Category: Famous Scientists

Michael Faraday

Michael Faraday received little formal education, but went on to become one of the most influential experimental physicists of the nineteenth century. His studies of electricity and magnetism laid the foundation for the scientific understanding of the principle of electromagnetic induction as well as the relationship between chemistry and electromagnetism, also known as electrochemistry.

Basic Information

Birthdate: September 22, 1791

Birthplace: Newington Butts, Surrey, England

Married: Sarah Barnard, June 12, 1821

Died: August 25, 1867

Early Exposure to Science

As a youth, the lower-class Michael Faraday was apprenticed to a bookbinder. During the seven years of his apprenticeship, he developed a love of scientific concepts from reading books on the subject.

Starting in 1812, at the end of his apprenticeship, Faraday began attending scientific lectures, notably given by a prominent English scientist of the day, Humphry Davy (who invented the first electric lamp), though he attended lectures given by other scientists as well. Faraday took careful notes on these lectures and compiled them into a 300-page book, which was able to give to Davy. Despite the differences in their station, Davy is reputed to have responded favorably to the book. When Davy was injured in 1813, with his eyesight damaged due to a chemical accident, he hired Faraday as his assistant, and also got him a position at the Royal Society as a Chemical Assistant.

Davy traveled on a lecture tour from 1813-15, and Faraday served as both his scientific assistant and valet on the trip. This trip allowed Faraday, despite the social position he had come from and remained in, to become familiar with the greatest European scientific minds of the age and to become intimately familiar with the scientific concepts they discussed.

Major Scientific Insights

Michael Faraday was one of the most influential experimental physicists of the nineteenth century, but is most widely recognized for achievements in two fields: electrochemistry and electromagnetism.

His early work with Davy focused on chemistry, and his earliest experiments were related to simple chemical batteries. In studying chemical compounds discovered by Davy, he formulated laws governing the chemical process of electrolysis (not to be confused with the hair removal treatment), published in 1834.

Faraday also explored the concept of electromagnetism more directly. Danish physicist Hans Christian Orsted had already discovered in 1821 that electric fields induced a magnetic field, but it was Faraday’s work that is largely recognized as revealing that magnetic fields could also induce electric fields and thus more fully exploring the concept of electromagnetic induction. Faraday’s work at the time sparked some controversies related to whether or not he was properly crediting colleagues with whom he collaborated. In his later years, Faraday’s collaboration with James Clerk Maxwell provided the foundation for Maxwell’s Equations describing the key physical relationships of electromagnetism, some of which were direct reformulations of Faraday’s experimental insights.

A cage made of conductive metal mesh is today known as a Faraday cage, and has the property that any objects inside the cage are protected from electromagnetic fields or electric discharges coming from outside of the cage. The Faraday cage gets its name from an 1843 experiment conducted by Faraday, called the “ice pail experiment,” which showed that electromagnetic induction on a conductor results in an electric charge on the outer shell of the conductor.

Religious Convictions

Throughout his lifetime, Michael Faraday was a devout Christian who strongly felt that his scientific discoveries helped to illuminate a fundamental unity between God and nature. He was a member of the Sandemanian church, an offshoot of the Church of Scotland.

James Clerk Maxwell

 - Public Domain
James Clerk Maxwell – from Popular Science Monthly Volume 17, 1880.  Public Domain

James Clerk Maxwell is a Scottish theoretical physicist who is best known for formulating what became known as Maxwell’s equations, the series of equations that codifies the relationships between electricity and magnetism within electromagnetism.  

Basic Information

Birthdate: June 13, 1831

Birth location: Edinburgh, Scotland

Date of death: November 5, 1879

Early Life, Education, & Career

James Clerk Maxwell studied first at the University of Edinburgh (1847-1850) and then on the University of Cambridge (1850-1856).

He graduated from the University of Cambridge in 1854 with a degree in mathematics, but remained at the university for two additional years on a fellowship. In 1856, he obtained a professorship at Marischal College in Aberdeen, where he remained until 1860, at which point he moved on to King’s College, London. He retired from King’s College in 1965, though he remained academically active and wrote a number of books. He returned to Cambridge in 1871 as the first Cavendish Professor of Physics, where his duties included overseeing the creation of the Cavendish Laboratory (a research laboratory that, as of the time of this writing in summer 2015, has resulted in a total of 29 Nobel Prizes in Physics).

Though he is best known for his work studying electromagnetism and light, he also contributed insights into the field of thermodynamics, including a study of the kinetic theory of gases.

Developing Maxwell’s Equations

Maxwell studied intently the insights into electromagnetism developed by Michael Faraday, including his concept of lines of force.

With his more rigorous mathematical approach to the field, Maxwell was able to solidify this intuitive concept into a series of 20 equations with 20 variables, which he published in 1861. Over the following decade, he would refine his understanding, ultimately writing his Maxwell’s equations as four partial differential equations in his 1873 book A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. (They have been refined a bit in the years since then.)

In the course of this work, Maxwell realized that both electricity and magnetism moved at approximately the speed of light. This suggested to him that light itself was electromagnetic in nature, setting the groundwork for the concept of the electromagnetic spectrum of light. Indeed, he extensively studied the field of optics, specifically as it related to colors (and the perception of color by humans) in the visible spectrum of light.

Consequences of Maxwell’s Equations

Maxwell’s key insight was that light could be described as waves moving through space at the speed of light. This seemed to definitively establish that light behaved as a wave, confirming the explanation that most readily explained Thomas Young’s double-slit experiment. The problem with this wave explanation of light, however, was that the common understanding of waves at the time was that it required a medium to pass through (something had to “do the waving”). This led to the search for the luminiferous ether as a medium for light to travel through. A search that ultimately failed to discover the luminiferous ether.

