9 Important LGBTQ+ Innovators Who Changed STEM Forever
It’s a fact: LGBTQ+ people have helped shape the world — from helping us defeat infectious diseases such as typhoid and tuberculosis to playing a role in defeating the Nazis in World War II.
Although the LGBTQ+ community might not always seem visible in STEM professions, they have always been present. It is worth remembering that people hid their gender or sexual orientation for many centuries to avoid social exclusion, harassment, or even prison sentences.
Even when they didn’t hide their identity, genderqueer and bisexual innovators were — and still often are — incorrectly labeled, while asexuality is regularly misinterpreted as shyness, piousness, or academic devotion. This means we can expect many more of our STEM pioneers to have been LGBTQ+ than just the ones we know about.
We’ve previously shared tips for designing a more inclusive website for LGTBQ+ readers, and today, we’re exploring some of the significant LGBTQ+ innovators who’ve left a mark on STEM fields. Want to jump ahead to a particular person? Just click on one of the links below:
- Jemma Redmond
- Nergis Mavalvala
- George Washington Carver
- Alan Turing
- Sara Josephine Baker
- Alan Hart
- Audrey Tang
- Paul Erdős
- Florence Nightingale
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Jemma Redmond was a pioneer in 3D bioprinting with a dream of printing human organs from donors’ or patients’ own cells. She discovered a way to keep cells alive as they were being printed.
What’s more, she designed a robotic hand that could work with 10 materials simultaneously. This meant it could print more complex tissues — crucial for human organs containing blood vessels.
She was intersex and infertile and hoped to one day print functioning uteri. In a humorous response to those who considered bioprinting complex parts impossible, one of the first things she printed was an extended human middle finger as part of her master’s thesis at University College Dublin in Ireland.
Redmond also did a lot for accessibility. She was a mentor to other tech and STEM professionals and used open source software and affordable parts to make her bioprinters significantly less expensive. She wanted there to be a bioprinter in every hospital and university in the world.
Pakistani-American Nergis Mavalvala is an astrophysicist whose groundbreaking work has helped confirm part of Einstein’s theory of relativity.
Having grown up in Karachi, Mavalvala is an immigrant, working mother, and an out lesbian. Her career started early — she worked as a substitute math teacher while still in high school before going on to study at MIT.
In recent years, she was part of the team that first detected gravitational waves, also known as ripples in the fabric of spacetime, caused by black holes. The project was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Mavalvala specializes in quantum measurement science and was a 2010 recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, or “Genius Grant.” Today, she is the Dean of MIT’s School of Science.
You can read more about Mavalvala’s experiences in an interview with LGBTQ Nation.
George Washington Carver was enslaved at birth. As an African American child and young adult, he faced academic exclusion for his race. Nevertheless, Carver became an innovative agricultural scientist, researcher, and environmentalist who did important work on crop rotation and product development despite these barriers.
He attended Iowa State University as the college’s first Black student and soon became the first African American awarded a Bachelor of Science. He then went on to achieve a master’s degree in Agriculture.
Carver taught southern U.S. farmers to use crop rotation to restore the nutrients in the soil depleted by years of growing cotton. He encouraged them to rotate cotton with peanuts, peas, sweet potatoes, and other soil-enriching crops.
To make this financially viable for farmers, Carver also developed alternative uses for these products. He invented over 300 peanut-based products, including milk. In response to this and Carver’s artwork, TIME Magazine called him “the Black Leonardo.”
Although his sexuality has been questioned, many consider Carver to have been bisexual. There were rumors about his sexuality at university due to his affectionate friendships and physical closeness with other men. He never married but dated one woman for three years. In later years, he was particularly close with fellow scientist Austin W Curtis Jr.
You can read more about George Washington Carver’s accomplishments on History.com.
Alan Turing is one of the world’s most famous mathematicians and cryptographers, having invented the bombe machines that broke Nazi codes during World War II. He is often considered the father of modern computing.
Historians calculate that Turing’s help with code-breaking efforts shortened World War II by two to four years in Europe, potentially preventing Hitler from winning the war. In particular, breaking the German Enigma code allowed ships to deliver supplies to Great Britain while avoiding U-boat attacks.
Yet Turing’s achievements weren’t reserved only to wartime: He published seminal academic papers, such as Turing’s proof, which showed that some yes-no questions cannot be answered correctly by computation. He also theorized about Artificial Intelligence and created the Turing Test to determine whether a computer can think.
Turing was openly gay and criminalized for his sexuality during his lifetime. After admitting in court to having sex with another man, he was chemically castrated for 12 months. In 2009, public demand led then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown to apologize for the government’s treatment of Turing, stating, “We’re sorry, you deserved so much better.” Queen Elizabeth II officially pardoned Turing shortly afterward.
Today, Turing is a celebrated icon in the United Kingdom. He is even on the U.K.’s £50 note, the largest denomination in existence in the country.
You can read more about Alan Turing’s story in the New York Times’s Overlooked series.
