Nettie Stevens

Have you ever felt guilty “bothering” a scientist with your questions? Don’t! As this week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree, molecular biologist Nettie Stevens once told a student, “How could you think your questions would bother me? They never will, so long as I keep my enthusiasm for biology; and that, I hope will be as long as I live.” Powerful words from a powerful woman whom we lost much too soon.

Nettie was born in Vermont in 1861, a time when education for women was rare. Fortunately, she was able to save up enough money through teaching to attend the teachers’ college Westfield Normal School, after which she taught more to save up for higher education, getting bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford followed by a PhD from Bryn Mar. Always interested in pursuing research, she didn’t have the opportunity to work in a lab until she was in her 30’s (never too late!). Once she started however, nothing could stop her and she had a tremendously productive 11 years, working at Bryn Mawr, the Carnegie Institute of Washington and European research institutions. Studying mealworms, she made the key discovery that sex is typically chromosomally inherited, with fathers providing the determining factor, a chromosome she termed “Y”. Around this time, a researcher named Edmund Wilson made a similar discovery, and Nettie’s work is therefore often overlooked.

Looking to pursue further research, Nettie wrote to Charles Davenport to see if she could work with him at Cold Spring Harbor. Sadly, she died of breast cancer in 1912, before she even had the chance to work here. Although her life was short, she made a significant impact on those around her and contributed greatly to scientific knowledge.

Photo Credit: Carnegie Institution of Washington

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