Catholic female scientists through the centuries


The following blog post comes from a presentation I gave recently for some wonderful women across Europe in a monthly zoom meeting, called “Catholic Women in STEM”*. For some of the women presented here, you will find more information in previous blog posts – just follow the links.

Monasteries and Female Excellence in Science

First, let us go back in history for nearly 1.000 years.

Medieval monasteries allowed women to develop their talents, being free from the hardship that wives and mothers experienced at that time. And these women made their contributions in science, in art and in society. We start with contributions to science:

St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath. She is considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.

Herrad of Landsberg (1130–1195), the abbess of Hohenburg in Alsace, compiled the scientific compendium – today we may call it an encyclopedia – Hortus deliciarum. She wrote this work for the nuns of her convent, and it was designed to embody in words and in pictures the knowledge of her time. In the preface she wrote:

„Wie ein Bienchen habe ich aus den Blüten verschiedener heiliger und philosophischer Schriften dieses Buch, ‚Garten der Wonnen‘ genannt, zusammengetragen, mit der Eingebung Gottes und zur Ehre Christi und der Kirche, und zu einer honigfließenden Wabe gefügt.“

“Like a little bee, I have gathered this book, called ‘Garden of Delights,’ from the blossoms of various sacred and philosophical writings, with the inspiration of God and for the glory of Christ and the Church, and joined them into a honeycomb flowing with honey.”

It was widely assumed that monks were the primary producers of books throughout the Middle Ages. But nuns also had their part in art: In 2019, evidence was published that lapis lazuli was found in the dental plaque of a medieval nun near Dalheim, Germany. The researchers suggest that the pigments may have gotten into the woman’s mouth as she repeatedly licked her brush into a fine point in order to paint intricate detail on manuscripts – a technique referred to in contemporary artist manuals. Lapis lazuli was only mined in Afghanistan in the medieval period, and this wonderful blue color, called ultramarine, was once worth its weight in gold. The pigment was used in paintings and to decorate illustrations in books of the highest quality, only the most skilled scribes and painters would have been entrusted with its use.

Religious sisters did also participate in scientific endeavors in the 20th century.

Sr. Bernardine of Jesus (b 1875, Lucy Agnes Carter) became the first woman (and only the second person) to be awarded a PhD by the University in Glasgow, for a thesis entitled “The somatic mitosis of stegomyia fasciata”. (Stegomyia fasciata is the old name for the yellow fever mosquito Aedes aegypti).

Sr. Hilary Ross (1894 – 1982) was a member of the Daughters of Charity. She began her work at the Hospital at Carville, Louisiana, in 1923 as a pharmacist and was appointed their biochemist in 1928 until her retirement in 1960. There was no laboratory when she first arrived at Carville and she established the first one during her time there, serving as lab technician, photographer, microbiologist and supervisor. During the time when sulfones were discovered, Sister Hilary Ross undertook the project of taking pictures of patients both before and after treatment with the experimental drug.

Sr. Mary Kenneth Keller (1913 – 1985) was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in computer science in the United States. Her thesis was titled “Inductive Inference on Computer Generated Patterns”. Keller was an advocate for the involvement of women in computing and the use of computers for education.

Sr. Miriam Michael Stimson (1913 –2002) was a chemist. She was the second woman to lecture at the Sorbonne and taught at Siena Heights University. She is noted for her work on spectroscopy. She played a role in the history of understanding DNA.

Sr. Celine Fasenmyer (1906 – 1996) was a mathematician, most noted for her work on hypergeometric functions and linear algebra. The hypergeometric polynomials she studied are called Sister Celine’s polynomials. The beauty of her method is that it lends itself readily to computer automation.

Female Scientists in 18th Century Italy

The Catholic Church did favor science in the Renaissance and early modernity (up to now). [As a side-note: The “conflict story” of Galileo Galilei and the Church is just this – a story] The Catholic Church also favored female scientists in a time when this was not the case elsewhere.

In 1748, Pope Benedict XIV read “Foundations of Analysis” by the Italian mathematician (and theologian) Maria Gaetana Agnesi. “Foundations” was one of the first calculus textbooks written and the first mathematics book by a woman. Pope Benedict XIV was so impressed by Agnesi’s work that he appointed her to the faculty at the University of Bologna. And he created a circle of 25 scholars, among them two women, Laura Bassi and Maria Dalle Donne.

Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718 – 1799) remains known for the so-called “witch of Agnesi”, a cubic plane curve defined from two diametrically opposite points of a circle.

Laura Maria Caterina Bassi (1711 – 1778) was an Italian physicist. She received a doctoral degree from the University of Bologna in May 1732, only the third academic qualification ever bestowed on a woman by a European university, and the first woman to earn a professorship in physics at a university in Europe.

Maria Dalle Donne (1778 – 1842) was an Italian physician in Bologna, the first female doctor in medicine. She dedicated her life to medicine and teaching, a vocation also shared today:

“We, women physicians of today, recognize in her vocation the same vocation as ours. To us, this lady doctor of the very early 19th century appears as the forerunner of our professional life today. In her we see, once again, how the humility of her origins does not impede the ascent of those who use their talents with discipline and good will. In her, finally, we admire the complete dedication to medicine.”

