Scientist, Educator & Speaker
Since 1903 with Marie Curie, there have been 19 women who have won the Nobel Prize in the scientific areas of Physics, Chemistry, and Physiology or Medicine – 20 if you count Marie Curie twice (see below). It is hard enough to be a woman in a male-dominated field, to carve out an independent scientific career that becomes recognized and appreciated, and to win this internationally coveted award – but to build an intense career as a ground-breaking, world-renowned scientist while raising children is fairly mind-blowing. Thirteen of these 19 women were/are both mothers and scientists. Below are the biographies of these awesome women who achieved this top scientific accolade. Click on their names for a more in-depth description.
Marie Curie, born in Warsaw, Poland in 1867. In 1903, Marie and her husband Pierre Curie shared half the Nobel Prize in Physics for their study into the spontaneous radiation discovered by Becquerel, who was awarded the other half of the Prize. In 1911, she received a second Nobel Prize, in Chemistry, for her work in radioactivity. Her research was conducted at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she became the first woman Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences in 1903. She was also appointed Director of the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the University of Paris, founded in 1914. Marie had two children — one will go on to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 (see Irène Joliot-Curie below).
Irène Joliot-Curie, born in Paris, France in 1897, was the daughter of Marie and PierreCurie. In 1935, she shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with her husband Frédéric Joliot for their synthesis of new radioactive elements. She became Professor in the Faculty of Sciences in Paris in 1937, and Director of the Radium Institute in 1946. Irène and her husband were politically active and worked to combat fascism and Nazism. As her mother before her, Irène raised two children while building a Nobel-worthy career.
Gerty Cori, born in Prague, now the Czech Republic in 1896. In 1947, she shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with her husband Carl Cori and Bernardo Houssay for their discovery of glycogen metabolism. The “Cori Cycle” – the process of sugar metabolism – is named after the duo. The Coris left Europe due to anti-Semitism and became naturalized U.S. citizens in 1928. Gerty was promoted to Full Professor at Washington University-St. Louis after she received the Nobel Prize. Although Gerty was an equal scientific partner with her husband, her appointments were always secondary to his – until she received the Nobel Prize. Gerty and Carl had one son.
Maria Goeppert Mayer, born in Kattowitz, Upper Silesia (then part of Germany) in 1906. In 1963, she won the Nobel Prize in Physics for her discovery of nuclear shell structure, sharing the prize with Eugene Paul Wigner and J. Hans D. Jensen. Her first research positions in the U.S. were unpaid due to nepotism regulations that prevented both her and her husband (a physical chemist) from being hire by the same institution. Eventually she was welcomed into the professoriate and paid for her work at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory. Maria Goeppert Mayer had two children.
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, born in Cairo, Egypt in 1910. In 1964, she was the sole winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her development of X-ray chrystallography to determine the structures of important biochemical substances such as penicillin and Vitamin B12. She received her undergraduate degree in chemistry at Somerset College, Oxford and then her PhD at Newnham College, Cambridge where she began her novel X-ray chyrstallography work. In 1934, she moved back to Oxford and the college appointed her its first fellow and tutor in chemistry in 1936, a post which she held until 1977. In the 1940s, one of her students was Margaret Roberts, the future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – also a chemist. Dorothy had three children.
Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, born in New York City, NY, USA in 1921. In 1977, she shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine [with Roger Guillemin and Andrew V. Schally] for her development of the radioimmunoassay (RIA) technique that allowed for exquisitely sensitive measurement of insulin levels, and then later many other substances. [I am particular fond of this Nobel Prize, because the RIA is what made my PhD dissertation possible, and was also instrumental in the research that led to my receiving tenure and then promoted to Full Professor of Physiology at UCLA.] Her development of the RIA was done at the Bronx VA Hospital in New York. In 1968, Yalow was appointed Research Professor in the Department of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, where she later became the Solomon Berson Distinguished Professor at Large. Rosalyn had two children.
Barbara McClintock, born in Hartford, CT, USA in 1902. In 1983, she was the sole winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of mobile genetic elements. Her groundbreaking work and entire career was spent as a researcher at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.
