15 Women Who've Won Science Nobel Prizes Since Marie Curie
Madame Marie Curie famously snagged two Nobel Prizes—for Physics in 1903 with husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel, and again in 1911 for Chemistry after discovering radium and polonium—but many other women have also been awarded the Physics, Chemistry, and Physiology or Medicine Nobels, too. Here are their stories.
1. Irène Joliot-Curie (1935, Chemistry)
The second woman to win a Nobel was Irène Curie, daughter of Pierre and Marie. She shared the Prize with her husband, Jean Frédéric Joliot-Curie, for their discovery of “artificial radioactivity,” which they achieved by bombarding boron, aluminum, and magnesium with alpha particles to create radioactive isotopes. The Curies have more Nobel laureates than any other family.
The pair publically adopted a hyphenated surname, but according to their daughter Hélène Langevin-Joliot, "Many people used to name my parents Joliot-Curie, but they signed their scientific papers Irène Curie and Frédéric Joliot."
2. Gerty Theresa Cori (1947, Physiology or Medicine)
Gerty and her husband, Carl Cori, met in Prague and lived in Austria before immigrating to the United States in 1922, where the two medical doctors worked together (against the advice of their colleagues) at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in New York. The Coris studied carbohydrate metabolism, a specialty largely driven by Gerty’s father, a diabetic who asked her to find a cure for his disease.
Though their collaboration was unusual (even called “un-American,” according to Carl’s autobiography), the Coris were an amazing team. Gerty was given first author credit on most of their papers, indicating that she did the majority of the research. In 1929, they proposed “the Cori cycle,” a hypothetical model of how the body uses chemical reactions to break down carbohydrates.
In 1947, Gerty and Carl were awarded the Nobel in Physiology or Medicine, making Gerty Cori the first woman to hold the honor. In his speech, Carl spoke of their teamwork: "Our collaboration began 30 years ago when we were still medical students at the University of Prague and has continued ever since. Our efforts have been largely complementary, and one without the other would not have gone as far as in combination."
3. Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1963, Physics)
German-born Maria Goeppert-Mayer studied Mathematics and Physics at the University of Göttingen, where, in 1930, she earned her Doctorate in Philosophy after writing her dissertation on two-photon absorption in atoms, a work Nobel laureate E.P. Wigner called "a masterpiece of clarity and concreteness." At the time, her work was purely theoretical; the laser hadn’t been invented yet, and no foreseeable method of testing its accuracy was available. In 1961, her theory was experimentally proven, and the unit for the two-photon absorption cross section was named the Goeppert-Mayer (GM) unit.
Goeppert-Mayer moved to the U.S. with her husband, chemist Joseph Edward Mayer, in 1930. He worked at Johns Hopkins University, where she worked as an assistant to the Physics department. There, she also taught classes and conducted research in quantum physics. In 1937, they moved to Columbia University, where Maria took an unpaid position in the Physics department where she worked with Harold Urey and Enrico Fermi. In 1942, she joined the Manhattan Project, working on methods of isolating uranium-235 from natural uranium. From there, she moved on to Los Alamos Laboratory, then Argonne National Laboratory, then to Aberdeen, where she programmed the ENIAC to solve criticality problems.
While at Argonne, Goeppert-Mayer developed the nuclear shell model, a mathematical model for the structure of atomic nuclei. For this, she shared the 1963 Nobel Prize for Physics with J. Hans D. Jensen and Eugene Paul Wigner – the first woman to receive the award in 60 years.
4. Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1964, Chemistry)
Dorothy Hodgkin’s mother fostered her love of science as a child, and at age 18, she began studying chemistry at a women-only Oxford college. She earned her PhD at the University of Cambridge, where she first took an interest in X-ray crystallography and began studying the structure of proteins. In 1934, she moved back to Oxford, where she was appointed the university’s first research chemistry fellow, a position she held until 1977. (She taught future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1940s.)
Through those years at Oxford, Hodgkin studied and discovered the three-dimensional structures of many biomolecules using X-ray crystallography: She confirmed the structure of penicillin in 1945. Her work on mapping vitamin B12 earned her the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964. Five years later, she discovered the structure of insulin, a project so far advanced beyond the then-current technology that she first spent years working with colleagues to improve their methods and tools.
