs and one of their most mysterious predators: the small octopus Argonauta argo.

This cephalopod had been the subject of myth and conjecture since the time of Aristotle, who believed it may have travelled along the surface of the ocean like a boat (with its sail-like membranes propelling its shell across the water). In Villepreux-Power’s time, the prevailing theory was that the Argonauta acquired its spiral shell from a different organism, much like a hermit crab. But through groundbreaking research, she proved that the Argonauta produces its own shell.

This wasn’t a simple discovery. “As soon as [the Argonauta] perceives that it is being observed, it withdraws its membranes into its shell in the blink of an eye and flees to the bottom of the cage or the sea, reemerging to the surface only when it thinks it is safe from all danger,” Villepreux-Power wrote. And so she devised the first glass aquarium in 1832, an invention which is recognised as her greatest contribution to marine biology. Her design was a forerunner to the model still used to study marine life today and it allowed her to observe the octopus without it being aware of her presence.

After five years of studying the Argonauta, she concluded that it grew its own shell, which it could repair using its own substance and broken shell pieces. Villepreux-Power reported her results to multiple European scientific societies, and the respected biologist Sir Richard Owen presented her research to the London Zoological Society in 1939. Some male scientists cast doubt on her (correct) claims, but soon, they were published across Europe.

Villepreux-Power published two books about her experiments, as well as the first studies into Argonauta reproduction. Overall, her research laid the groundwork for later discoveries about octopus intelligence and consciousness. She was also interested in conservation and is considered a pioneer in aquaculture, today recognised as an environmentally responsible form of fish farming.

During her lifetime, Villepreux-Power became a member of more than a dozen esteemed scientific academies and institutions, an achievement almost unheard of for women at the time. Tragically, most of her scientific collections, writings and other materials were lost in a shipwreck in 1838. Evidence of her work survived, but she stopped publishing and divided her later years between Paris and London – returning to her hometown of Juilliac shortly before her death on 25 January 1871, aged 76.

In 1997, the Magellan probe discovered a new crater on Venus. It was named Villepreux-Power, after the woman whose own discoveries opened up new vistas of scientific understanding.

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.