Rita Levi-Montalcini, born in Turin, Italy in 1909. In 1986 she shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Stanley Cohen for their discoveries of growth factors. Once Mussolini came to power and anti-Semitism grew in Italy, she had to leave university – but continued conducting her research on growth factors, setting up a laboratory in her bedroom and then again while in hiding in the surrounding hills of Turin. She eventually moved to the U.S., where she spent 30 years conducting research at Washington University-St. Louis in Missouri, USA. Rita returned to Italy and was affiliated with the Institute of Cell Biology of the C.N.R., Rome, Italy at the time of the award.
Gertrude Elion, born in New York City, NY, USA in 1918. In 1988, she shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with James W. Black and George H. Hitchings “for their discoveries of important principles for drug treatment” including her development of the first immunosuppressive drug, azathioprine, used for organ transplants, the first successful antiviral drug, acyclovir, for the treatment of Herpes infection, anti-cancer drugs, and many other drugs. Gertrude worked at several organizations including the National Cancer Institute, and from 1971-83 she was Head of the Department of Experimental Therapy for Burroughs Wellcome pharmaceutical company in New York state.
Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, born in Magdeburg, German in 1942. In 1995, she shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Edward B. Lewis and Eric F. Wieschaus for their work on genetic control of embryonic development. Since 1985 Christiane has been Director of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen and also leads its Genetics Department.
Linda B. Buck, born in Seattle, WA, USA in 1947. In 2004, she shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with her postdoctoral advisor Richard Axel for their work identifying the genes that produce olfactory receptors and the highly specialized function of these receptors that detect specific odorants. She is currently on faculty at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA.
Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, born in Paris, France in 1947. In 2008, she shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with her former mentor, Luc Montagnier, for their discovery of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) as the cause of AIDS. She is Emeritus Professor at the Institut Pasteur and Emeritus Director of Research at the Inserm. She heads the Regulation of Retroviral Infection Unit at the Institut Pasteur in Paris.
Elizabeth H. Blackburn, born in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia in 1948. In 2009, she shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Carol W. Greider (Elizabeth’s PhD student in the 1980s) and Jack Szostak for their discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase. Elizabeth has taken an interest in the ethical implications of research and has contributed to the creation of a code regulating the field. Elizabeth has one son.
Carol W. Greider, born in San Diego, CA, USA in 1961. In 2009, she shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Elizabeth Blackburn (Carol’s PhD advisor in the 1980s) and Jack Szostak for their discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase. She is director of and professor at the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Carol has two children.
Ada E. Yonath, born in Jerusalem, Israel in 1939. In 2009, she shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas A. Steitz for their work on the structure and function of the ribosome that translates genetic code into proteins. She is a Professor of Structural Biology at the Weizmann Institute in Israel. She has one daughter.
May-Britt Moser, born in Fosnavåg, Norway in 1963. In 2014, she shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with her husband Edvard I. Moser and John O’Keefe for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain. May-Britt was affiliated with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway at the time of the award and is professor of neuroscience and the director of the university’s Center for Neural Computation. She and her husband have two daughters.
Youyou Tu, born in Zhejiang Ningbo, China in 1930, In 2015, she shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine [with Satoshi Omura and William C. Campbell] for her studies of traditional herbal medicines leading to her extraction of artemisinin, a substance which inhibits the malaria parasite. Drugs based on artemisinin have led to the survival and improved health of millions of people. She has worked at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Beijing, China since 1965 and is now Chief Scientist. Youyou has two daughters.
Frances Arnold, born in Edgewood, PA, USA in 1956. In 2018, she shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry [with George Smith and Gregory Winter] for her pioneering use of directed evolution to engineer enzymes. Frances is the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology. She has three sons; sadly, two of her sons died – one of cancer in 2001 and another in an accident in 2016.
Donna Strickland, born in Guelph, Canada in 1959. In 2018, she shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with her former PhD advisor Gérard Mourou [and Arthur Ashkin] for their invention of chirped pulse amplification for lasers while at the University of Rochester in New York. She is Professor of Physics at the University of Waterloo in Canada – the first full-time female professor of physics at that institution. Donna had not applied to be a full professor prior to her Nobel prize, but subsequently was awarded the promotion. On being asked why she hadn’t applied prior to the award, she commented “it doesn’t carry necessarily a pay raise…I never filled out the paper work…I do what I want to do and that wasn’t worth doing.” Donna has two children.
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