Top 8 Female Nobel Prize Winners in Science

By: Laurie-Anne Vazquez 03/08/2015 9:38AM
Category: Women in Science

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:

MARIA GOEPPERT MAYER (1906 – 1972)

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.

MARIE CURIE (1867 – 1934)

Marie Curie was a powerhouse whose legacy impacts many fields today. First and foremost, she was a brilliant scientific mind who believed “nothing in life is to be feared… only to be understood.” Earning dual doctorates at the Sorbonne in Mathematics and Physics, Curie teamed up with her husband Pierre to conduct early research on radioactive isotopes. This research on radiation phenomena earned her first Nobel Prize in 1903. After Pierre’s tragic death, Curie discovered polonium and radium, and developed methods to separate radium from radioactive residues – allowing for closer research. That earned her second Nobel Prize, in 1911. She was particularly interested in the potential healing properties of radium, which she both actively promoted and studied during WWI with her daughter, Irene. She devoted her life to advocating for scientific advancement, and even established a radioactive laboratory in her hometown of Warsaw.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: WINNERS IN OTHER FIELDS

GERTY THERESA CORI (1896 – 1957)

Biochemist Gerty Cori was the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize – and the first woman to win for Physiology/Medicine. Together with husband Carl Cori and colleague Bernardo Houssay, she helped discover how glycogen (a derivative of glucose) is broken down into lactic acid, resynthesized, and stored as a source of energy in the body, winning the Nobel Prize in 1947. Cori continued her collaborating with her husband throughout her career, despite struggling to find research positions due to her gender – and her husband’s employers discouraging him from working with her for the sake of his reputation. Their perseverance paid off by having their work designated as National Historic Chemical Landmarks… and by Cori having two space objects named in her honor: the Cori crater on the Moon and the Cori crater on Venus.

FRANCOISE BARRÉ-SINOUSSI

When the AIDS outbreak began, scientists had never seen anything like it. They scrambled to figure out its cause… and virologist Francoise Barré-Sinoussi was fundamental in identifying the HIV virus as the cause. That discovery earned Barré-Sinoussi the Nobel Prize in 2008 and prompted her to start her own laboratory at the Pasteur Institute to create diagnostic tests to identify and control the spread of AIDS, as well as continuing to decipher the disease. She continues her research to this day, focusing on the disease’s various adaptive immune responses as well as initiating developing countries with the highest rates of infection – and training many young researchers at her Pasteur Institute lab. She is also the Immediate Past President of the International AIDS Society.

  

ELIZABETH H. BLACKBURN AND CAROL W. GREIDER

The first joint female Nobel Prize winners in a science category, Blackburn and then-graduate student Greider discovered the molecular nature of telomares and the telomerase enzyme. A telomere is a repeating DNA sequence at the end of a chain of chromosomes that caps each strand, acting as a protector and definitive end point in the chain so the next one knows where to begin. Telomerase is the enzyme that replenishes the telomere. Both are key in learning how aging and cancers develop, and the research earned the team their Nobel Prize in 2009. Both women continue their work in the field, with Greider acting as the Director of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Johns Hopkins and Dr. Blackburn acting as the president-elect of the American Association for Cancer Research as well as researching in her lab at the University of California San Francisco.

ROSALYN YALOW (1921 – 2011)

Nuclear physicist Rosalyn Yalow had the drive to inspire both fellow Nobel winner Gertrude Elion and the future “Queen of Carbon Science,” Mildred Dresselhaus. Yalow worked diligently alongside her male peers, earning both allies and foils as she developed the technique of radioimmunoassay for peptide hormones. That technique earned her the Nobel Prize in 1977, but she still faced discrimination, from being the only woman in the lab (and not having a separate bathroom) to not being given public credit by her research partner. “They had to have a war so that I could get a Ph.D. and a job in physics,” Yalow told her biographer – yet it was that struggle that enabled her to become a mentor to Dresselhaus.

