4 Spanish women who made history in science

The milestones of Spanish women in science have often been erased from history. Their lives, dedicated to field or laboratory work, were sometimes relegated to invisibility. Perhaps overshadowed, or even supplanted, by the names of a male colleague. On the map of Spain began the careers of many female researchers that, in one way or another, have contributed to writing the history of science.

We will travel from a small Asturian village near Luarca, to the Galician depths of the Ribeira Sacra in Lugo, following a route that runs along the coast of Ferrol that guards the Castle of San Felipe to the south, in Andalusia. The commemoration, on February 11, of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science is a good opportunity to remember them, to give them names and surnames. At the same time, it is an invitation to learn more about their work.

Ángeles Alvariño, with her eyes on the sea

Ángeles Alvariño women science

Image of the ship Ángeles Alvariño. | Shuttertock

On October 3, 1916, María de los Ángeles Alvariño González was born in Serantes, Ferrol, the daughter of a doctor and a piano teacher. In her childhood she showed a great interest in nature, tirelessly reading the books on natural history in her home library. After studying science and literature at the University of Santiago de Compostela, she headed for the capital. There, in Madrid, she continued her education, enrolling in Natural Sciences.

The Civil War, in 1936, was a turning point in her life, forcing her to return to her native Galicia. Finally, it was there where she was able to focus her interest in studying something that was very close to her. Something that, even without knowing it, was to mark her future, just as it was marked by her return to Madrid to resume her education. At the university she met her future husband, Eugenio Leira Manso, with whom she would share a scholarship at the Spanish Institute of Oceanography.

Her passion for marine life and her work became forever intertwined during the following years. Starting from her assignment at the Oceanographic Center of Vigo in the early 1950s. Since it functioned as a perfect platform to begin his research on zooplankton. His contribution, in this sense, crystallized in the identification of more than 22 marine species, among them the quetognathans, small organisms, unknown until then.

His detailed works, completed with meticulous illustrations, meant a ticket to travel, following the destinations of the grants she was awarded. Through the British Council, she became the first woman scientist to join the crew of a British research ship. Later, together with the renowned zooplanktologist M. Sears, she continued her research in La Jolla, California. Universities from all over the world, including San Diego and Mexico City, have highlighted the value of his work. A work that ended with the study of seabirds and butterflies discovered in the great scientific expedition, led by Alejandro Malaspina. Since 2012 her name continues to sail the waters to which she dedicated her career and her life, christening an oceanographic vessel.

Margarita Salas, a path of success for science

Margarita Salas

Image of Margarita Salas. | Wikimedia Commons

Almost everyone may be familiar with the name Margarita Salas. It is not in vain that she has been featured on the front pages of newspapers and news headlines for her great scientific achievements and multiple awards. Margarita’s childhood in Asturias, studying at the Colegio de la Asunción in Gijón, was the prelude to her brilliant career. An international path, encouraged from the beginning by her father, the physician José Salas Martínez.

After finishing her studies, she began a doctoral thesis under the tutelage of Alberto Sols. In this context she met the man who would become her husband, co-worker and laboratory partner, Eladio Viñuela. She was awarded the Ramón y Cajal National Prize and the Echegaray Medal, among other distinctions. She also became the first Spanish woman member of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States. Meanwhile, in Spain, she was a professor of Molecular Genetics at the Faculty of Chemistry of the Complutense University in Madrid. In addition, she became a member of the Royal Academy of Exact Sciences and was named Doctor Honoris Causa by the Spanish National University of Distance Education. All of these were the finishing touches to a career marked by work that never ceased from the beginning of her university studies in chemistry.

She collaborated in the New York laboratory of Severo Ochoa, her mentor from the faculty. It was there that the discovery of the DNA polymerase of the bacteriophage phi29 virus began to take shape. This discovery made it possible to amplify DNA more quickly and more reliably. A before and after in the history of science and an important resource on many occasions, also in the context of the Covid19 pandemic. Furthermore, this discovery by Margarita Salas materialized in a patent that, today, continues to be the CSIC’s most profitable. The Asturian scientist remained active until her death in 2019, leaving behind a legacy of more than 350 articles and conferences. In short, a unique and unforgettable career that marked a before and after in the history of science.

Tarsy Carballas, the study of the environment

Tarsy Carballas science

Tarsy Carballas. | Wikimedia Commons

From Taboada, in Lugo, on the banks of the Ribeira Sacra, Tarsy Carballas arrived in Santiago de Compostela to study Pharmacy. Perhaps her childhood, surrounded by the impressive nature of the region of Chantada, was a source of inspiration for her future interests. Although her professional career began as an acting assistant professor of Biochemistry and assistant professor of Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics. In 1963 she finished her studies in Chemical Sciences, with an extraordinary degree award.

Shortly after, she traveled to France, looking for a more favorable environment at the University of Nancy to accept and support the research work of a woman. On her return, back in Santiago, she finally focused her career on what would become her academic and vital objective, edaphology. In 1958 she began working for the Spanish National Resesarch Council (CSIC). She classified and mapped the soils of the humid and temperate zones of Spain. She was a pioneer in the analysis of soils, in particular, focusing on the effects of forest fires on them. For all these reasons, despite the initial reluctance of some male colleagues, her work was widely recognized nationally and internationally.

To her credit, she published more than 200 articles and 12 books, in addition to numerous scientific translations. She was the first woman to be admitted to the Royal Academy of Pharmacy and, since 2004, she has been a doctor ad honorem of the Spanish National Research Council. Her awards include the Award for Chemical Excellence for her studies on forest fires and the María Wonenburger Prize. But her life was not only based on awards or mentions, the life of Tarsy Carballas is much more. She has spent almost 60 years studying and researching to improve the conditions of her environment.

María del Carmen Maroto, laying the foundations of molecular biology

María del Carmen Maroto science

María del Carmen Maroto | Wikimedia Commons

Born in Madrid in July 1938, she spent her childhood studying at the Colegio San Luis de los Franceses. From there she left to continue studying, this time at the Complutense University, at the end of the 50s of the last century. Later, together with her husband, Gonzalo Piédrola Angulo, she moved to Granada. There, she established her career focused definitively on laboratory research work, starting at the Hospital Clínico de San Cecilio.

She dedicated her studies to the analysis of immunological responses, interactions, replication and transmission of viruses. She held the position of assistant professor of microbiology and parasitology at the University of Granada, of which she later became dean. She was the first woman to preside the Academy of Medicine of Eastern Andalusia. She was also elected physician of the year in 1998 and was awarded the Silver Medal of the University of Granada in 2000.

Important legacy to be recognized

To review in detail the milestones of Spanish women in science would involve many texts like this one. Lists in which there would be room for countless identities, unknown to the general public. Names such as the first Spanish botanist, the Aragonese Blanca Catalán de Odón, or the bourgeois paleontologist Nieves López Martínez. In addition to the archaeologist Encarnación Cabré, the entomologist Clotilde Catalán, or the geneticist Jimena Fernández de la Vega Lombán. Authentic pioneers, forerunners, fighters, first graduates, first crew members, first… It would be possible to continue for pages and pages. The lives of these women, scientists and great observers, could well serve as a novel plot. But it is a reality that has crystallized on the surface of a mirror where generations of women who follow in their footsteps are reflected.

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