Ladies Who Lab – Female Nobel winners in Chemistry and Medicine

written by Mikaela Palandra and Heather Lau of the Biochem WIDE committee

Across the Nobel awards in chemistry and medicine, which were both established in 1895, only 19 have been awarded to women, out of 185 Chemistry Nobel laureates and 222 Medicine Nobel laureates. That is 4% of the Chemistry Nobel laureates and 6% of the Medicine Nobel laureates.

However, in part due to tireless work by female scientists to make science more accessible to other women, as well as support from allies in the scientific community, we are seeing more women being awarded the Nobel Prize than ever. In honor of the winners in 2020, and all the intelligent women who have been awarded over the past hundred years, we have put together profiles of every female winner of the Nobel in Chemistry or Medicine.

Marie Curie (1903, Physics with Henri Becquerel and Pierre Curie; 1911, Chemistry)

Not only was Marie Curie the first female Nobel Laureate, she was also the only Nobel laureate to win two Nobel awards in different categories – one in Chemistry and a second in Physics. Her Nobel prizes were awarded for her work on radiation and the discovery of polonium and radium, two radioactive elements that are being used in radiation therapy and satellite construction. This discovery has greatly influenced our use of radiation to reduce tumours.

Irene Joliot-Curie (1935, Chemistry with Frederic Joliot-Curie)

Joliot-Curie was the daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie, and as such started her scientific career at a young age by working with her mother. She won the Nobel prize for the discovery of artificial radioactivity – the process of inducing radioactivity in non-radioactive elements. This was another essential finding in the path to treating many types of cancers through radioactivity. Joliot-Curie was also an outspoken political activist, advocating internationally for peace and women’s rights.

Gerty Cori (1947, Medicine with Carl Cori and Bernardo Houssay)

Cori was the first woman awarded the Nobel prize in Medicine, for her work uncovering the process of how glucose is stored and utilized as energy. Today, the Cori cycle, or lactic acid cycle, is a staple in the introductory biology courses of first-year university students. Unfortunately, throughout her life, Cori struggled to be respected for her accomplishments and was awarded a professorship only after receiving her Nobel Prize.

Dorothy Hodgkin (1964, Chemistry)

Hodgkin won her Nobel prize for advancing one of the most useful techniques in structural biology – X-ray crystallography. She was the very first to apply the technique in deciphering the structure of biologically-relevant molecules. The structure of penicillin and insulin, among many other compounds, were discovered thanks to Hodgkin. She was also a lifelong advocate for peace and for international scientific collaboration.

Rosalyn Yalow (1977, Medicine with Roger Guillemin and Andrew Schally)

Yalow was passionate about becoming a scientist, although her low income background and gender were barriers to her at every stage of her education. Undeterred, she persisted and developed the radioimmunoassay, which can be used to detect biological compounds, such as insulin, in tissues at the level of nano- and even picomolar concentrations. This technique was a major breakthrough in the medical field for screening for disease as well as for disease research.

Barbara McClintock (1983, Medicine)

A well-known geneticist, McClintock was awarded for her discovery of transposable elements using maize as a model. When she first presented her work in 1951, her theory was met with derision and hostility. She stopped publishing and sharing her theories as a result, but never stopped her research. Although it took time for the scientific community to come around to her ideas, she finally received her well-deserved Nobel award over 30 years later in 1983.

Rita Levi-Montalcini (1986, Medicine with Stanley Cohen)

Levi-Montalcini was a neurobiologist who discovered nerve growth factor, which is responsible for nerve cell specialization. She faced challenges from the start of her career as a Jewish woman in Italy in the 1930s. After being barred from academia by the fascist government, she was forced to start a lab in her own bedroom. Due to her own struggles, she was dedicated to ensuring that all scientists have access to the resources needed to do research. Later in life as an Italian senator, she used her position to fight against cuts to scientific funding.

Gertrude B. Elion (1988, Medicine with George Hitchings and James Black)

Elion was awarded her Nobel prize for pioneering rational drug design, which changed the way we develop drugs, instead of the previous “trial and error” approach. Her work led to some of the very first immunosuppression drugs, as well as an antiviral that is used for treating herpes. Elion was motivated in her career by a desire to improve the lives of others, an accomplishment she definitely achieved through her individual discoveries, as well as through the immense impact rational drug design has had on therapeutic research to this day.