DOROTHY CROWFOOT HODGKIN (1910 – 1994)

Biochemist Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin was the third woman to win a Nobel Prize in Chemisty. She developed protein crystallography by advancing the technique of x-ray crystallography to determine 3d structures of molecules. This technique allowed her to confirm the structure of penicillin and vitamin B12 – and 35 years after her win, to decipher the structure of insulin. She is widely regarded as a scientific pioneer… and even taught future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was so influenced by her that she had a portrait installed in 10 Downing Street.

COMPLETE LIST OF FEMALE NOBEL PRIZE WINNERS, BY SCIENTIFIC DISCIPLINE:

PHYSICS

  • 1903 – Marie Curie. "For joint research on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel."
  • 1963 – Maria Goeppert Mayer. "For discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure."

CHEMISTRY

  • 1911 – Marie Curie. "In recognition of their synthesis of new radioactive elements."
  • 1935 – Irene Joliot-Curie. "In recognition of their synthesis of new radioactive elements."
  • 1964 – Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin. "For her determinations by X-ray technique of the structures of important biochemical substances."
  • 2009 – Ada Yonath. "For studies of the structure and formation of the ribosome."

PHYSIOLOGY/MEDICINE

  • 1947 – Gerty Theresa Cori, nee Radnitz. "For the discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen."
  • 1977 – Rosalyn Yalow. "For the development of radioimmunoassays of peptide hormones."
  • 1983 – Barbara McClintock. "For her discovery of mobile genetic elements."
  • 1986 – Rita Levi-Montalcini. "For the discoveries of nerve growth factors in cancer cells."
  • 1988 – Gertrude B. Elion. "For the discoveries of important principles for drug treatment."
  • 1995 – Christiane Nusslein-Volhard. "For the discoveries concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development."
  • 2004 – Linda B. Buck. "For the discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system."
  • 2008 – Francoise Barre-Sinoussi. "for the discovery of human immunodeficiency virus."
  • 2009 – Elizabeth H. Blackburn & Carol W. Greider. "For the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase."
  • 2014 – May-Britt Moser. "For the discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain."

Many of these women had other Nobel winners as teachers and mentors, and history reveals that many of them needed male champions to legitimize their findings and help them gain wider recognition. While support of any scientific work is necessary for recognition on a global scale, very few female scientists have found it.

More compelling still, it’s no secret that many female scientists have been cheated out of that recognition – including Nobel Prizes – either because they lacked the support or had unscrupulous colleagues who took credit for their work.

Columbia physicist Chien Shiung Wu was one of these women. She began her work with the Manhattan Project and discovered in the mid 1950s that the Principle of Conservation of Parity was wrong, overturning a 30-year belief. Her findings led male colleagues Chen Ning Yang and Tsung Dao to win a Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery in 1957, though she was granted the 1978 Wolf Prize in Physics for her work.

Rosalind Franklin is another example. Franklin was an x-ray crystallographer who fine-tuned her equipment to produce extremely fine rays, revealing the molecular structures of DNA. Her hard-earned data was shared by colleague Maurice Wilkins with his other research partners without her knowledge, earning himself, James Watson, and Francis Crick the 1962 Nobel Prize for her efforts. Franklin is the poster child of women being denied scientific credit due to discrimination, and a foundation named in her honor works to prevent this from happening to female scientists.

There is one way we can help prevent this continued oversight, and that’s by making sure the discussion continues. Who do you think deserved a Nobel Prize and didn't get one? Add your voice to the comments below!

Love science? Get involved at the ground floor of discovery and help make physics happen. Click here to explore science in the making.

Posted on: 03/08/15 9:38AM
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Laurie-Anne Vazquez
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#MakePhysicsHappen @fiatphysica

“Fiat Physica shall hand the steering wheel of scientific innovation to the public, allowing them to contribute to science, communication, and discovery directly.”

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Chair of the Education and Public Outreach Committee, LIGO and Associate Professor of Physics, Columbia University
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