5. Rosalyn Sussman Yalow (1977, Physiology or Medicine)
In 1941, WWII had begun and many scholarships for women became available as men went off to war. In 1945, thanks to these scholarships, Yalow earned her PhD in Physics at the University of Illinois. Afterward, she moved to the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital, where she helped set up its new radioisotope lab. With colleague Solomon Berson, she developed radioimmunoassay (RIA), a technique that measures tiny quantities of various substances in liquids, notably insulin in human blood.
RIA has since been used to trace hundreds of hormones, enzymes, and vitamins and is essential to testing for cancer and other diseases, screening donated blood for hepatitis and other infections, and identifying therapeutic levels of drugs in the bloodstream. Despite its potential and eventual success, Yalow and Berson refused to patent their method.
In 1977, Yalow was awarded the Nobel Prize for RIA, and with Roger Guillemin and Andrew V. Shally for devising the technique.
6. Barbara McClintock (1983, Physiology or Medicine)
McClintock received her PhD in Botany from Cornell University in 1927, where she began her long career in maize cytogenetics, a study she would pursue for the rest of her life.
McClintock’s research focused on chromosomal changes in maize during reproduction. Through this, she pioneered techniques for visualizing and analysis of maize chromosomes in order to illustrate how they change during reproduction. She created the first genetic map of corn, and was the first to link its chromosomes to its physical traits; she also was the first to demonstrate that the telomere and centromere are important for conserving genetic information. McClintock (pictured with William Golding) made many discoveries, but the one that won the Nobel was transposition—the theory that genes turn on and off physical characteristics. She was the first woman to win the Prize unshared in Physiology.
7. Rita Levi-Montalcini (1986, Physiology or Medicine)
Rita Montalcini studied at the University of Turin Medical School, but her academic career ended abruptly in 1938 when Benito Mussolini barred Jews from pursuing academic and professional careers. Instead, she worked from a laboratory in her home, where she studied the nerve development of chicken embryos.
She moved to the United States in 1946 to attend Washington University in St. Louis for one semester. However, after repeating the results of experiments made in her home, she was offered a research position. Over the next 30 years, Levi-Montalcini would continue to study nerve growth, but her most important work was done in 1952. That year, she and collaborator Stanley Cohen isolated nerve growth factors (NGFs), proteins that guide the growth, maintenance and survival of nerve tissue.
Levi-Montalcini was the first Nobel laureate to reach the age of 100. She died in 2012, at 103 years old.
8. Gertrude B. Elion (1988, Physiology or Medicine)
Elion’s work, like Gerty Cori’s, was spurred by a relative’s disease: her grandfather died of stomach cancer when she was 15, and it was then that Elion decided to spend her life looking for a cure. She later said, "I had no specific bent toward science until my grandfather died of cancer. I decided nobody should suffer that much."
After obtaining her Master’s in Chemistry from New York University, Elion worked as a teacher and lab assistant before moving to what is now GlaxoSmithKline. She, sometimes in conjunction with George H. Hitchings, developed a number of new pharmaceuticals designed to kill pathogens without harming healthy cells. These include Purinethol, the first treatment for leukemia and an anti-rejection drug for organ transplant patients; Daraprim, for malaria; Zovirax, a treatment for viral herpes; Septra, a drug used to treat urinary and respiratory tract infections, meningitis, and septicemia; Nelarabine, a drug used in cancer treatment; and Imuran/AZT, the first immune-suppressive agent, which is used in organ transplantation and the treatment of AIDS.
Elion and Hitchings shared the Prize in 1988 with Sir James W. Black, who developed the beta-blocker propranolol and cimetidine, a drug used to treat stomach ulcers.
9. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (1995, Physiology or Medicine)
Fruit flies are useful in genetic research because they’re small, quick to reproduce, and easy to maintain in a laboratory. Using fruit flies, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, a German biologist, has spent her life uncovering the molecular and genetic mechanisms that allow multicellular organisms to develop from a single cell (embryogenesis).
Her research of genetic mutation in fruit flies has allowed us to understand which genes are involved in different developmental processes, an understanding that applies to many species beyond fruit flies. Additionally, Nüsslein-Volhard’s work helps us understand evolution, thanks to her discoveries about the genetic makeup of a common ancestor for protostomes and deuterostomes.
She was awarded the Prize in 1995, along with with Eric Wieschaus and Edward B. Lewis. 15811 Nüsslein-Volhard, an asteroid discovered in 1994, is named for her.
