Polo Stories

Hidden Figures

“Hidden Figures” is a movie directed by Theodore Melfi, dedicated to 3 African American women mathematicians who worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during the Space Race. One of them, Katherine Johnson together with Margaret Hamilton were the protagonists of the first US flights into space and received America’s highest civilian honor from President Barack Obama: The Presidential Medal of Freedom. Katherine Johnson calculated the trajectories of humans first trips to space. She was the daughter of a lumberjack and a teacher, and was one of the first black women hired at NASA where she was appreciated for the accuracy in the calculations of computerized space navigation and for her managerial work. Margaret Hamilton specialized in computer science and, in the 1960s, was the director of MIT’s “Software Engineering Division” which developed the onboard software for the Apollo 11 program. Had you ever heard about these women that changed the World? Probably not! That’s why they are called… hidden figures!

“Hidden figures” is a very powerful couple of words, which regrettably describes the fate for many women in history, and even in the contemporary world. Women seem invisible in many scientific disciplines, or in the places where culture and knowledge was produced and reproduced for centuries: convents, research centers, universities and academia in general. But were they? A deafening void, even if not total, which lasts at least until the second half of the twentieth century. Yet, the world’s first university was founded by a woman: Fatima al-Fihri, from Tunisia’s Qairawan, who settled in Fez, Morocco with her family. She was born in 800 A.D. and her life holds many secrets, even to historians. What we know is that from the 10th century the famous mosque of al-Qarawiyyin became the first religious institute and developed into the world’s first university.


This article is dedicated to all hidden figures in history and in the modern world, because the extraordinary efforts and lives of these women might come to light and receive the recognition they deserve. It is also dedicated to the many women who have seen their work ignored and belittled in favor of the men who were next to them: from Sophie Brahe (sister of the astronomer Tycho) to Gabrielle du Chátelet (partner of Voltaire), to Marie Paulze Lavoisier (wife and collaborator of the well-known chemist) and Ada Byron, collaborator of Charles Babbage and programmer.

And it is not just a matter of events delivered to the now impartial (if impartial it can be) eye of history: as in the case of Rosalind Franklin, whose experimental contribution to the theory of Watson and Crick on the structure of DNA that earned the two researchers a Nobel Prize (but not to her), the contribution of the many women around of the world to science, art, literature, and all disciplines has often been underestimated. This show what difficulties women who choose to emerge, or simply to pursue a career have been facing. Bringing these stories to life is a powerful pedagogical message, and an obliged step towards recognizing a new role for women in society. I am thinking about Mary Seacole, a Jamaican nurse who wanted to help the English troops fighting in Crimea in 1854, but was refused the assignment. She, alone left Jamaica to travel to Crimea to pursue her call, and – alone – open her own hospital and took care of hundreds of soldiers, with her own resources. Different, but sadly destined to the same oblivion, the life of Mileva Maric, Einstein’s wife, whose role in defining the theory of relativity is only now surfacing. She and Albert Einstein met and fell in love at the Zurich Polytechnic where they studied Physics together. With their marriage in 1903 their collaboration became even more intense and until 1905, in the happiest period of their married life, the fundamental works on the special theory of relativity were born. In 1901, Albert wrote: “How happy and proud I will be when we have successfully completed our work on relative motion! When I observe other people, I appreciate your (Milena) qualities more and more!”. And in 1903: “I need my wife. She solves all my math problems.” Mileva, for her part, had given up mentioning her surname in her husband’s publications, she did not consider it necessary: “Albert and I are both one stone” (ein stein) “, she said to her friends. For this reason, this fusional love, she will disappear forever from the history of science.


“The contribution of the many women around of the world to science, art, literature, and all disciplines has often been underestimated”

How many women like them, have been forgotten, ignored, disdained, or misinterpreted? We will never know. History, written by men, has condemned women to anonymity. This is why we want, and we need to tell the stories of all the extraordinary women who have given their contribution to humanity, who have made a world a better place, who have struggled to help other women count. These women are still here today, and I am extremely glad to be part of the POLO platform and hear that POLO Stories will tell some of their narratives.

World Bank economist and community member of POLO Stories