These four CT women changed the game in medicine, manufacturing, genetics and astronomy

Connecticut women have a long history of innovation and excellence in science, technology, engineering and math — fields that men have dominated for centuries.

As Women’s History Month winds to a close, here are four stories of Connecticut women who pioneered research in medicine, manufacturing, genetics and astronomy.

Mary Dixon Kies
Inventor

Inventor Mary Dixon Kies became the first woman to receive a U.S. patent in her own name for a process that weaves silk with cheaper straw.

Inventor Mary Dixon Kies became the first woman to receive a U.S. patent in her own name for a process that weaves silk with cheaper straw.

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Lost to history is the education of Mary Dixon Kies and how she came to tinker with textiles, but she remains historically important as the first woman to receive a U.S. patent in her own name.

Born in Killingly in 1752, Kies was issued her patent — President James Madison’s signature appeared on the document — at age 57, for a process that weaves silk with cheaper straw.

New England’s hat factories widely adopted Kies’ technique; the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office notes that First Lady Dolley Madison singled out her invention as helping sustain the region’s economy during an embargo on European imports in the run up to the War of 1812.

Historians believe Rhode Island’s Betsey Metcalf pioneered a singular weaving technique for straw hats in advance of Kies, with one account stating that Metcalf did not put in for patent rights because she did not want her name sent to Congress.

But with the passage of the Patent Act of 1790, women were allowed to protect their intellectual property for the first time, and it took until 1809 for Kies to file the first application. Her patent was destroyed by fire in 1836.

Propelled by the inventions of Metcalf and Kies, the hat industry became notorious for employing women in sweatshop conditions, along with the use of chemicals that spurred the onset of dementia.

About 22 percent of U.S. patents awarded in 2019 included a woman listed as an inventor, according to the most recent analysis by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. But over the preceding five years, the percentage of women landing their first patent was increasing at a higher rate than men.

Dorrit Hoffleit
Astronomer

Astronomer Dorrit Hoffleit

Astronomer Dorrit Hoffleit

State of Connecticut

Any old earthling can spend a little over $50 to have a star named for them, but Dorrit Hoffleit earned her name’s permanent attachment to an asteroid for her work at Yale University, where she cataloged stars in the heavens while inspiring other women to explore astronomy.

What became known as Asteroid Dorrit was discovered in the Asteroid Belt in November 1931. At the time — when Hoffleit was in the final year of her master’s studies in astronomy at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass. — it was simply known as “minor planet 3416.”

Hoffleit had pursued the degree only after turning down a job offer as a statistician. Growing up in Alabama and Pennsylvania as the child of German immigrants, she recalled being captivated at an early age by the annual Perseid Meteor Shower.

Excelling in her early astronomy studies at Radcliffe, Hoffleit went on to get her doctorate at Harvard in 1939, earning a prize for best original research in pinpointing the luminosity of stars to determine their distances from Earth.

Hoffleit worked at the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground during World War II, computing firing tables for naval guns and ballistic trajectories for anti-aircraft missiles. She returned to Harvard after the war, then took a job in 1956 with Yale to lead development of its Bright Star Catalog, which lists the 11,700 stars visible without the aid of a telescope, provides details about their physics and explains how they came to be named.

Hoffleit also created a summer program for undergraduate women at the Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket Island, named for the first U.S. woman astronomer. It was a rare opportunity for women at the time, and two dozen of the women mentored by Hoffleit went on to earn doctorates themselves.

Hoffleit would orbit the sun 100 times in her lifetime, dying in New Haven in April 9, 2007. In an obituary, the New York Times declared her “probably the oldest working scientist in her field.”

Joan Steitz
Professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry

Joan A. Steitz

Joan A. Steitz

Contributed photo / Yale University

“One of the greatest joys in science is realizing that you know something that nobody else knows,” Joan Steitz once told the National Science Foundation.

In her niche field of genetics, Steitz knows more than most. But early in her career, she experienced what so many women of her generation ran up against in the 1960s: dismissive attitudes by men in their fields.

Today, Steitz is among the foremost experts in the world on ribonucleic acid (RNA) and has pioneered work on messenger RNA. BioNTech and Moderna would make mRNA the core of their vaccines now in widespread distribution to ward off COVID-19.

Steitz came to Yale University in 1970 with spouse Thomas Steitz, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2009 for his studies on the structure and function of the ribosome.

But Joan would make a series of breakthroughs all her own, notably to include the function of small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (“snurps,” colloquially) during pre-mRNA splicing. She is the only woman to win the National Medal of Science while affiliated with a Connecticut institution, in 1986, and today is a professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale.

“Starting in about 1970 when I was first offered an assistant professorship, other women began joining faculties,” Steitz said as part of an oral history project by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. “Women are still vastly underrepresented, but there’s been a lot of encouraging things [to] have happened. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t still problems that need to be overcome. … The trajectory is in the right direction, but one always fears that it’s just going to plateau and not keep going in the right direction.”

Eva Sapi
Lyme disease researcher

Dr. Eva Sapi, a Lyme disease expert and professor at the University of New Haven, with research assistants in 2020.

Dr. Eva Sapi, a Lyme disease expert and professor at the University of New Haven, with research assistants in 2020.

Peter Hvizdak / Hearst Connecticut Media

Eva Sapi, a professor of cellular and molecular biology at the University of New Haven, is an internationally recognized expert in Lyme disease research.

A native of Hungary, Sapi came to Connecticut in 1989 — the year the Berlin Wall fell — to do her post-doctorate work at Yale University. Before that, Sapi had worked as a biologist in her native land.

“When I came to this country, I trained as a cancer scientist, a biologist,” Sapi said. “I loved every minute of it, coming from a small country like I did.”

Sapi spent more than a decade conducting breast and ovarian cancer research at Yale before leaving for a position at the University of New Haven at the start of the 2000s.

Six months later, Sapi was diagnosed with Lyme disease. “It came with a brain fog as well as lots and lots of other symptoms,” she said. “I knew that people take antibiotics to treat it, and the minute they stop, the symptoms come back. I decided that I wanted to do something about it.”

Sapi has since become known worldwide for the study of biofilm — a thin, slimy film of bacteria — in human infected Borrelia tissue, which before 2016 was the only known cause of Lyme disease in North America.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the United States. It is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, and it is typically spread by ticks.

Biofilm, Sapi said, is found in everywhere, not just bacteria that attaches itself to human tissue. In the human body, “it is an extremely, extremely resistant to being treated with antibiotics,” she said.

A group of nurses learned Sapi was studying the relationship between breast cancer and Lyme disease, they encouraged her to continue. “Each and every one of them had contracted Lyme disease and then later were diagnosed with breast cancer,” Sapi said.

Now the director of UNH’s Lyme Disease Research Group, Sapi is also coordinator of the school’s graduate program in cellular and molecular biology.

Because of her research and work done by others, Sapi said she is confident that a new way of treating Lyme disease is possibly two or three years away. “I’m optimistic,” Sapi said.