When Albert Einstein looked at Maxwell’s equations, he realized that a key feature of them was that the light moved at the speed of light. If light indeed moved through a medium, it would move at speeds relative to the medium rather than at a single speed. He assumed that the light moved at a single fixed speed, and this became one of the core postulates of his theory of relativity.

Jody Williams

Dates: October 9, 1950 –

Known for: campaign to ban landmines

Occupation: peace activist, teacher

Organization: International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL)


  • Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (Master’s, International Relations, 1984)
  • School for International Training, Vermont (Master’s, Teaching Spanish and ESL, 1976)
  • University of Vermont (B.A., 1972)

About Jody Williams:

Jody Williams, who grew up in Brattleboro, Vermont, credits her empathy and orientation to protecting others to her childhood when it often fell to her to defend her deaf and schizophrenic older brother from bullies. She was an activist in the antiwar movement during the Vietnam war.

After an early career teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), where she traveled to Mexico and the United Kingdom, in 1981 Jody Williams began working against United States policy in Central America.

After geting a master’s degree in international relations, Jody Williams worked on the Nicaragua-Honduras Education Project (1984-1986) and humanitarian relief for Medical Aid for El Salvador (1986-1992). In her work in Central America, she saw the effect of landmines.

Jody Williams began working in 1991 to create an effort to ban landmines, and helped create the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) in 1992. She became the founding coordinator, and has been the leading spokesperson for that organization

as it has grown from a founding network of six non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to more than 1400.

In 1997, the campaign gained public notice with the active support of Diana, Princess of Wales, shortly before her death. Later that year, the ICBL was successful in getting an international treaty to ban landmines signed by 125 nations, including most NATO members but not the United States.

In 1998, Jody Williams relinquished her coordination role within ICBL, remaining as Campaign Ambassador, and has pursued other projects to promote peace and human rights and to oppose war.

Alessandra Giliani

You’ve probably never heard of Alessandra Giliani, though she was a pioneer in anatomy research. In the 14th century, when cadavers were dissected for research and educational purposes, she became known as a qualified prosector — one who dissects cadavers for demonstration to university students — the only known woman prosector in medieval Europe. She is also credited with inventing the method of

injecting colored liquids into blood vessels in order to study the circulatory system.

Dates: ~1307 – March 26, 1326
Occupation: surgeon’s assistant, anatomist

About Alessandra Giliani:

Alessandra Giliani was an assistant to Mondino de Luzzi, who wrote an anatomy handbook in 1316. He was known as the “father of anatomy.” She was his “valued dissector and assistant.” While working with him, she specialized in dissections for demonstrations and research, and pioneered the technique of injecting colored liquids to trace the circulatory system.

Alessandra Giliani was honored by Otto Angenius, probably her fiance, with a plaque at the Church of San Pietro e Marcellino describing her work — and their relationship.

Places: Bologna, Italy


About Agnodice:

Dates: 4th century BCE

Occupation: physician, gynecologist

Places: Athens, Greece

More About Agnodice:

Agnodice dressed as a man to study with the doctor Herophilus. She began to practice gynecology, still disguised.

Her fame became great, and fellow doctors accused her of corrupting women. She was forced to reveal herself as a woman in order to escape execution — and then was charged with

practicing medicine illegally since women were not permitted to practice medicine. The court in Athens acquitted Agnodice.

The only source for information about Agnodice is from the first century CE by the Latin writer Hyginus. Thus, it is likely that Agnodice’s story is mythical rather than historical.

Trota or Trotula

Known for: author(?) of Trotula, a medieval medical, gynecological, and obstetrical text
Occupation: physician, writer
Dates: ? – 1097?
Also known as: Trota of Salerno, Trotula of Salerno, Trotula of Ruggerio, Trotula Platearius, Trocta

About Trota or Trotula:

The Trotula was a name given to compilations of medieval medical texts, including (according to one modern translator, Monica Green, who attributes

just one to Trota) Practica secundum Trotam (Trota’s Practical Medicine), De egritudinum curatione (Treatment of Illnesses), and On Treatments for Women. One compilation was titled De passionibus mulierum (Diseases of Women), or Trotula Major. The author was given as Trota.

These first appeared in the twelfth century, probably in Salerno, Italy, and were considerably revised and eventually standardized over the next several centuries. They were originally written in Latin, and by the 16th century had been translated into just about every European language. These texts formed the foundation of much of the practice of gynecological and obstetric medicine in Europe in the medieval period.

These medical writings were, by some, identified as those of a man, probably because her frank addressing of issues of childbirth and the female body were not expected of women. But the author identifies herself as a woman in the text, explaining that women patients are more likely to be honest when attended

by a woman physician.

Thus, some accept that the author of these texts was an 11th-century woman, Trota, who served as an obstetrician, gynecologist, and physician in Salerno, where there was in that time a school of medicine of significant fame. The school was a key entrance point into European Christian culture of the ideas and practices found in Arabic medical texts. Johannes Platerarius of the school is identified by some historians as her husband, and Matthias and Johannes the Younger, also medical writers, are sometimes identified as her sons.

Others believe that there was no real Trota, and that her name is simply a device used by the real author or authors.

Many of the practices in the books are based on medical beliefs now known to be scientifically questionable or unfounded, such as “wind” in the uterus, or a “wandering womb.” The books contain many herbal and other remedies for various medical conditions. Some practices are surprisingly modern, such as the use of silk thread to repair tears that occur during delivery, or the instructions for how to handle abnormal birth presentations. She recommended the use of opium in childbirth, contrary to church teachings that women must suffer in childbirth.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales refer to this physician and writer as Dame Trot.

Judy Chicago’s feminist art project, The Dinner Party, included a place setting representing Trotula.

Places: Southern Italy

Period: Medieval