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Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Early Ukrainian Women Scientists: Part 2 – From Mushrooms to Physics, a Programming Language, Plants, & Bees – Absolutely Maybe – PLOS

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The 5 women in this second part bring us to people born in the 20th century. The 3-part series covers a small selection from the massive legacy of early Ukrainian women scientists’ science, initiative, and courage – 15 amazing people born up to 1934, coming in groups of 5, in birth order. Each bio begins with a very short summary, so you can scroll through the pictures and summaries to get a quick impression of these people’s lives and achievements.
Usually, when I write posts about scientists in history, I’m talking about the barriers of gender and racial discrimination people faced. The scientists in this series also worked and lived through unimaginably perilous times. For most of the women in part 2, the purges and the gulags – the brutal forced labor camps for political prisoners – reached their close personal and professional circles.
As usual, great barriers to people in life often translates into the iniquity of historical erasure, too. For fellow Wikipedians, I note these scientists’ status on Wikipedia, in case you’re inspired to pitch in. For all the women in this series, there are articles that are thin or missing in English and Ukrainian – and all can be improved.
Mycologist Mariya Zerova was born today in 1902 and studied fungal diseases of crops like rubber and beets, as well as the symbioses between ectotrophic mycorrhizae and vascular plants. The Nat’l Herbarium of Ukraine holds some 12k specimens she collected from the steppe. pic.twitter.com/SiFcMVH0sb
Mariya Y. Zerova (née Dudnyk) was born in 1902 in Koziatyn, south-west of Kyiv, when it was part of the Kyiv directorate of the Russian Empire. Her father worked for the railways. The family moved to Kyiv when she was 2. Dudnyk graduated from high school in 1917 and studied at the Kyiv Medical Institute. However, 3 years in she got tuberculosis, and when she recovered she had to change career course. She completed a degree in biology, and taught secondary school for a time. It’s not clear if her new partner influenced the choice: Dudnyk married botanist Dmytro K. Zerov while a student.
Zerova began her research career in sugar beet and rubber industry institutes. Her next area was in a forestry institute, where she identified 4 new species of fungi. In 1942 she gained her PhD after a dissertation on ascomycetes, a type of fungus in which she continued to specialize, developing expertise in pure culture techniques. She then moved to the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Botany, where she remained for the rest of her career. Her husband had been working there for a decade, and she worked in the department he was heading at the time. (In 1946, he became the Institute’s director and editor-in-chief of the Ukrainian Botanical Journal.)
In the early 1950s, she began to study fungi on tree of the Ukrainian steppe. She collected more than 12,000 specimens of 1,000 types from the steppe for the Institute’s collection. She extended her study of particular types of fungi to other areas of Ukraine, again discovering previously undescribed species. This expertise, and more than 25 years of her research on ascomycetes form the basis of some of her major contributions to the 1971 Guide to the Identification of Fungi of Ukraine. She wrote a popular book on edible and poisonous mushrooms in Ukraine called The Atlas of Ukrainian Fungi (see below), along with more than 200 scientific publications.
Zerova was an advocate of a specific diet which she followed for life, involving freshly brewed buckwheat for breakfast and Tibetan tea a half an hour before each meal. Her husband died in 1971, and she died in 1994. She was survived by her daughter, Marina Zerova, who became an entomologist – who will appear later in this series.
Sources: English, Spanish, and Ukrainian Wikipedia articles, bio on Cybertruffle website (which includes a lot of detail on her scientific work), National Library of Ukraine entry for Dmytro K. Zerov (which includes a photo of both Zerov and Zerova, with graduate students in 1964).
Wikipedia notes: Medium-length article in English, longer article in Ukrainian, 6 other languages.
You can buy a copy of the 1974 edition of Zerova’s Atlas of Mushrooms – or flick through some of the pages and illustrations – here.

…Physicist Antonina F. Prikhot’ko (1906-1995), who first demonstrated the existence of the quasi-particles now called excitons… pic.twitter.com/eD5OpnVRor
Antonina F. Prikhot’ko was born in 1906 in Pyatigorsk, in southern Russia. I couldn’t find out anything about her until she started her undergraduate studies in 1923 at the university in Saint Petersburg. Early in her studies she began studying spectroscopy – used to study the absorption and emission of electromagnetic radiation – under Ivan V. Obreimov. Obreimov would later become her PhD supervisor.
