I have lots of very exciting things on the way for International Women’s Day (8 March) but I couldn’t let this very first International Day of Women and Girls in Science pass without comment, so I thought I’d revisit a post I wrote way back in 2013. Back then, I was involved with the What I See initiative – and I wrote two blog posts for it. The first one was all about imposter syndrome experienced by many women in science and engineering, and the second introduced you to some of the giantesses of science. It is that second post that I feel needs some serious updating!
Below is a list of seventeen Nobel Laureates in Chemistry, Physics, and Physiology or Medicine. They are all women. How many names do you recognise?
- Marie Curie, née Sklodowska — Physics 1903 AND Chemistry 1911 – Curie was a woman of many ‘firsts’, and remains the only person history to be awarded a Nobel in two different sciences. Her first prize was shared with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel and was for their work in radioactivity. Her second prize was awarded to Curie alone, in honour of her work on the radioactive elements that she discovered – Radium and Polonium. Curie also demonstrated that the x-rays produced by the decay of radioactive elements could be used to treat tumours.
- Iréne Joliot-Curie — Chemistry 1935 – Joliot-Curie was the daughter of Pierre and Marie Curie (see above). Carrying on a remarkable family tradition, she shared the 1935 Chemistry prize with her husband Frédéric Joliot for “their synthesis of new radioactive elements”. This work eventually led another group to discover nuclear fission – the basis of all nuclear power plants.
- Gerty Cori, née Radnitz — Physiology or Medicine 1947 – Cori shared her prize with her husband Carl and Bernarco Houssay. They discovered the mechanism by which glycogen—a derivative of glucose —is broken down in muscle tissue into lactic acid. Their discovery of the Cori Cycle continues to impact athletes a sports-people, the world over.
- Maria Goeppert Mayer – Physics 1963 – Mayer shared her prize with two others “for their discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure”. Mayer’s model was the first to prove that electrons orbit in “shells” (or orbitals) around an atomic nucleus, a discovery that changed chemistry and atomic physics.
- Dorothy Hodgkin — Chemistry 1964 – Hodgkin was the sole recipient of the Chemistry prize in 1964, for using x-ray imaging techniques to determine the structures of “…important biochemical substances”. This includied B12, a vitamin which plays a key role in the brain and nervous system, and in the formation of blood.
- Rosalyn Yalow — Physiology or Medicine 1977 – Yalow shared her prize with two others, and was awarded for her development of the radioimmuniassay (RIA) technique. Her discovery went on to revolutionise research and medical practise, and is still the main technique used in blood banking, the diagnosis of allergies and endocrinology (hormones).
- Barbara McClintock — Physiology or Medicine 1977 – McClintock was the sole recipient of the 1977 prize, and it was awarded for her discovery of genetic transposition, a process by where DNA sequences can move from one location on the genome to another, causing mutation. This work has gone on to change how cancer genes are identified.
- Rita Levi-Montalcini — Physiology or Medicine 1986 – Levi-Montalcini shared the 1986 prize with her colleague Stanley Cohen, for their discovery of nerve growth factors – proteins important for the growth, maintenance, and survival of certain neurons in the body. This work may offer a potential route to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
- Gertrude Elion — Physiology or Medicine 1988 – Elion shared the prize with two others, for their work on drug treatments. Some of her inventions have gone on to be used in the treatment of malaria, leukaemia, herpes, gout and meningitis.
- Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard — Physiology or Medicine 1995 – Nüsslein-Volhard shared the prize with two others, for their work on the genetic control of embryonic development. Her experiments were based on fruit flies but are directly relevant to identifying the genes vital to human development in the womb.
- Linda Buck — Physiology or Medicine 2004 – Buck shared her prize with one other scientist, for their “discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system”. Buck’s research targeted the genes that define a mammal’s sense of smell.
- Françoise Barre-Sinoussi — Physiology or Medicine 2008 – Barre-Sinoussi shared her prize with her colleague Luc Montagnier, awarded for their joint discovery of HIV. She went on to develop the diagnostic test needed to identify the disease, and continues to work on the treatment of the virus in developing countries.
- Elizabeth Blackburn and….
- Carol Greider— Physiology or Medicine 2009 – Blackburn and Greider shared the 2009 prize with another colleague, Jack W. Szostak. It was awarded for their discovery of telomere, a structure at the end of chromosomes that protects it, and for their discovery of the enzyme telomerase. Telomerase plays a role in ageing, cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
- Ada Yonath — Chemistry 2009 – Yonath became the first female recipient of the chemistry Nobel in 45 years, when she shared the 2009 prize. Her work determined the structure of the ribosome – a large and complex molecular machine, found within all living cells, that creates proteins. She continues to work on providing access to antibiotics for people in developing nations.
- May Britt-Moser — Physiology or Medicine 2014 – Britt-Moser is a neuroscientist, who, along with her then-husband Edvard, discovered the brain’s positioning system. It’s more about just finding your way around though, it has implications in other into cognitive processes, such as memory.
- Youyou Tu — Physiology or Medicine 2015 – Tu was recruited into a secret medical research project in 1969 by chairman Mao, in the midst of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The result of her work was a drug that cut malaria mortality rates in Africa and Asia, saving millions of lives.
These women are all remarkable. Their achievements are numerous and their discoveries earth-shattering. They are undoubtedly an inspiration to women (and men!) the world over. The only blot on this otherwise shiny landscape of great science produced by great women is that this is not a select list of my favourite female Nobel Science Laureates. This is a list of ALL of the women who have ever been awarded a (science) Nobel Prize.
According to NobelPrize.org, the Physics prize has been awarded to 201 individuals, the Chemistry prize has gone to to 172 individuals and the Physiology or Medicine prize to 210 individuals… Leading to a grand total of 583 science Laureates awarded between 1901 and 2015.
On only 18 occasions (because Marie Curie won two), those recipients have been women. For me, this doesn’t say a damn thing about the quality of research being carried out by women all over the world. It speaks volumes about the selection system. But that’s a rant for another day. Lately I’ve spent a lot of time speaking to remarkable female scientists and engineers, and on more than one occasion, their work has blown my mind! I can’t wait to share the results of those conversations with you – keep your eyes on the blog in early March for all things International Women’s Day!