Everyone knows that Marie Curie is the first woman to ever win a Nobel Prize. Most people know that she won twice. Few people know she is one of only two Nobel winners ever to win in two different sciences… and even fewer know the names of any other women who’ve been awarded a Nobel Prize in a scientific field.
Thankfully, more brilliant scientists have embraced the example set by Curie and continued her legacy, becoming pioneers for future female scientists in their own right. While we originally intended for this list to focus on female Nobel Prize winners in physics, we discovered there were only two. We’d like to see more, and we’re happy to have the opportunity to broaden our scope to reflect the accomplishments of all of these women. We find them inspiring – and we hope you do, too. Here are our Top 8 most inspiring female Nobel Prize winners in all scientific fields:
The second woman ever to win a Nobel Prize – and the first (and only) to win for theoretical physics – Maria Mayer helped introduced the nuclear shell model in 1963. She got her start in quantum mechanics at university in 1924, when the field was new and rife for exploration, and was fortunate to have future Nobel Prize winner Max Born as a mentor. She continued her work in physics “just for fun” when her husband took a professorship at Johns Hopkins, and subsequently found herself either unable to obtain a job because of her gender or assigned to side projects to keep her out of the way… until she arrived at the Argonne National Laboratory, where she was hired in the Nuclear Physics department (despite knowing very little about nuclear physics!). There she was able to learn nuclear physics with help from mentor Enrico Fermi (for whom Chicago’s National Accelerator Laboratory –Fermilab – was named) and begin working on nuclear shell theory.
Mayer was instrumental in explaining how atomic particles arranged themselves around the nucleus of an atom by honing the magic numbers theory – the correct number of atoms needed to create self-organizing, stable shell structures within atoms. This theory explains why some atomic elements are stable and others are not, and even accounts for the existence of isotopes. She shared the Nobel Prize for this accomplishment with three male physicists.