It sounds like she went into postgraduate studies following her first degree, as she is reported to have graduated in 1929. She met her husband while she was a student – physicist Alexander I. Leipunsky (1903-1972). He had started studying at the same university as her, in the same year. Leipunsky was detained by the Soviet secret police at some point around then, and then he went to work in Germany for a while. In October 1928 he went to work in Ukraine at the newly formed Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology (UPTI), for which Obreimov was the first director. Prikhot’ko moved there too, in 1930. At some point along the way, they were married: their daughter, Nina, was born in Kharkiv in May that year.
Obreimov had pioneered low-temperature spectroscopy of molecular crystals, and Prikhot’ko extended that work. She gained her PhD in 1934. In 1933, Leipunsky had been appointed director of the Institute, but in 1937, he was removed from the post on political grounds. In 1938, he was arrested as part of the Stalinist purge at the Institute called the UPTI affair, involving 16 scientists. One of them, Lev Shunikov, was executed, though later exonerated. Leipunsky spent 2 months in prison.
Prikhot’ko kept working at UPTI, except for a period of evacuation during World War 2. She had been doing the experiments that resulted in her most influential scientific achievement – the first demonstration of the existence of the quasiparticles, excitons. They can transport energy and are used in technologies like superconductors and light-emitting diodes. She published her paper on this in 1944. That year, she moved to the Institute of Physics (IOP) in Kyiv when Leipunsky was appointed director there, and she established a division for studying the physics of crystals. The Institute as a whole played a role in the development of nuclear energy for the USSR.
In 1965, Prikhot’ko became the Institute’s director. By then, her daughter Nina was working at the Institute of Archaeology – she gained her PhD in history in 1975. That year, her son, Yuriy Reznikov, was recruited to the IOP by his grandmother. He had become a physicist, and became an expert in liquid crystals. In 2000, the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine inaugurated an AF Prikhot’ko prize. Her grandson was it awarded it in 2012.
Prikhot’ko is one of the scientists honored in the Ukrainian STEM is fem project. Olga Degtyaryova won a prize in the young students’ competition in that project for her essay on Prikhot’ko.
Sources: English and Ukrainian Wikipedia articles, Russian Wikipedia article about her husband, English Wikipedia article about Lev Shubnikov, Mitya Reznikov & co’s 2018 article about Yuriy Reznikov, encyclopedia entries about her husband and daughter, Ukrainian Wikipedia article on the UPTI affair.
Wikipedia notes: Short article in English, longer in Ukrainian, 4 other languages.
Dariya N. Dobroczayeva (née Kovalczuk) was born in Khyshnyky village in northwest Ukraine in 1916 when it was part of the Russian Empire. (Her name is also written Daryna Mykytivna Dobrochaeva – I’ve used the spelling from the International Plant Names Index.) She had 3 brothers. Her parents were peasant workers who passed on their love of nature to their daughter, and encouraged all their children to pursue education.
After she finished school and took some additional courses, Dobroczayeva began teaching in a rural school. She decided to study further, enrolling in the North Caucasus Veterinary and Zoological Institute, then Rostov University. In 1933 she transferred to Kharkiv University in eastern Ukraine. That was where she was inspired to a deeper love and interest in plants by a professor of botany, Yuri D. Kleopov. After joining one of his field trips to the Caucasus mountains in 1936, she was hooked on botany as a specialty. After graduation, on Kleopov’s recommendation she joined the Institute of Botany in Kyiv, and began studying the genus of Centaurea in Ukraine.
One of her brothers, Andrew, was arrested during Stalin’s 1937 purge and sent to a gulag (forced labor camp for political prisoners) north of Moscow (the Volga Camp). Dobroczayeva was greatly distressed, and traveled hundreds of miles to the gulag to try, unsuccessfully, to see him. She also tried, unsuccessfully, to pass a letter to him through the fence. She pushed for meetings with officials in Moscow to get his case reconsidered.
Her studies were also interrupted by World War 2 and the evacuation of the university. She had married a pilot-engineer, Pavlo H. Dobroczayeva, and he was killed by advancing German troops in Poltava, Ukraine (presumably 1941). Now a widow, she volunteered to join an aviation division fighting at the front. Her brother, Andrew, died in the gulag in late 1942 or early 1943. (She and another brother continued to push to clear his name, and succeeding in getting him exonerated in 1959.)
