March is Women’s History Month and a good time to recognize the important women who have paved the way for progress. While leaders, activists, writers, feminists, and teachers are all being honored, some of the most inspiring women are those inventors and entrepreneurs who broke new ground in the traditionally male-dominated fields of science and technology.
Born in 1909, Apgar became the first female full professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. A leader in the field of anesthesia and pediatrics, she is best known for designing and popularizing the Apgar score, a standardized way of quickly assessing the health of a newborn infant.
Scaling from zero to ten, the Apgar score is a mnemonic that looks at five criteria—appearance, pulse, grimace, activity, and respiration. Although different forms of it are used today, Apgar’s work was the basis for rapidly sizing up an infant’s health, helping to decrease infant mortality.
Coston invented the signaling flare, which is widely used in naval communication. In 1859, she found designs for a nonfunctioning flare in her deceased husband’s notebooks and set out to make them work.
Using pyrotechnics, she was able to design and patent a system of colored flares that allowed ships to communicate at night. The Navy purchased her flare system for $20,000, though she struggled for years to receive the compensation.
Her flare system was also adopted by the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. weather service, as well as governments in Europe. The use of colored, durable flares changed naval communication and are still used today.
Harriett Russell Strong
Strong was an entrepreneur, farmer, and engineer. Born in 1844 in New York, she moved to a ranch in California with her husband and became interested in ways to irrigate dry land. This led her to invent and patent a dam and water storage system; her irrigation system is credited with helping Southern California become a major food-producing region. She also developed a process to grow pampas plumes, drilled three oil wells on her property, and at one point had the largest walnut orchard in the nation. After accumulating a fortune, she focused her efforts on women’s suffrage, education, and water conservation.
Leading the charge in alternative energies well before her time, Telkes designed the first residential solar heating system. Born in 1900 in Hungary, she went on to earn a doctoral degree in physical chemistry and immigrated to the United States, doing solar energy research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and New York University. In addition to inventing a solar oven, she built the solar heating system for an experimental solar heated house in Massachusetts that is still in use today.
Elizabeth Coleman White
Elizabeth White is credited with introducing the first cultivated blueberry to the United States. She grew up on her father’s cranberry farm in New Jersey, which gave her an interest in industrial agriculture. Collaborating with Frederick Colville, they learned how to take wild blueberries, which grew in abundance near her farm, and turn them into a commercial commodity. In 1916, they marketed the first commercial blueberry under the name Tru-Blu-Berries. They also introduced cellophane packaging of blueberries.
Inventor of Foxfibre Colored Cotton, Sally Fox contributed immensely to improving the environmental impact of cotton textile production. Because hand spinning colored cotton is so expensive, most manufacturers bleach, dye, and spin white cotton, which, due to the bleach and dyes, creates a large amount of environmental pollution. In the late 1980s, Sally Fox learned how to breed green and brown cotton. She bought some land and began to grow these cultivars, and by the 1990s, had a booming business that produced naturally-colored cotton for large manufacturers like Levi’s, Land’s End, and L.L. Bean.
Rachel Fuller Brown and Elizabeth Lee Hazen
Working for the New York State Department of Health in two different cities, Rachel Fuller and Elizabeth Hazen worked together to develop a widely successful antifungal drug. Working in two different cities (Fuller in Albany and Hazen in New York City) they shared their research information over the mail. In 1954, the FDA approved their drug, nystatin. The drug was used to treat infections that were previously untreatable; it also treated environmental molds. They also donated all of their thirteen million dollars in nystatin royalties to academic scientific research.
Reading about these amazing women makes inventions—or striving toward them—seem possible.