A Dose of Herstory: 15 of the First Female Professors

by Casey Krosser

It’s gotten better, but think back to your high school history classes and ask yourself if more women or men were mentioned in the textbook. Traditionally history classes have left out many of the numerous women who have also impacted the world. Here’s an interesting article from the Online Colleges blog we’d like to share, which discusses 15 of the first female professors. Prepare to learn about some fantastic women you may or may not already know of!


There are more female professors today than there ever have been at any point in history, but academia still remains a man’s world — especially in majors like philosophy, engineering and computer science, where female professors are few and far between. While there is undeniably room for improvement, that shouldn’t overshadow the amazing achievements of women who fought a long, hard battle to win a place in the hallowed halls of colleges and universities around the world. Here are some amazing women from history — who today’s professors can thank for paving the way — who earned a professorship job despite a wide range of gender-based obstacles and prejudices against them.

  1. Arria (2nd-3rd century AD)

    Not a lot is known about Arria, and much of what is comes through the writings of Galen, a Greek physician and philosopher who greatly admired her. Arria is said to have been a philosophy professor (and possibly also taught mathematics and astronomy), and was likely very similar to Hypatia in her beliefs and teaching methods. Whoever she was, she must have been doing something right, as Diogenes dedicated his text Lives of the Philosophers to her.

  2. Hypatia (400 AD)

    Daughter of Theon of Alexandria, a mathematics professor and librarian at the Library of Alexandria, Hypatia was familiar with the academic world from a very early age. As she grew up, she would become a renowned scholar in her own right and eventually became the head of the Platonist school at Alexandria, teaching mathematics, philosophy and astronomy. She was such an important scholar that some historians even claim her death (murder at the hands of a mob of monks) marked the beginning of the end for Classical thought.

  3. Trotula de Salerno (11th century AD)

    The Dark Ages weren’t all bad. In fact, some women actually managed to become respected scholars, most notably Trotula of Salerno. She was instrumental in helping revive interest in Ancient Greek science during the medieval period, and she and her “ladies of Salerno” were renowned throughout Italy for their medical expertise and scholarship. Working at the School of Salerno, Trotula taught both male and female students and wrote medical texts like The Diseases of Women, which were used well into the 16th century.

  4. Laura Bassi (1731)

    In modern times, Laura Bassi holds the honor of being the first female professor. A physicist, she was one of the first women to receive a university degree from the University of Bologna (and Europe in general). While there are no archives of her scientific work, she was well-respected among the literati of the time, including Voltaire, Paolo Frisi and Alessandro Volta. In 1731, Bassi would be appointed professor of Anatomy and in 1733 was given the chair of philosophy. While her teaching opportunities were limited in her career’s early years, over time she successfully petitioned the university for more responsibilities and lectures, which she balanced while caring for her eight children. By age 65, she was the chair of experimental physics at the Institute of Sciences, an impressive feat at any point in history — but especially so in the 1700s.

  5. Maria Agnesi (1750)

    An Italian linguist, mathematician and philosopher, Agnesi is created with writing the first book on differential and integral calculus. She also holds a special place in history for being appointed to the faculty of mathematics, natural philosophy and physics at the University of Bologna by the pope. She was not to hold this position for long, however, as her father’s 1752 death motivated her to dedicated her life to charity over academic pursuits.

  6. Maria Mitchell (1865)

    Maria Mitchell holds the honor of being the first female astronomer in the United States. Primarily self-taught, she gained a love of the cosmos while working with her father in the small observatory he built on their roof. Her rise to fame started in 1847 when she spotted a comet, and in 1848 the American Academy of Arts and Sciences voted her the first female member. In 1865, Mitchell accepted a position as professor of astronomy and director of the college observatory at Vassar College, where she continued her research and inspired other young women to pursue careers in the science until her 1888 retirement.

  7. Sarah Jane Woodson Early (1866)

    Sarah Jane wasn’t just one of the first female professors in the U.S., but one of the first African-American women to get a full professorship as well. A graduate of Oberlin College, she was among the first African-American female college grads, and would gain an esteemed position at Wilberforce University in 1866. Owned and operated by African-Americans, the school gave her the freedom to inspire young people to complete their educations and accomplish bigger and better things. Early would go on to serve as the principal and matron of the school and taught at the secondary school level for almost four decades.