After the war, she returned to the Institute of Botany in Kyiv and finished a dissertation on Centaurea, including the identification of 5 new cornflowers, gained her first post-graduate qualification in 1946. Dobroczayeva continued to work in the Institute, and in 1966 was appointed head of the Institute’s Botanical Museum. In 1978, she was awarded her PhD for her dissertation on Boraginales.
Dobroczayeva studied flowers, weeds, and biodiversity. As well as the usual scientific and public education and exhibition work of a museum, she participated in publishing a popular science book on flora. She contributed more than 30,000 herbarium sheets from her field trips internationally, ultimately described 21 new flowers, and published over 200 scientific papers and monographs. She was also a major contributor to a 2-volume book on the flora of the USSR.
Dobroczayeva also studied the history of botany, especially overlooked and repressed botanists. She promoted their research, and wrote articles and biographies.
Dobroczayeva studied flowers, weeds, and biodiversity. As well as the usual scientific and public education and exhibition work of a museum, she participated in publishing a popular science book on flora. She contributed more than 30,000 herbarium sheets from her field trips internationally, ultimately described 21 new flowers, and published over 200 scientific papers and monographs. She was also a major contributor to a 2-volume book on the flora of the USSR. In 1985, a genus of Centaurea was named in her honor, and in 2006, the Botanical Museum was named after her.
Sources: English and Ukrainian Wikipedia articles, encyclopedia entry, 2016 volume from her university colleagues on the 100th anniversary of her birth (includes excerpts from her own account of her life, photos of her, and many photos of specimens). There’s another tribute volume, too, that you can download here, with many personal photos in it, but because of the way it’s saved I couldn’t cut and paste to translate for use in this post.
Wikipedia notes: Short article in English, much longer Ukrainian, 5 other languages.
Kateryna L. Yushchenko (née Rvacheva) was born in 1919 in Chyhyryn in central Ukraine (between Kyiv and Dnipro). It was the time between Russian Revolution and the formation of the USSR. Her parents were teachers – her mother taught mathematics, and her father, history. Her father was a Russian, who had moved to Ukraine because he was forbidden from living in central Russia – he had spent several years in exile in Astrakhan because of political activity. Kateryna was the fourth of 5 children. Her 2 sisters, Lyudmila and Mykola, became teachers, too, and her brothers both became academics in science fields (Volodymyr was an applied mathematician and engineer, and Alexei was a professor at the Kharkiv Aviation Institute).
Her interests as a child were mathematics, history, and literature. She wrote poems, which, she said in her personal memoirs, helped her through the grim times she faced as an adult. Those times started soon after she entered university. In the 1937 purge, her father was arrested. Her mother took documents into the police that she believed could establish his innocence. They burned the documents in front of her, and arrested her too. She was imprisoned till 1940 – her husband died in the gulag in 1943.
Ryacheva had started at the University in Kyiv, but she was expelled after her parents’ arrest as a “daughter of enemies of the people”. She applied to Moscow University and was accepted, but housing wasn’t provided so it was impossible for her. She was 17. She applied to another university that offered a scholarship. However, after she arrived and they realized her political status, they withdrew the offer. On a noticeboard there, she saw the Uzbek University in Samarkand offered housing, scholarship, and travel costs to students, so she applied and was accepted. Poems she wrote in those hard years expressed her homesickness and longing to be back.
During the war, that university merged with another university in Tashkent, and she was transferred there, where she also worked in a factory producing sights for tank guns. Ryacheva graduated in 1942, with marks so good, that the first time an academic glanced at her diploma, he offered her a mathematical research position. In 1942, though, she could not return to Ukraine because of the German occupation. She worked as a detonator in coal mines – and that was as hard and dangerous as it sounds. When the occupation was over in 1944, she returned to Ukraine to live with family and work as a high school teacher.
In 1946, a branch of the Russian Institute of Mathematics was opened in Lviv, and Ryacheva got a job there. She wrote a dissertation on probability theory (quantum mechanics) and got married in the years between then and 1950. Her husband was Alexei A. Yushchenko, and it sounds like he may have been a colleague at the Institute. In 1950, she defended her dissertation, gaining the first level of Russian PhD, and was pregnant with the first of their 3 children.
