Who were the first women to win Nobel Prizes?

Who were the first women to win Nobel Prizes?

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When it comes to record-setting Nobel Prize recipients, there’s Marie Curie and there’s everyone else. The Polish-French scientist was the first woman to share a Nobel Prize (the 1903 physics award, with her husband Pierre and fellow French scientist Henri Becquerel, for their pioneering work on radioactivity) and was also the first woman to receive an unshared Nobel, the 1911 chemistry prize, for her discovery of the elements radium and polonium. That makes her the only person ever to win Nobel Prizes in two different sciences. As if that weren’t enough, four of her family members are also Nobel laureates. In addition to Pierre, her daughter and son-in-law shared the 1935 chemistry prize, while another son-in-law was the director of UNICEF when it won the 1965 peace prize.

The first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize was Baroness Bertha Sophie Felicita von Suttner, née Countess Kinsky von Chinic und Tettau, who won in 1905. Von Sutter was the author of an influential anti-war novel and had a leading role in convincing dynamite magnate Alfred Nobel to include a peace prize in his bequest. The first female Nobel literature laureate was novelist Selma Lagerlöf, whose most popular book was about a boy who flies around Sweden on the back of a goose. The first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was Gerty Theresa Cori, who shared the 1947 award for discovering how sugar-derived glycogen is used by the body as an energy source.

The last first woman to win the Nobel in her category was Elinor Ostrom, who shared the 2009 economics prize for her groundbreaking analysis of common property. The wait was so long for a woman economics laureate in part because that prize wasn’t established until 1969. In all, as of 2016, Nobel Prizes have been awarded to 48 different women.

Women Nobel Literature Prize Winners

In 1953, Lady Clementine Churchill traveled to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature on behalf of her husband, Sir Winston Churchill. Her daughter, Mary Soames, went to the ceremonies with her. But some women have accepted the Nobel Literature Prize for their own work.

Out of more than 100 Nobel Laureates awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, fewer (by far) than half are women. They are from different cultures and wrote in quite different styles. How many do you already know? Find them in the next pages, along with a bit about their lives and, for many, links to more complete information. I've listed the earliest ones first.

Jane Addams, The First Woman to Win the Nobel Peace Prize

Normally when people hear the name Addams they think of the Addams Family or our second First Family of the United States. Jane Addams is neither, but she certainly made a name for herself. Have you ever heard of Jane Addams, the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize?

The Start

Jane was born on September 6th, 1860 in the small town of Cedarville, Illinois. Out of her nine siblings, Jane and four others were the only ones to survive to adulthood. Her father, John Huy, was one of the wealthiest men in town. Her mother, Sarah Weber Addams, died in childbirth when Jane was 2 years old. Huy owned a mill, fought in the Civil War, and considered Abraham Lincoln one of his closest friends. As a child, Jane dealt with a congenital spine defect, but it was later corrected through surgery.


In 1881, Jane graduated from Rockford Female Seminary at the top of her class. She was part of a new generation of college-educated women called “New Women”. Her religious zeal started to wane (sounds like a lot of us eh?) she still wanted to help the greater good and started to study medicine.

Sadly, her own health derailed her studies, but she found her true calling in London in 1888. While visiting with her friend Ellen Gates Starr at Toynbee Hall, Addams vowed to bring the same kind of home back to the States. Toynbee Hall was known for providing services to poor industrial workers. Fun fact: Ellen Starr leased the home built by Charles Hull at the corner of Halsted and Polk Streets.

Hull House, 1908

In 1889, both Addams and Starr founded Hull House in Chicago’s West End. The goal of the house was to bring educated women together to share knowledge from medicine and basic skills to arts and literature with the poorer folk of the neighborhood. They also envisioned these women to live in the house among the people they helped.

These services included kindergarten and day-care for working mothers job training English language teaching acculturation classes for immigrants a gym an art gallery among other things. Addams gave speeches nationally and wrote articles to provide information about Hull House and gather support across the country.

Her Work Over the Years

Addams didn’t just start Hull House she was also an active advocate in politics and legislation. In 1905, she was appointed to the Chicago’s Board of Education and made chairman of the School Management Committee. In 1908, she participated in the founding of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. In 1909, she became the first woman president of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections.

Jane Addams speaking to a crowd

As a progressive reformer, Addams lobbied for the establishment of a juvenile court system a protective labor legislature for women better urban sanitation and factory laws, and even led investigations on midwifery, narcotics consumption, milk supplies. Her involvement went so far, she even accepted the post of garbage inspector of the Nineteenth Ward of Chicago. Talk about a driven woman! In 1910, she was awarded the first honorary degree to a woman at Yale University.

