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Nobel Prize women: the female scientists who should have been winners

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Which women should have won a Nobel Prize? E&T’s top ten honours those with a strong case who have been overlooked.

Comparatively few women have ever won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Even fewer have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Fewer still – a paltry two, in fact – have won the Nobel Prize in Physics. The current tally of female laureates in the three Nobel science categories stands at just 17. That’s low considering that the awards were first given out in 1901 and new laureates are announced annually.

In recent years there has been a clamour for changes to the system of selecting winners of what are considered the world’s foremost intellectual gongs. Pressure on the Swedish Academy, the secretive organisation in charge of the Nobels, is unlikely to abate amid the fallout from a sexual assault scandal that led to it postponing this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature.

In a bid to redress the balance, here, in no particular order, is E&T’s list of ten great women who arguably should have won in the Nobel Prize science categories but who, for whatever reason, were deemed not to have been worthy of the honour.

1. Lise Meitner

Considered by some to be the most significant woman scientist of the 20th century, Austrian-born Lise Meitner and her male colleague Otto Hahn led a group at Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry that discovered the nuclear fission of uranium, a breakthrough for which Hahn alone was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Meitner and Hahn collaborated over three decades. Their findings led to the development of nuclear weapons and reactors. While Hahn performed experiments that demonstrated the splitting of the atom, Meitner’s crucial contribution was in formulating a viable theory explaining how fission actually worked. Hahn published their findings in 1939 without Meitner as co-author, but according to some sources Meitner regarded this omission as understandable given that she had by then secretly fled Germany to escape persecution by the Nazis on account of her Jewish ethnicity – something that in turn made including her as co-author potentially hazardous for Hahn. According to the Nobel Prize nomination database, Meitner received 48 total chemistry and physics Nobel Prize nominations. Despite this, she was never made a laureate. She died in her adoptive home of Cambridge in 1968.

2. Chien-Shiung Wu

Dubbed the ‘First Lady of Physics’, Chinese-born Wu was recruited to Colombia University in the 1940s to be part of the Manhattan Project that produced the first nuclear weapons. She developed a process to enrich uranium ore so that it produced large enough quantities of uranium as fuel for atom bombs. She later conducted experiments using cobalt-60, which decays by emitting beta particles, to help disprove the ‘law of conservation of parity’, which held that two physical systems such as atoms that are mirror images should behave in symmetrical ways. This helped Wu’s male colleagues, Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee, win the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics. Wu later remarked wryly: “I wonder whether the tiny atoms and nuclei, or the mathematical symbols, or the DNA molecules have any preference for either masculine or feminine treatment.”

3. Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Originally from Northern Ireland, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars in the late 1960s while completing her PhD at Cambridge. Pulsars are remnants of massive stars that have gone into supernova but do not have enough mass for their cores to form black holes. Electrons combine with protons to form neutrons within their nuclei.These incredibly dense diminishing stars spin rapidly and also emit beams of radiation along their magnetic axis, which may not coincide with the axis of rotation, so from Earth they appear to ‘pulse’. Bell Burnell made her discovery using a telescope designed by her supervisor, Antony Hewish, which she had helped assemble. Hewish went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics for his ‘decisive role’ in the discovery of pulsars while Bell Burnell was – bafflingly – overlooked. Some prominent astronomers have since criticised this oversight by the Swedish Academy and suggested that it stemmed from institutional sexism in the organisation. In recent years Bell Burnell has been outspoken about the need to boost the number of women in STEM subjects.

4. Vera Rubin

American astrophysicist Vera Rubin drew upon her observations in the 1970s of the unexpected speed of movement of stars at the outer edges of galaxies to theorise that there is an invisible form of mass and source of gravitational attraction, termed ‘dark matter’, in the universe. While not the first to pinpoint this unsettling phenomenon – it had first been noticed by Fritz Zwicky four decades earlier – Rubin realised its relevance and demonstrated that Zwicky’s conclusions were well founded. Opinion varies as to what dark matter is, but according to Rubin it exists in abundance. Galaxies contain about 10 times as much ‘dark’ mass as they do visible stars. Dark matter makes up around a quarter of the cosmos. This mystery remains one of the most perplexing in science, but Rubin appeared to enjoy the enigma. In her 1997 book, ‘Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters’, she wrote: “Like Columbus, perhaps like the Vikings, we have peered into a new world and have seen that it is more mysterious and more complex than we had imagined. Still more mysteries of the universe remain hidden. Their discovery awaits the adventurous scientists of the future. I like it this way.” On her death, aged 88, in 2016, Rubin was hailed a “national treasure” by the president of the Carnegie Institution.

5. Rosalind Franklin

An English chemist whose contributions in the field of X-ray crystallography were crucial to our understanding of the molecular structure of DNA, Rosalind Franklin’s ‘Photograph 51’, which demonstrated DNA’s beautiful double helical structure, is considered one of the most important images of all time. She died in 1953, aged just 37, from ovarian cancer. Since Nobel prizes are never awarded posthumously, she was therefore ineligible to be made a laureate by the time her colleagues James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins had the famous accolade bestowed upon them in 1962. However, even if Franklin had not died so young it seems unlikely she would ever have been honoured alongside her co-researchers. Her biographer Brenda Maddox dubbed her the ‘Dark Lady of DNA’ in a reference to the disparaging stance her male peers took towards her. Although her contribution to molecular biology was not sufficiently appreciated in her own time, in recent decades her public renown has grown thanks to the release of several films, plays and books chronicling her life’s work.