Yushchenko arrived in Kyiv at an historical moment for computer science in Ukraine. Sergei A. Lebedev was creating the first computer in the USSR there – possibly the first in continental Europe. It was called by the abbreviation MESM, for small electronic computing machine, but of course it was huge by our standards – a computer took up a whole room back then. (You can see a picture of Lebedev’s MESM here.) Yushchenko switched to the new discipline of mathematics needed for computer science.
The first computer programming language (Plankalkül) had been developed by Konrad Zuse in Nazi Germany during the war. The first major computer in the US, ENIAC, completed in 1945, had no programming language, and there was a flurry of development of coding after the war. Yushchenko collaborated on the first programming language for MESM, completed in 1952. She had been given a series of challenges for programming language to solve. By 1954, she was heading a new department and was on the way to completing her big breakthrough: Address, a new programming language that was produced in 1955.
Address was the programming language that was used on the early generations of computers in the USSR. Its revolution was in the name: it provided addresses, so that the computer could locate contents – a process that developed into what are now called pointers. This meant that people could undertake various functions and develop programs without having to re-program the computer’s underlying programming code. Because it was behind the Iron Curtain, Address wasn’t recognized outside, where an American software engineer in Sweden is given credit for inventing pointers in 1964.
Address had other innovative features, too, and it was used for 20 years, fueling the Soviet Union’s scientific and economic growth. The Institute was given a wide range of major computing tasks. For example, Yushchenko programmed a way to calculate buildings’ thermal stresses.
Yushchenko’s academic and programming theory progress continued. In 1962, when the Institute of Cybernetics of the National Academy of Sciences was established in Ukraine, she was head of the department of programming theory. She worked there for the rest of her career, developing theory, teaching and supervising postgraduate students, publishing papers and writing books, achieving several copyrights, and garnering major awards.
Yushchenko had 9 grandchildren when she died in 2001. She is one of the Ukrainian scientists featured in the amazing STEM is Fem project, which means she’s featured on a stamp in Ukraine. Marta Shvets wrote an essay about her that won one of the young people’s awards in that project.
Sources: An excerpt from Yushchenko’s memoir, English and Ukrainian Wikipedia articles for her and her brother, detail-rich bio at the Cherkasy regional library, Wikipedia’s timeline of programming languages, 2021 article by Yuriy Yushchenko on the development of pointers in MESM (which draws on Kateryna Yushchenko’s memoir – I don’t know if they’re related).
Wikipedia notes: Medium-length article in English, extensive article in Ukrainian, 12 other languages.
There is a photo of Osychnyuk here.
Anna Z. Osychnyuk was born in 1926 in a village called Bandurovka in Korovohrad Oblast, a region south of Kyiv. At that time, it was part of the Soviet Union. She developed her lifelong interest in bees when she was a student at the National University of Kyiv, graduating in 1952. Osychnyuk gained her doctorate in 1955, with a dissertation on the bees of the Steppe (the great Eurasian grassland that crosses Ukraine). The following year she started work at the leading zoological institution in eastern Europe – the Schmalhausen Institute of Zoology in Kyiv, where she spent her career.
Osychnyuk’s first major scientific achievement was the publication of a book on bees in 1970. Her particular interest was the relationship between bees and the flowering plants of Ukraine, especially lucerne (alfalfa) – a shared interest with her botanist husband. She went on to specialize in Andrena bees, studying the collections in Moscow and St Petersburg. That was alongside many field trips in the Soviet countries. Osychnyuk was a leading international expert in these bees – she identified and described 86 types and 7 subgenera of Andrena (and, apparently, some other bees as well). She published a major monograph on Andrena bees in 1977, and her German colleagues described her 1978 key to Andrena as setting international standards.
Osychnyuk died in an accident in Kyiv in 1998. Her German colleagues published a detailed list of 51 of her scientific publications, plus citations for all the published descriptions for bees she identified and described. Multiple bee taxa and subgenera have been named in her honor.
Sources: Ukrainian Wikipedia, obituary by German colleagues.
Wikipedia notes: Short article in Ukrainian, 1 other language.
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More in this series:
Science For Ukraine is a forum for finding, sharing, and offering opportunities and assistance for Ukrainian scientists affected by Russia’s war on the country. (On Twitter.)
Carathe Council for At-Risk Academics – is also active in supporting Ukrainians needing help, as well as Russian academics at risk because of their opposition to the war. Cara continues to support academics at risk globally. (On Twitter.)
The cover for Zerova’s 1974 edition of Atlas of Mushrooms is included under fair use to illustrate the discussion of the book.
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