Edmea Pirami at the Medical-Surgical Society of Bologna, 1964

Commitments to the scientific endeavor can take different forms.

Catholic couples working together as scientists

Presented here are Marie-Anne and Antoine Lavoisier, and Marcella and Theodor Boveri. Marie-Anne Lavoisier came to science through her husband, and Marcella Boveri found her husband through science.

Marie-Anne Lavoisier (1758-1836) was the wife of the chemist and nobleman Antoine Lavoisier and acted as his laboratory companion and contributed to his work. Antoine Lavoisier was sentenced to death in the aftermath of the French Revolution, after having returned to his faith in God. She herself was a faithful Catholic and was theologically well versed. She was instrumental in the 1789 publication of her husband’s Elementary Treatise on Chemistry, which presented a unified view of chemistry as a field. She contributed thirteen drawings that showed all the laboratory instrumentation and equipment used by the Lavoisiers in their experiments. She also kept strict records of the procedures followed, lending validity to the findings Lavoisier published.

Marcella O’Grady Boveri (1863-1950) was the first woman graduate in biology from MIT (1885). From 1889 to 1896 she headed the Department of Biology at Vassar College for women in Poughkeepsie, New York. She then went to Würzburg to spend a sabbatical with Theodor Boveri. One year later she married Boveri at the Convent of the Good Shepherd in Troy, and during the next 18 years until Boveri’s untimely death in 1915, she was her husband’s close scientific collaborator. She worked with skill and interest, but without formal recognition, on her husband’s work to understand heredity and development as going beyond the localization of the Mendelian hereditary factors onto the chromosomes. They investigated the interaction of cytoplasm and chromosomes and demonstrated its relevance in heredity and development. In 1926, she returned to the States and taught biology in the established Albertus Magnus College. She was a stimulating and influential teacher, a mentor, and a role model.

Integrating science into life

Most female scientists have no straightforward career, and need a remarkable commitment to combine relationships, family and work in an integrated way. The last three women presented today all integrated science with deep commitments.

Euphemia Lofton Haynes (1890 –1980) was the first Afro-American to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1943. When she was born, slavery had been abolished. Due to her parents’ situation in life, she had opportunities that most African Americans in DC would not have at this time. However, her family situation began to experience turmoil early in her life, since her parents separated and later divorced. In 1917, she married Harold Appo Haynes, whom she had known since their teenager years. They moved to Chicago to pursue higher education. She gained a master’s degree in education from the University of Chicago in 1930, and finally completed her Ph.D. from the Catholic University of America. She was a life-long educator and advocator for the poor and opposed racial segregation. In 1959, she was honored by Pope John XXIII with the Papal Medal for her life of service. Her Catholic faith was an inspiration for her commitment in education and leadership as seen in her words:

“My faith also teaches me that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God. As one moves about his daily work he influences the lives of his brothers. It is his obligation to be certain therefore that his influence contributes always to the salvation of these souls.”

Dorothy Annie Elizabeth Garrod (1892 –1968) was a convert to the Catholic faith. She experienced pain and darkness when all three of her brothers died, two lost their life in WWI and one contracted the Spanish flu. She was in Malta at that time and upon advice from her father, she started to explore prehistoric antiquities. Returning to England, she studied archeology and after graduating from Oxford, she went on to work to Paris at the Institut de Paleontologié Humaine with Abbé Breuil. She was a trailblazer leading several excavations, specializing in the Palaeolithic period. She held the position of Disney Professor of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge from 1938 to 1952 and was the first woman to hold an Oxbridge chair. Her meeting Father Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, in Paris helped her to return with new vigor and commitment to her Catholic faith.

Guadalupe Ortiz de Landazuri (1915-1975) was a Chemist, and one of the first Nummerary members of Opus Dei. In 1933, she started studying Chemistry in Madrid. One Sunday in 1944, while she attended Mass, she felt “touched by the grace of God”. She got to know St. Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei, who taught her that Christ can be found in professional work and ordinary life. She joined Opus Dei a few months later, went to Mexico and Rome to help set up apostolic and educational initiatives and returned to Spain in 1958. She defended her PhD thesis in 1965 and continued to teach Chemistry in different high schools and institutions to advance professional formation in young professionals. Her joy, her strength and her commitment to everyone around her, her strong love to the Eucharist and to Our Lady characterized her. She suffered from heart disease for many years, and died at the age of 58. And she was beatified in Madrid in 2019, and is thus presented to us as a role model for lay people in general and scientists in particular.


The women presented here reflect the diversity of life. We as Catholics and scientists today are asked to integrate science and faith in our lives on our path to Heaven, being one of the “saints next doors”, as Pope Francis reminded us, each of us is asked to:

“discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts (cf. 1 Cor 12:7) […] We are all called to be witnesses, but there are many actual ways of bearing witness.”

Pope Francis, Gaudete et exsultate 10 and 11, 2018

* and if you are a Catholic woman scientist in Europe and want to join us, please drop me an email at scimeetsfaith @ (delete blanks).

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