Women and Nobel Prizes


How many women have won the Nobel Prize?


            The Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Physics, Physiology/Medicine, Literature, and Economic Science are awarded annually in Stockholm by the Royal Swedish Academy of Science. The more famous  Nobel Peace Prize  is awarded annually in Oslo, Norway on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death. The King and Queen of Norway attend.

            Four women have earned the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the best known is Maria Curie in 1911 for the separation of pure radium. Her daughter won the Chemistry Prize in 1935 for the discovery of artificial radioactivity.

            Two women won the Nobel Prize in Physics, again it was Maria Curie in 1903 for the discovery of radioactivity. The other was Maria Goeppert Mayer (1963).

            Ten women won the Nobel Prize in the field of Physiology and Medicine. Best known would be Rosalyn Yalow (1977) for her work radioisotope  tracing and  Barbara McClintock (1983) for her efforts in genetics.

            Pearl Buck is one of twelve  women awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her 1938 Nobel Prize cited  her “rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China”. Her best known book is “The Good Earth”, which also won the Pulitzer Prize.

            The first and only woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences is Elinor Ostrom (2009) “for her analysis of how common property could be managed by groups using it”. 

            Fifteen women have won the Nobel Peace Prize. The most recognized would be  Jane Addams(1931) founder of Hull House in Chicago and  Mother Teresa(1979), a native Albanian nun who founded missions in India, starting in Calcutta.   

            There is one woman that history now recognizes really got cheated out of a Nobel Prize. That would be Lise Meitner. Born in Austria in 1878, Meitner was half of the team that discovered nuclear fission. Meitner and Otto Hahn worked together at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, Germany. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Lise Meitner, born of Jewish parents, was protected by her Austrian citizenship. But after the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into the Third Reich in March 1938, her situation became desperate. She made a daring undercover escape to the Netherlands, then traveled to neutral Sweden.

            She corresponded with Otto Hahn and the two met in Copenhagen in November 1938. They planned to carry out a new round of experiments on the fissioning of uranium, but Meitner could not go back to Nazi Germany, so the experiments were done by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann.

            It was Lise Meitner and her nephew, Otto Frisch, who correctly interpreted the results of the experiment that detected the element of barium after bombarding uranium with neutrons.  Now the whole world knew that the uranium atom could be split, with a tremendous release of power,  and several neutrons released.  A chain reaction and the atomic bomb was possible. Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1944. Missing was Lise Meitner. The leading magazine “Physics Today” concluded in 1964 that  “personal negative opinions lead to the exclusion of a deserving scientist” from the Nobel Prize.  Element 109,  ‘Meitnerium’,  is named in her honor.



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