  8. Ellen Richards (1884)

    Getting into MIT is hard for anyone, even today, but it was especially difficult for a bright young woman named Ellen Richards in the late 1800s. The school did not admit females at the time, but made a special exception for Richards, who was both the first ever to attend MIT and receive a degree in chemistry. She would go on not only to be the first female professor at MIT, but one of the most esteemed and respected industrial and environmental chemists during her lifetime.

  9. Alice Hamilton (1897)

    Alice Hamilton dreamed of one day becoming a doctor when she was a young girl. While her boarding school gave little attention to science instruction, Hamilton got special tutoring that enabled her to gain admittance into the University of Michigan Medical School. After graduation, Hamilton and her sister (a classical scholar) traveled to Germany and encountered a great deal of prejudice for their gender, as numerous universities refused their graduate studies applications. After finally being accepted in Frankfurt and working as a research assistant at Johns Hopkins, Hamilton was appointed in 1897 as a professor of pathology at the Women’s Medical School of Northwestern University. The appointment was short-lived, but springboarded her into an impressive industrial medicine career. In 1919, she became the first female professor ever hired at Harvard University.

  10. Lutie Lytle (1898)

    Lutie Lytle was one of the first African-American women to earn a law degree, graduating from the Central Tennessee Law School and passing the licensing exam in 1897– only the third African-American woman in the U.S. to achieve this honor. She practiced for a year before joining the faculty at Central Tennessee in 1898, the first female law instructor anywhere in the world. While Lytle would only serve for one year, she continued to practice law and push greater racial equality in the United States until her 1950 death.

  11. Marie Curie (1904)

    If you have heard of anyone on this list, it’s bound to be Marie Curie, who is one of the most well-known female scientists the world has ever known. She was a pioneer in the study of radioactivity (and even coined the term itself), becoming the first person to win two Nobel Prizes — one in physics and one in chemistry. Curie also discovered two new elements, radium and polonium, but she wasn’t all about research, however. In addition, she also had a notable teaching career, and was the first female professor to work at the University of Paris. Curie would go on to found two research institutions of her own, both of which still operate today.

  12. Dorothy Garrod (1939)

    British archaeologist Dorothy Garrod made groundbreaking finds on the Paleolithic era while excavating Palestine with fellow academic Dorothea Bate, leading to a greater understanding of the region’s prehistoric human life. After holding a range of other academic posts, she was finally made a full professor of archaeology at Cambridge in 1939, though equal academic rights and privileges for females would not be extended until 1947. Garrod would go on to work at Cambridge until 1952, and continued to receive many honors, including the Order of the British Empire.

  13. Edith Clarke (1921)

    Orphaned at age 12, Edith Clarke used her inheritance to study mathematics and astronomy at Vassar College. Graduating with honors in 1908, she taught and worked for several years before heading to MIT for her master’s degree in electrical engineering — the first degree in the field ever awarded to one of the school’s women. Most of Clarke’s illustrious career was spent working as an engineer for GE, but she ended up appointed to a professorship at Constantinople Women’s College in 1921. By 1945, she earned a position as the first female professor of electrical engineering at the University of Texas.

  14. Lise Meitner (1926)

    Swedish physicist Lise Meitner researched radioactivity and nuclear physics, and was part of the scientific team that discovered nuclear fission. Which, of course, garnered her colleague Otto Hahn a Nobel Prize, but not her. She hasn’t gone unnoticed to science, however, and the element Meitnerium is named after her. While receiving an assistant professor offer in 1913, Meitner would choose to focus on research until 1926, when she became the first woman in Germany appointed a full professor of Physics. She would work at the University of Berlin until WWII broke out, with Einstein once calling her “the German Marie Curie.”

  15. Virginia Apgar (1938)

    If you’ve ever had a child or been close to someone who has, you’ve likely heard the name of this pioneering woman. Virginia Apgar graduated from Columbia University in 1933 and completed her residency in 1937. She would go on to become a leader in the fields of anesthesiology and teratology, and founded the field of neonatology. She is best known for her development of the Apgar score, a method accessing a newborn baby’s health, but she also made some notable firsts throughout her career. She was named Director of Anesthesiology at Columbia University Medical Center in 1938 (the first woman to hold this position in the US), and would later become the school’s first female full professor in 1949.

Original Article: http://www.onlinecolleges.net/2011/08/29/15-of-the-first-female-professors-in-history/


You may also like

Get the print magazine.

The best of BUST in your inbox!

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter

About Us

Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

©2023 Street Media LLC.  All Right Reserved.