Exceptional Women in History Who Changed the World Without You Knowing (Part 3)

Yep, you guessed right; once again it’s time to uncover some great history makers and see how significantly they’ve impacted the world we know today.

In parts one and two of the Exceptional Women series, we’ve listed some remarkable ladies who have completely transformed multiple industries, from medical to political, creative, and technological. Now, if you’ve read these articles and only recognized a handful of names, don’t worry; you haven’t been living under a rock. So many of these women remain unknown because historians seem to have forgotten them… but not anymore. While they remain under the radar, their achievements and lives still have an impact to this day! And so, without further ado, here are five exceptional women who changed the world without you knowing. 


Fatima al-Fihri (800-880 AED)

Although to this day not much is known about Fatima and the life she led, historians have been able to find some facts about her key achievements. Born to a successful merchant, Fatima and her family were well off and secure even when her father died. But instead of letting her inheritance collect dust, she put the money to good use. You see, aside from inheriting her father’s fortune, she also inherited his love for learning and the need to enrich her society in any way. And so began her journey to build the Al Quaraouiyine mosque in Morocco, which she named after her beloved hometown in Tunisia. 

Not only did this mosque help her give back to her community, but it also serves as the oldest university to date. In fact, the practices established there are still used in educational institutions worldwide to this day. While the university focused heavily on Islamic theology and law, it had much more to offer. Its various students, many rumored to have become famous scholars, were immersed in poetry, philosophy, logic, rhetoric, grammar, geography, science, mathematics, and other traditional areas of study. These days its doors remain open to visitors and students alike.


Grace Hopper (1906-1992)

Who knew that acquiring a hobby of taking objects apart and putting them back together would evolve into something greater? Grace’s family certainly didn’t, but perhaps the computer scientist and the United States Navy rear admiral might have had an idea. Having shown an interest in engineering from a young age, Grace worked hard to enroll at Yale University and earn her Master’s and Ph.D. in Mathematics. Afterward she went on to teach at Vassar College. However, her career in education was cut short when she decided to join the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service).

It was there, as she worked her way up, that she and her team were able to work on and create Mark I, an early prototype of the electronic computer. Following the war, Hopper moved on to the next project; the UNIVAC, the first all-electronic digital computer. She was the first to introduce the possibility of these electronic devices’ ability to speak a language based on English. Accordingly, her theory sparked the basis of COBOL, a computing language still used by business, finance, and administrative systems today.


Mary Blair (1911-1978)

When thinking of classic Disney films many get nostalgic, remembering childhood days filled with magical fairy tales. But have you ever wondered who’s behind these aminations, their drawings and illustrations bringing the story to life? Well, it all started when Mary Blair, Oklahoma-born gifted artist, won a scholarship to Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. Although she didn’t pursue her dream immediately as the economic situation worsened as she graduated at the height of the Depression, the visual artist and designer joined the Walt Disney Studio in the 40s.

After she took part in the Disney expedition that toured South America, the trip significantly impacted her artwork. Many noticed her watercolor paintings portraying the spirit of the Latin countries she visited. Not only has her unique style made movies including Cinderella (1950)Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Peter Pan (1953) unforgettable, but they also drastically changed how artists and designers went about in the animation field. Moreover, she had a significant influence on Disney theme parks. 


Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951)

While Henrietta Lacks lived a relatively short life, she greatly influenced the scientific field. However, unlike what people imagine when thinking of individuals impacting science, she changed medicine and how it’s perceived after her death. And if you weren’t interested in her enough, answering the question “How?” is where Lacks’ story takes a surprising turn. 

After experiencing abnormal abdominal pain, Lacks decided to visit John Hopkins Hospital, where she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Unfortunately, during her treatment, some of her cancer cells were collected without her knowledge. What made them special was that they continued to survive and multiply outside of her. Those cells, called HeLa cells from Henrietta Lacks, were used to help develop the polio vaccine and are still studied around the world today, making her legacy eternal.

However, the troubling part of this story is that none of the Lacks family knew of the usage of Henrietta’s cells until decades after. Lacks’ life thus also impacted the medical field by questioning the ethics of patient privacy and mistreatment while receiving healthcare.


Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) 

Last but not least comes Rosalind Franklin, another leading lady in the scientific sector. After studying at Cambridge University, Franklin was offered a fellowship. However, she did not follow that path. Instead, she decided to use her knowledge to help her homeland during World War II, investigating the physical chemistry of carbon and coal. 

Once she earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Cambridge University, Franklin joined King’s College, London, as a research fellow in 1951. There, she used her knowledge of X-ray diffraction and its uses to provide important insights into DNA structure. Unfortunately, she died at age 37, never credited for her discoveries. 


It’s saddening to discover that women and their achievements only make up 0.5 percent of recorded history. However, the good news is that the more we search for all the unknown exceptional women and spread their stories, the greater that percentage becomes. So, let’s use our power to make sure they stay remembered.



Photo: Mary Long/Shutterstock


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5 Exceptional Women in History Who Changed the World Without You Knowing (Part 2)


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