10. Linda B. Buck (2004, Physiology or Medicine)
Believe it or not, we didn’t really know how the sense of smell worked until 1991, when Linda B. Buck and Richard Axel published their research, which revealed not only the structure of the olfactory system, but also the mechanism olfaction – how we smell. Buck and Axel were able to clone olfactory receptors and analyze rat DNA to determine how the sense of smell works in all mammals. For this, the pair shared the Nobel in 2004.
11. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (2008, Physiology or Medicine)
In 1975, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi earned her PhD at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where she then began studying retroviruses. By 1983, she had discovered HIV. By 1988, she had her own research laboratory in the university and was studying the virus full-time. In addition to identifying the virus itself, Barré-Sinoussi’s research has revealed the methods by which HIV spreads and its connection to AIDS, and she has produced over 200 scientific publications regarding specific mechanisms in our immune systems and the virus itself.
In 2008, Barré-Sinoussi shared the Nobel for Physiology or Medicine with Luc Mantagnier, her mentor, and Harold zur Hausen, who discovered HPV and developed the cervical cancer vaccine. Barré-Sinoussi continues to work with developing countries to address the spread of and improve the treatment for HIV/AIDS.
12. Ada E. Yonath (2009, Chemistry)
Ada Yonath grew up in Jerusalem with limited means; despite her family’s poverty, her parents sent her to an affluent school. In 1942, she moved to Tel Aviv after her father’s death, where she attended Tichon Hadash high school. She couldn’t afford tuition, so the school allowed her to attend if she gave math lessons to other students. By 1964, she had earned a PhD in X-ray Crystallography from the Weizmann Institute of Science. In 1970, she founded the first (and for a long time, only) protein crystallography lab in Israel.
Yonath pioneered cryo bio-crystallography, the technique she uses to study microbe ribosomes and their mechanisms, despite harsh criticism from the scientific community. Today, cryo bio-crystallography is taught as a standard technique in structural biology. Yonath’s body of research has revealed much more than the structure of microbe ribosomes; thanks to her work, we know how many antibiotics work, why some bacteria are drug-resistant, and discovered the structural basis for antibiotic selectivity—all of which are now used in research labs to design more effective drugs.
For her work on protein biosynthesis and peptide bond formation, Yonath earned the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009. Today, she is the director of the Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly of the Weizmann Institute of Science.
13 & 14. Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol W. Greider (2009, Physiology or Medicine)
Elizabeth Blackburn was born in Tasmania in 1948. She earned her Master’s degree at the University of Melbourne, then her PhD from the University of Cambridge. By 1981, she was at the University of California, Berkeley.
Carolyn Widney Greider was born in San Diego. She received her B.A. in Biology from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1983, then studied at the University of Göttingen for a time before returning to California in 1983 to earn her PhD at UCSF, where she studied under Elizabeth Blackburn.
Both women research telomeres, the end caps of chromosomes created by repeating stacks of “extra” DNA bases. When DNA replicates, these telomeres are shortened and the chromosomes deteriorate—the cause of aging and chromosome fusion, which leads to cancer. Blackburn and Greider set out to find a hypothetical enzyme that protects the telomere.
Greider, according to Blackburn, worked diligently—often 12 hours or more a day. On Christmas Day, 1984, Greider’s results indicated that she had in fact located the mysterious telomere-protecting enzyme, which was still unnamed. Six months later, the pair published their results in the journal Cell: they had discovered telomerase. In an interview, Blackburn said:
Carol had done this experiment, and we stood, just in the lab, and I remember sort of standing there, and she had this – we call it a gel. It's an autoradiogram, because there was trace amounts of radioactivity that were used to develop an image of the separated DNA products of what turned out to be the telomerase enzyme reaction. I remember looking at it and just thinking, ‘Ah! This could be very big. This looks just right.’
Blackburn and Greider’s Prize in 2009 marked the first award shared by more than one woman.
15. May-Britt Moser (2014, Physiology or Medicine)
Moser was honored in 2014 for the "discovery of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain." From Nobel.org:
"In 2005, May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser discovered a type of cell that is important for determining position close to the hippocampus, an area located in the center of the brain. They found that when a rat passed certain points arranged in a hexagonal grid in space, nerve cells that form a kind of coordinate system for navigation were activated. They then went on to demonstrate how these different cell types cooperate."