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A Look Back in History at Women's Inventions and Innovative Ideas

by South University, Online Programs
March 13, 2014

From Kevlar to the circular saw to the game of Monopoly, women are responsible for bringing many ideas and inventions to fruition. During Women’s History Month, South University is especially proud to honor the scores of women whose innovations and ingenuity have touched our lives. Below is just a small selection of items that have made our lives easier, healthier, or more organized—all of which were first dreamt of and created by a woman.

The Corn Mill

Sybilla Masters (1675-1720) is considered one of the first documented female inventors. Having come up with a way to fashion cornmeal from maize, Masters was a trailblazer for helping turn a staple crop into a manageable grain. However, during America's colonial era, patents were not given to women and thus the patent officially went to her husband Thomas.

The Paper Bag

Before plastic baggies became the dominant method of toting lunches, paper bags were the all-purpose, go-to meal saver. Margaret Knight (1838-1914), a Boston-based inventor, patented the square bottomed design that stabilized the paper bag and made it practical. In her lifetime, she acquired twenty-seven patents.

The First Leukemia Drug

Chemist Gertrude B. Elion (1918-1999) was a Nobel Prize winner in physiology and did pioneering work in the study of nucleic acid biosynthesis (Elion, 1988). She was involved in and oversaw the development of many lifesaving drugs, including several for treating cancer, malaria and AIDS. She also invented azathioprine, which helps prevent the body from rejecting donor organs post-transplant. She was also received a National Medal of Science and is a member of the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Hair Care Products for African American Women

Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919), born Sarah Breedlove, invented a number of hair care products for African-American women and, by the time of her passing, had over 2,000 agents selling her products and hair treatment system. The child of two former slaves freed after the Civil War, she eventually became the first African-American millionaire. Born on a plantation in Louisiana, Walker's inventions helped usher in a new sense of identity and pride for minorities during the oppressive Jim Crow era. In addition to her entrepreneurship, Walker devoted much of her life towards civil rights (Vare & Ptacek, 1993).

The Star Classification System

The first woman elected an officer of the American Astronomical Society, Annie Jump Cannon, (1963-1941) invented the star classification system still utilized today. After scarlet fever during her childhood left her almost completely deaf, she experienced difficulty in socializing. With her mother's encouragement, she become engrossed in astronomy and went on to study at Wellesley College and Radcliffe College. She later joined the Harvard Observatory, where she classified over 225,000 stars while working alongside a group of female astronomers. Finding the classification system of the time to be cumbersome, she developed her own, later adopted as the universal standard.

Works Cited

Elion, G. B. (1988). Autobiography of Gertrude B. Elion, the Nobel Prize in physiology. Oncologist, 11(9), 966-968.

Vare, E. A., & Ptacek, G. (1993). Madam C.J. Walker. In E. A. Vare, Women Inventors & Their Discoveries (pp. 50-65). Minneapolis, MN: Oliver Press.

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