6. Esther Lederberg

A pioneer of bacterial genetics and immunology, Lederberg’s work on antibiotic resistance helped her first husband, the molecular biologist Joshua Lederberg, win the Nobel prize. She was not mentioned in the award. In more than half a century of studies, Lederberg also discovered the lambda bacteriophage virus that lives in E coli and cuts itself off from the host’s DNA – an important breakthrough as it provided a tool for studying a variety of animal viruses, including the herpes virus and some tumour viruses, in the lab. Lederberg died in 2006, aged 83. At the time she was described by a colleague as a “trailblazer for women scientists at Stanford [where she worked].”

7. Mary-Claire King

Pioneering University of Washington geneticist Mary-Claire King has won many distinguished science prizes – but never the Nobel. She is most famous for her work identifying the ‘breast cancer gene’, BRCA1, but her PhD thesis outlining the molecular similarities between chimpanzees and humans – species that are, genetically speaking, 99 per cent the same – was also highly noteworthy. King initially trained in mathematics and said she fell in love with genetics while studying at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1960s. It was amid the countercultural movements of that decade that she also became politically engaged – an awakening that was later to dovetail with her work developing a genetic technique to identify children who were ‘disappeared’ by the military dictatorship in Argentina between 1975 and 1983. Her technique involved using mitochondrial DNA taken from a person’s teeth. In addition, King has undertaken groundbreaking work into the role played by genetic mutations in the development of schizophrenia. She was played by Helen Hunt in the 2013 film of her life.

8. Joan Steitz

American biochemist Joan Steitz’s career has spanned huge advancements in the field of genetics which in turn have yielded groundbreaking new therapies – developments her own discoveries helped hasten. She is best known for her discoveries pinpointing the interaction between ribosomes – components of cells involved in the process of translating portions of DNA into proteins – and the genetic ‘messenger molecules’ known as mRNA. She has expanded science’s understanding of the molecular ‘splicing’ process, another vital part of the journey from DNA to proteins. Steitz studied under James Watson, who had won the Nobel prize in 1962 for his part in the discovery of the double helical structure of DNA. She is married to Thomas Steitz, who won the Nobel ‘for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome’. Her work enabled the development of early RNA-based therapeutics as a new class of treatment for certain diseases, and she has been described as a “crusader for women in science”. Steitz once remarked: “A woman is expected to be twice as good for half as much.”  

9. Mildred Dresselhaus

When she died last year at the age of 86, Mildred ‘Millie’ Dresselhaus, known as the ‘Queen of Carbon Science’, was eulogised by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) president L Rafael Reif as “an exceptionally creative scientist and engineer who was also a delightful human being”. Her research made fundamental discoveries about the electronic structure of semi-metals, and she has been credited with being a major force ushering in the age of nanotechnology through her work on graphite. Dresselhaus won numerous awards during her life, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was presented to her by Barack Obama, and the National Medal of Science. She had a long commitment to promoting women in STEM subjects, and she organised, together with a colleague, the first Women’s Forum at MIT in 1971.

10. Fabiola Gianotti

An Italian particle physicist who was Cern’s first female director general, Gianotti led the Atlas project during the period spanning the momentous discovery of the elusive Higgs boson, the so-called ‘God particle’, which is considered key to understanding the building blocks of the universe. Since 1994 Gianotti has been a research physicist in the physics department of Cern, the European organisation for nuclear research. She has worked on major experiments including using the Large Electron Positron Collider, which was the precursor to the Large Hadron Collider.  

Not so noble?

Prize controversies of world’s most famous awards

The Nobel Prize has long attracted controversy, whether on account of its recipients or the secrecy shrouding the decisions made. One of many controversial Nobel laureates is Henry Kissinger, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 but whom critics believe should instead have been handed a ‘Nobel Prize for War’ on account of America’s Cold War military interventions.

Other contentious winners have included Fritz Haber, the German scientist who helped create some of the world’s first chemical weapons, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese leader latterly accused of having turned a blind eye to genocide. Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite who established the prize system, was – ironically – a pacifist. Several men whose discoveries inadvertently paved the way for the creation of nuclear weapons have been honoured as recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics over the years.

The Swedish Academy, a secretive organisation that exists under the auspices of Sweden’s royal family, picks prize winners following a complex nomination and filtering process. The categories themselves appear to have been chosen somewhat at random. There is a Nobel Prize in Physics, a Nobel Prize in Chemistry and a Nobel Prize in ‘Physiology or Medicine’ – but none covering biology per se.

The arbitrary stipulation that a prize may be divided between no more than three persons sits uneasily with the complex reality of modern science and engineering, where great discoveries are often the fruits of decades of painstaking experimentation by scores of researchers who themselves are ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ of the past. There is also usually a time lag between discoveries being made and prizes being awarded – something that is further complicated by the odd-seeming rule that awards must not be bestowed posthumously.

The Swedish Academy is currently embroiled in a damaging sexual assault scandal that has led to it postponing this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. Sweden’s King, Carl XVI Gustaf, has said he intends to change the Academy’s statutes to make it easier to bring in new members to help make decisions in future. Under current statutes, members are elected for life and cannot technically resign. Some critics say further changes are needed to force the awards to become more diverse and democratic.

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