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (1995, Medicine with Edward Lewis and Eric Wieschaus)

She was awarded the Nobel prize for her discoveries on the genetic mechanisms that guide embryonic development. Born to an artistic family, Nüsslein-Volhard has an appreciation for beauty, which she sees in the Drosophila embryos in which she performed her seminal research. She is also an advocate for female scientists. Using her Nobel Prize money, she started the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation in 2004, which provides a grant to cover childcare costs for female scientists with children.

Linda B. Buck (2004, Medicine with Richard Axel)

She was awarded for her work in finding odorant receptors and identifying the organization of the olfactory system in mammals. Buck has always had a scientific curiosity, but never thought she would be a scientist until a fortuitous immunology course inspired her to pursue biology. She is a proponent for representation of women in science, and believes that young women can be encouraged to follow their passion by giving them more female role models to look up to.

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (2008, Medicine with Luc Montagnier and Harold zur Hausen)

She was awarded the Nobel prize for discovering human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the causative virus for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). She has collaborated scientifically with resource-limited countries in Asia and Africa throughout her career. Barré-Sinoussi is a dedicated advocate for public health education about AIDS, and has established centres in resource-limited countries for the diagnosis and treatment of people with AIDS.

Ada Yonath (2009, Chemistry with Venki Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz)

Yonath is no stranger to difficult scientific undertakings; when she was just five years old, she fell and broke her arm while trying to figure out the height of her family’s balcony. Over the course of her career, Yonath was one of the first people to solve the structure of the ribosome, by crystallography. She was able to identify the site of protein synthesis and describe the path taken by newly-made proteins through the ribosomal tunnel as they make their way into their folding space. This work also allowed for the better understanding of how antibiotics that target the ribosome work.

Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Carol W. Greider (2009, Medicine with Jack Szostak)

Blackburn and Greider were awarded the Nobel prize in 2009 for their work characterizing how telomeres protect chromosomes. While Greider was just a graduate student in Blackburn’s lab, the pair jointly discovered the enzyme telomerase. This discovery has been highly influential in understanding cancer cell proliferation, as well as normal human ageing. Both women are mothers, and advocate for institutional policies to support mothers in scientific careers.

May-Britt Moser (2014, Medicine with Edvard Moser and John O’Keefe)

Moser has contributed to work on grid cells in the brain, which allow animals (including you and me) to understand their position in space. Her work is inspired by her intense desire to understand the brain. Moser’s curiosity continues today, and her research is still focused on understanding how systems within the brain work and how it functions as a whole.

Tu Youyou (2015, Medicine with Satoshi Ōmura and William Campbell)

Tu Youyou is a pharmaceutical chemist and malariologist who discovered and isolated artemisinin, which is used to treat malaria. This breakthrough had a huge global impact, saving hundreds of thousands of lives every year. Tu is also the very first Chinese Nobel laureate in Medicine. In the search for an effective antimalarial drug, Tu and her team turned to ancient Chinese medical texts. From these texts, Tu found a reference to sweet wormwood, which had been used in China around 400 AD to treat fevers. From wormwood, Tu isolated the life-saving compound artemisinin.

Frances Arnold (2018, Chemistry with George Smith and Gregory Winter)

Frances Arnold was awarded the Nobel for her research utilizing directed evolution in the design of new enzymes. Arnold started her career trying to use DNA technology to engineer enzymes. After struggling with this, she eventually shifted focus and came to a simple, elegant solution: let nature do the work for you. This work has broad relevance and is being applied in diverse fields, including the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals and the development of renewable fuel.

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna (2020, Chemistry)

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna are this year’s Nobel laureates in Chemistry! The duo is awarded for discovery of the CRISPR/Cas9 enzyme, the basis of a powerful gene editing system. This is a discovery that has been making headlines these past few years. The tool has revolutionized biochemistry research, and scientists are using it in new and creative ways every day.

The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was a historic and meaningful moment to many of us in science, a well-deserved win for Charpentier and Doudna, and for CRISPR/Cas9. As we reflect on the past, we see that in the last ten years, more women are being recognized for their unforgettable contributions. The diverse backgrounds of these women have inspired their careers and defining discoveries: from Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard’s upbringing in an artistic family, to Tu Youyou’s appreciation for the promise and potential of traditional Chinese medicine in modern life. One thing is clear: diversity is an incredible tool and we can expect more outstanding discoveries if we work harder to amplify diverse voices around us.

For more information on the Wellness, Inclusion, Diversity and Equity (WIDE) committee, visit us at our website!

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