Women in Science: Nobel Prize edition

Over the past week, the Nobel Committee has announced its 2011 award winners. Leymah Gbowee, Tawakul Karman, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but they were the only women honored this year. In fact, since the awards were created in 1901, only 43 women have been awarded Nobel Prizes or the associated Prize in Economic Science, out of a total of 853 Nobel Laureates. In the sciences, there have been only two women to win the prize in Physics, four to win in Chemistry, and ten to win in Medicine and Physiology. Today we’ll take a closer look at the women who are Nobel Laureates in Physics and Chemistry.

Marie Curie, née Maria Sklodowska, (1867-1934) is one of the rarest sort of Nobel Laureate. She is one of only four individuals and two organizations to be awarded multiple Prizes, and the only one to win in two different sciences, Physics and Chemistry. She first won in 1903, sharing half the prize in Physics with her husband, Pierre Curie, with the other half going to Henri Becquerel. Bequerel was awarded for his discovery of natural radioactivity in uranium atoms in 1896, and the Curies were awarded for their ensuing joint research on radiation. The Curies were able to isolate the elements radium and polonium from uranium ores, with Mme. Curie discovering the method to isolate radium atoms in sufficient quantities to study. In 1911, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for her continued work in radioactivity. In 1934 she passed away from aplastic anemia, likely caused by her exposure to so much radioactive material (at the time, no one knew radiation was harmful to humans).

In 1935, Marie and Pierre Curie’s daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie (1897-1956), was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry alongside her husband, Frédéric Joliot, for continuing her parents’ work with radioactivity. Her studies at the Faculty of Science in Paris were interrupted by World War I, during which she served as a nurse radiographer, but she returned to her studies after the war and became a Doctor of Science in 1925. Joliot and Joliot-Curie were the first scientists to turn one element into another, creating new radioactive isotopes of phosphorus and silicon along with a radioactive form of nitrogen. Later, her work on the effects of neutrons on heavy elements contributed to the eventual discovery of uranium fission. Sadly, like her mother, her lifelong work with radiation contributed to her death from leukemia in 1958.

Maria Goeppert Mayer (1906-1972) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963, alongside Eugene Wigner and J. Hans D. Jensen. She received a doctorate in theoretical physics in 1930, but for years she wasn’t taken seriously as a scientist because she was a woman. Finally she was hired as a physics professor at the University of Chicago in 1946 and also began to work at the Argonne National Laboratory, where she began to learn nuclear physics. She began working with “magic numbers,” which explain why some elements are much more stable than others due to the arrangement of their nuclei. She shared the Nobel with Wigner and Jansen because they were working on nuclear structure at the same time; their work helped support the conclusions she had reached and vice versa. She also studied optical opacity alongside Edward Teller; her work contributed to the design of the first hydrogen bomb.

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-1994) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964 for her work in X-ray crystallography. She began studying chemistry at Oxford University in 1928 then transferred to Cambridge in 1932 after learning about the work on organic compounds being done there by her evental mentor, J.D. Bernal. Two years later she returned to Oxford and became a research fellow, using x-ray technology to confirm the molecular structure of penicillin as surmised by Ernst Boris Chain, and then in 1954 she discovered the structure of vitamin B12, for which she eventually won the Nobel. She also later determined the structure of insulin molecules. Understanding the way these compounds are arranged at a molecular level is critical to understanding for they interact with other compounds within our bodies.

In 2009, Ada E. Yonath (born 1939) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry alongside Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas A. Steitz for their works in determining the structure and function of ribosomes. Despite an impoverished childhood, she was able to attend the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and then earned a PhD in x-ray crystallography from the Weizmann Institute of Science in 1968. Using many of the the x-ray techniques pioneered by Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, along with introducing the new technique of cryo-bio crystallography (studying molecules at extremely cold temperatures in order to stabilize them), she was able to detail the structure of ribosomes and the methods they use to translate RNA to form proteins. Ribosomes in bacteria can be targeted by antibiotics; her work led to better understanding of drug-resistant strains and developing new antibiotics to target the structure of ribosomes to prevent them from replicating. Yonath was the first Israeli woman to become a Nobel Laureate.

This post originally appeared on Persephone Magazine on October 12, 2011.

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