To-date only eighteen women have won the Nobel Prize in the sciences, one of them twice, to be compared with 597 men?
While sexism isn’t as large of an issue today, the Nobel Committee has a history of sexist attitude by not recognizing the groundbreaking work and discoveries by women in the sciences. To date, only eighteen women have won the Nobel Prize in the sciences, one of them twice, to be compared with 597 men.
No Nobel Prize has come close to being equitably distributed by gender, but physics has the worst record of them all. Out of a total of 207 winners, only two are women ‒ Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963. It’s hard to believe that no women have won the physics prize since 1963.
Physics isn’t the only field with a dearth of female Nobel laureates. The numbers do not look pretty for chemistry either. Out of 177 individuals who have won the chemistry prize, only four have been women ‒ Marie Curie in 1911, her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie in 1935, Dorothy Hodgkin in 1964 and Ada Yonath in 2009. Women have fared a bit better in medicine ‒ 12 out of 214.
The list of women who should have received the Nobel Prize but didn’t is long. Listed below are some egregious cases of brilliant women researchers who were snubbed by the Nobel Prize Committee because of their gender.
In 1945, Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Otto Hahn for the discovery of nuclear fission, overlooking Lise Meitner, who collaborated with him in the discovery and gave the first theoretical explanation of the fission process. Niels Bohr, the 1922 physics Nobelist felt that Meitner was equally instrumental in the discovery of nuclear fission. In contrast, Hahn did not acknowledge the part she played in his success because he maintained that Meitner was his junior assistant, not an equal.
Not winning the Nobel Prize didn’t have any effect on Meitner’s reputation as a scientist. On the contrary, she was seen as an exemplary noble scientist. Einstein called her “Our Marie Curie.” The element 109, Meitnerium, was named in her honor. The headstone on her grave reads, “never lost her humanity.”
Marietta Blau was the first to develop the use of emulsions to track and identify relativistic particles from radioactive materials, cosmic rays and particle accelerators. She was nominated for the chemistry Nobel once and the physics Nobel four times, but the prize remained elusive. Cecil Frank Powell won the 1950 Nobel Prize in Physics, in part for studying nuclear process using the emulsion method developed by Blau.
In 1956, Chien-Shiung Wu experimentally confirmed the prediction of parity violation by Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee. Parity is a symmetry transformation under which the spatial coordinates of a particle change sign. In 1957, the men became physics laureates, Wu didn’t.
One of the most outrageous and shameful instances of a scientist being denied the honor of Nobel Prize is Rosalind Franklin, a biophysicist whose work on X-ray diffraction images of DNA confirmed its helical structure. Her colleagues Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins received the 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine for work that was based on the data believed to have been acquired dishonestly from Franklin’s laboratory. Franklin was not even nominated for the prize. The stolen data, Franklin’s image of DNA, is famously known as Photo 51. Franklin died of ovarian cancer at age 37.
A female post-graduate student who was overlooked for a Nobel Prize in favor of two men who worked alongside her is Jocelyn Bell Burnell. She did not share in the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics with her doctoral thesis adviser Antony Hewish and Martin Ryle for the discovery of radio pulsars, despite the fact that Burnell was the one who had actually discovered them. The scientific community has so universally condemned the award that Nobel Prize is often called the “No-Bell” prize. To add insults to injuries, pulsars have led to two more Nobels. Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor Jr. were awarded the physics prize in 1993 “for the discovery of a new type of pulsar.”
In a 2004 essay in Science, Burnell has suggested that besides gender, her student status may have contributed to her omission. The Nobel Committee has now become more open to rewarding junior researchers.
The work of Mildred Dresselhaus on the structure of carbon sparked an explosion of research, much of which is now part of the field called nanoscience. Carbon research has yielded two Nobels. Robert Curl Jr., Harold Kroto and Richard Smalley won the 1996 chemistry prize for the discovery of “buckyball,” a hollow spherical molecule composed of a large number of carbon atoms that could be used to get medication into cancer cells. In 2010, the physics prize was awarded to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for creating graphene, a honeycomb or “chicken wire” structure made of carbon atoms. Potential applications of graphene include thin, flexible display screens, electric circuits and solar cells. Dresselhaus’ research presaged both discoveries, yet she didn’t get the Nobel Prize.
Emmy Noether, a woman whom Einstein called a “creative mathematical genius,” should have been awarded the Nobel Prize for her eponymous theorem which relates the conservation laws to symmetries in nature.
Noether’s theorem and concepts of symmetries has expanded the realm of modern physics by establishing the connection between the underlying geometry of the Universe and the behavior of the mass and energy. In addition, her work became a key feature of the Standard Model of Particle Physics.
The scientific community has questioned why Vera Rubin, one of the most brilliant astronomers of the twentieth century, has not won a Nobel Prize for her precise calculations showing that galaxies and stars are immersed in the gravitational grip of vast clouds of dark matter. Her work made us realize that what we saw and thought was the Universe is just the visible tip of an iceberg. Rubin couldn’t care less about fame and Nobel Prize. To her, “the real prize is finding something new out there.”
Over a forty-year career, Annie Jump Cannon single-handedly observed and classified more than 200,000 stars. Instead of being honored with a Nobel Prize, her work is encapsulated in the mnemonic to remember the star classification letters O, B, A, F, G, K and M ‒ “Oh, be a fine girl, kiss me.”
The nominations for the prizes and the deliberations that go into the awards are kept secret for 50 years. That’s why it is hard to know how many women were nominated in the 116-year history of Nobel Prize. But for sure, the number is not large.
That shouldn’t surprise us because given the huge political and social power held by men, Nobel Prize in the sciences is a fraternity.
In recent decades, despite enormous progress women have made in a nearly all-male world of the sciences, they still have to deal with biases against them. It’s time for the Nobel Committee to recognize women who have pushed the sciences to new heights. Otherwise, it’s time to retire the Nobels because “they’re fundamentally about something that’s not an adequate reflection of real science, and they reinforce the worst aspects of the culture of science.”
The writer, Quamrul Haider, is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.