A Woman to Know: Nettie Stevens

… Miss Stevens had a share in a discovery of importance. — Thomas Hunt Morgan

… Miss Stevens had a share in a discovery of importance. — Thomas Hunt Morgan

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1896, when Nettie was 35, she went back to school. After an immensely successful high school career, her teachers pushed her to go to college — but Nettie didn’t have the money. Instead, she took up teaching, and every year, she saved a little bit of money from her small teacher’s salary and put it toward taking classes at local colleges. Finally, after 16 years of saving and studying, she saved enough to attend graduate school at Bryn Mawr.

Once there, she thrived. Her voracious appetite for learning endeared her to her professors, including influential scientist Thomas Hunt Morgan, who took it upon himself to extol Nettie’s qualifications to his prestigious peers. Because of her teaching background, the college asked Nettie to teach courses, and students glowed under her enthusiasm.

In 1900, at age 39, she started working as a research scientist in a lab studying mealworms. She read Mendel’s landmark 1900 paper on genetics and threw herself into the study of mealworm development. In 1905, she made a momentous discovery — the female mealworm reproductive cells developed two X chromosomes, while the male cells developed an X chromosome along with a Y chromosome. She excitedly shared her realization in a paper on sex determination, but at the time, her peers doubted her discovery. She continued researching and teaching at Bryn Mawr until 1912, when she died of breast cancer.

Turns out, around the same time Nettie made her discovery, another researcher, Edmund White, had found a similar thing happening in his lab, and he wrote about it, too. For decades, Nettie’s own discovery went unknown, and scholars commemorated Edmund for his genius.

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