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Since Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, three women have won the Nobel Prize in STEM, meaning Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Physics, or Economic Sciences, outright and 19 have shared the prize. Meanwhile, there are no statistics for how many women have had their work earn a Nobel Prize in the sciences, only to have it be awarded only to their male coworkers. Most people learned about Marie Curie, the first woman to win a solo Nobel Prize in the sciences, but what about the other women? We decided to highlight the other two solo winners and some of the trailblazing near-winners in honor of International Women’s Day 2020.
Lise Meitner, Physicist
What did she study in school?
Women were not permitted to attend public schools in Vienna at the turn of the century, but thanks to her supportive parents, Meitner got a private education and 1901 she passed the secondary school exit exam at the Akademisches Gymnasium, the oldest secondary school in Vienna. At the University of Vienna, Meitner studied physics and was among the first women to obtain a doctoral degree in physics, in 1905.
What did she do?
Most notably, Meitner helped lead the scientists who first discovered nuclear fission of uranium when it absorbed an extra neutron. Meitner’s research into nuclear fission helped to pioneer nuclear reactors to generate electricity and the development of nuclear weapons during World War II. Meitner was the first woman to become a full professor of physics in Germany but she lost all her academic positions due to anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws of Nazi Germany.
How did she win the Nobel Prize?
Meitner’s work on the discovery of the fission of heavy atomic nuclei won the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, butThe Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the actual Prize to Otto Hahn for "his” discovery. It is believed that the oversight of Meitner’s contributions were due to several factors, including both gender and disciplinary bias.
What did she say?
At the time, Meitner wrote in a letter, "I believe that Otto Robert Frisch and I contributed something not insignificant to the clarification of the process of uranium fission—how it originates and that it produces so much energy and that was something very remote to Hahn."
Chien-Shiung Wu, aka the First Lady of Physics
Wu was born in Jiangsu province, China in 1912. Wu was very close to her father, who encouraged her interests passionately and filled her house with books, magazines, and newspapers. Before earning an undergraduate degree in physics, Wu completed a teacher-training program and taught at a public school in Shanghai. She went on to pursue graduate studies at Zhejiang University and University of California, Berkeley, earning her doctorate from Berkeley in 1940.
In 1944, Wu began working on the Manhattan Project based at Columbia University while still teaching naval officers at Princeton University. Over the course of her career, Wu, known as the First Lady of Physics, developed the process for separating uranium through gaseous diffusion and later researched molecular changes in hemoglobin associated with sickle-cell anemia.
She is best known for conducting the Wu experiment, which disproved a widely-accepted law of theoretical physics, proving that parity is not conserved. This discovery from the Wu experiment resulted in her male colleagues Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang winning the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics.
“There is only one thing worse than coming home from the lab to a sink full of dirty dishes, and that is not going to the lab at all!”
Esther Lederberg, Microbiologist
Lederberg originally wanted to study French or literature in college, but she switched to biochemistry, even though her teachers urged her not to switch, arguing that women struggled to get a career in the sciences. She earned her BS in genetics from Hunter College, her master's degree in genetics from Stanford University, and her doctorate at University of Wisconsin.
At age 20, Lederberg worked as a research assistant at the prestigious Carnegie Institution of Washington (later Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory), where she published her first work in genetics.In 1951, Lederberg discovered the lambda bacteriophage, the first recognized organism that can invade bacteria and live in its DNA. The breakthrough was important for studying similar viruses in animals. She is also known for her work studying the transfer of genes between bacteria, the development of replica plating, and the discovery of the bacterial fertility factor F.
In 1958, Lederberg watched her first husband, her mentor, and another research partner – all men – win the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for discovering that bacteria can mate and exchange genes, based on her own discoveries. Rebecca Ferrell, a biologist who has studied Lederberg’s life and work, described the night’s ceremony: “It’s this group of four people who worked on things. The three guys get the prize, and she gets to put on gloves and a long gown and watch.”
Dorothy Hodgkin, Chemist
Hodgkin’s interest in chemistry began at an early age and was nurtured by her father, who was passionate about education, and her mother, an accomplished botanist. A book on X-ray crystallography, gifted to Hodgkin on her 16th birthday, proved to be an augury of her future. She studied chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford where she was the third woman ever to be awarded a first-class honors degree. She went on to get her PhD at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she began to further explore the potential of X-ray crystallography.
Hodgkin was a pioneer in X-ray crystallography, a technique used to map 3D molecular structures. She determined the structure of penicillin, vitamin B12, and insulin. Her techniques and discoveries became an essential tool in the field of structural biology. She won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964 for her development of protein crystallography.
“I should not like to leave an impression that all structural problems can be settled by X-ray analysis or that all crystal structures are easy to solve. I seem to have spent much more of my life not solving structures than solving them.” She first processed X-ray photographs of insulin in 1935, but was nearly 35 years before she was able to decipher the structure of insulin, in mid-1969.
Barbara McClintock, Botanist and Cytogeneticist
McClintock developed her passion for science during high school. She went on to study botany and later genetics at Cornell University in 1919, despite her mother’s resistance, fearing that too much education would render McClintock unmarriageable. (McClintock never would marry, but did win a Nobel Prize so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)
McClintock is known as the leader in the development of maize cytogenetics. She began her career by studying chromosomes and how they change during reproduction in maize. Through her research of maize cytogenetics, she made many discoveries for the field of genetics at large. McClintock discovered transposition and used it to demonstrate that genes are responsible for turning physical characteristics on and off. She developed theories to explain the suppression and expression of genetic information from one generation of maize plants to the next.
Why don’t I know her?
McClintock won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1983, the first (and to date, only) woman to win that prize unshared, and the first American woman to win any unshared Nobel Prize. But she was also very private. Due to skepticism, stemming largely from gender bias, of her research and its implications, she stopped publishing her data in 1953. In the 70s, as other scientists confirmed what she had demonstrated in her maize research in the 1940s and 1950s, McClintock's research became more accepted and understood, but the damage had already been done.
“If you know you are on the right track, if you have this inner knowledge, then nobody can turn you off... no matter what they say.”