Sara Josephine Baker was the first woman in the U.S. to receive a doctorate in public health. Her child welfare innovations are credited with saving the lives of thousands of children in the poorest areas of New York.
She invented a safe infant formula, allowing women to go back to work; an eye drop system that protected infants from gonorrhea and potential blindness; and licenses for midwives. As the first director of New York’s Bureau of Child Hygiene, she nearly halved the child mortality rate. And when she died, the local press reported that she had saved probably 90,000 infants’ lives.
What’s more, when typhoid spread through New York, Baker helped identify the super-spreader woman behind the outbreak. She then tracked her down with police to take and test samples.
Her long-term, romantic relationship with writer Ida Wylie was well-known, and the two regularly attended Greenwich Village’s feminist club, Heterodoxy.
You can read more about Sara Josephine Baker via the BBC.
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Alan Hart pioneered the use of x-rays to screen for tuberculosis, allowing doctors to detect the infectious condition before complications developed. In doing so, he saved thousands of lives, both among the patients who survived and those who were consequently not exposed to an asymptomatic carrier of the disease.
Throughout his life, Hart campaigned for further tuberculosis research funding and economic support for patients and constantly challenged the stigma attached to the disease. He also wrote multiple novels featuring LGBTQ+ characters.
Hart, who was assigned female at birth, was one of the first men in the U.S. to have a hysterectomy. Although his trans identity led to discrimination and negative press at the start of his career, he became well-known for his work in later years. At the time of his death, he was married to his second wife and had an illustrious career behind him as a researcher, academic, and public health official.
You can read more about Alan Hart in Scientific American.
Audrey Tang is the Digital Minister of Taiwan and the force behind Taiwan’s tech-based COVID-19 response. This response includes promoting an open source website for finding shops with masks in stock, developing a vaccination reservation system, and creating a contact tracing system that allows users to remain anonymous.
Tang has publicly credited their department’s prior experience with HIV-positive communities for the success of their COVID-19 response, explaining that no identifying data is sent to the central government. Instead, the system uses codenames, single-use emails, and other tools to keep people’s information private.
Even before the pandemic struck, Tang was well-known as a tech innovator in Taiwan thanks to their impressive programming skills, political career, and advocacy of the g0v movement: an open source, open-government collaboration that promotes transparency. They describe themselves as a civic hacker and believe technology and democracy can go hand in hand.
Tang is a post-gender, nonbinary trans person and does not identify with any pronoun, instead inviting people to use any pronoun they wish.
You can read more about Tang and their thoughts on tech in this interview.
Thanks to the extensive number of problems he solved, Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős is considered one of (if not the most) prolific mathematicians of the 20th century. He’s famous for his work in number theory and combinatorics, as well as his deep interest in prime numbers.
A mathematical genius from a young age, Erdős discovered negative numbers by himself when he was only four years old. At 21, he earned a Ph.D. in Mathematics. Among other achievements, Erdős co-founded probabilistic number theory and the prime number theorem.
Paul Erdős was devoted to math problems and spent up to 20 hours a day working on them. Throughout his life, he constantly chased the shortest proof. He was also generous in supporting other mathematicians: in 1984, he won the Wolf Prize and used nearly all of the $50,000 prize money to establish a scholarship in his parents’ names.
Born in the 1930s of Jewish heritage, Erdős was disturbed by the rise of antisemitism in his home country. And so, he became a lifelong traveler, nomad, and immigrant. Erdős would often turn up at a friend’s house and stay until they ran out of math problems to solve.
Paul Erdős was asexual and likely aromantic, with no interest in sex. This led The New York Times to dub him The Man Who Only Loved Numbers, despite his active social life and many friends and collaborators.
The so-called “Lady with the Lamp,” Florence Nightingale is considered the founder of modern nursing. She revolutionized healthcare by insisting on good hygiene, record-keeping, and patient dignity, arguing for important yet overlooked ideas like patients being able to see the person treating them.
In addition, Nightingale was a statistical pioneer who collected extensive data to prove that poor conditions in hospitals were killing soldiers. She also invented the polar area graph and several other histograms to help politicians understand her data analysis charts. In 1858, she became the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society.
Nightingale also struggled with her own ill health and lived with disabilities and likely mental illnesses. From her late thirties to her sixties, she was mostly bedridden.
Nightingale’s sexuality is fiercely debated. In search of a definitive answer, academics have pored over her letters, which contain quotes such as, “I have never loved but one person with passion in my life, and that was her,” and, “I have lived and slept in the same beds with English Countesses and Prussian farm women. No woman has excited passions among women more than I have.”
Florence Nightingale turned down numerous marriage proposals throughout her life, instead maintaining close friendships with people of different genders. As a result, some have interpreted her as asexual, others as a lesbian, and others have claimed she simply did not want to give up her career for marriage.
We will probably never know all the details of Nightingale’s sexuality or personal life, but for now, you can read more about her on Making Queer History.