How Did She Become the First Woman to Win the Nobel Peace Prize?

In the early 1900s, Addams kept going like a freight train booking it across the Plains. In 1906 she gave a course of lectures at the University of Wisconsin which she then published in a book the next year: Newer Ideals of Peace. She continued her talks of peace at a ceremony commemorating the building of the Peace Palace at The Hague in 1913. In the next two years, she spoke as a lecturer sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation against America joining World War I. Well, we all know that didn’t work.

In January 1915, she accepted the chairmanship of the Women’s Peace Party and then the presidency of the International Congress of Women convened at The Hague. After that congress convened, she served as president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom until 1929.

International Congress of Women, 1915

She did have her setbacks though. Since she opposed the war, she was kicked out of the Daughters of the American Revolution but that didn’t stop her from becoming an assistant to Herbert Hoover in providing relief supplies of food to women and children of enemy nations.
And the worst part? She suffered a heart attack in 1926. On December 10th, 1931, the day she was to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, she was admitted to a hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1935, she died three days after surgery that revealed she had cancer.

Jane’s funeral was held at Hull House and is buried in Chicago. Sadly, the construction of the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus forced Hull House to move and the original buildings were destroyed in 1963. Today, the actual Hull House building (which luckily wasn’t destroyed) serves as a monument honoring Addams.

Pretty cool huh? See girls? Don’t ever let anyone tell you you can’t do something, because you dang well can.

Biography.com Editors, “Jane Addams Biography.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. Wed. 16 Sep 2020. https://www.biography.com/activist/jane-addams
Jane Addams – Biographical. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2020. Wed. 16 Sep 2020. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1931/addams/biographical/
Michals, Debra. “Jane Addams.” National Women’s History Museum, 2017. Wed. 16 Sep 2020. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/jane-addams

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Curie discovered radioactivity, and, together with her husband Pierre, the radioactive elements polonium and radium while working with the mineral pitchblende. She also championed the development of X-rays after Pierre&aposs death.

Radioactivity, Polonium and Radium

Fascinated with the work of Henri Becquerel, a French physicist who discovered that uranium casts off rays weaker than the X-rays found by Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, Curie took his work a few steps further.

Curie conducted her own experiments on uranium rays and discovered that they remained constant, no matter the condition or form of the uranium. The rays, she theorized, came from the element&aposs atomic structure. This revolutionary idea created the field of atomic physics. Curie herself coined the word "radioactivity" to describe the phenomena.

Following਌urie’s discovery of radioactivity, she continued her research with her husband Pierre. Working with the mineral pitchblende, the pair discovered a new radioactive element in 1898. They named the element polonium, after਌urie&aposs native country of Poland.

They also detected the presence of another radioactive material in the pitchblende and called that radium. In 1902, the Curies announced that they had produced a decigram of pure radium, demonstrating its existence as a unique chemical element.

Development of X-rays

When World War I broke out in 1914, Curie devoted her time and resources to help the cause. She championed the use of portable X-ray machines in the field, and these medical vehicles earned the nickname "Little Curies." 

After the war, Curie used her celebrity to advance her research. She traveled to the United States twice — in 1921 and in 1929 — to raise funds to buy radium and to establish a radium research institute in Warsaw.

Celebrating Women’s History Month: Marie Curie

We’ll be celebrating that strength all month on the Energy Blog to highlight the remarkable women of science (and the Energy Department!) and their achievements – past, present, and future. (It’s also the International Year of Chemistry, so BYOB . . . Bring Your Own Beaker.)

It’s fitting to begin this celebration with a salute to the first woman to receive a doctorate in France, the discoverer of two elements, the first person to win two Nobel Prizes and the mother of another winner. It’s astonishing how much Marie Curie accomplished despite the obstacles in her way.

Marie Curie, nee Sklodowska, was born in Warsaw, Poland on November 7th, 1867. Russia dominated Poland at the time and discouraged Polish education. Despite that – and the death of her mother – she graduated with the highest honors from her high school. She then faced another closed door, for the University of Warsaw was closed to women. So Marie worked as a governess to pay for her sister Bronya’s studies in Paris and, after Bronya completed her degree, she supported Marie at the Sorbonne.

Marie eked by, studying in a tiny room that was so cold in winters that the water in her washbasin froze and she piled on all her clothes in order to sleep. Despite those Spartan student challenges – to say nothing of living far from home, in a new land and with a new language – Marie finished two master’s degrees, one in mathematics and the other in physics, in three years. She also met Pierre Curie, a fellow scientist, and married him the following year (1895).

Together, they began investigating the strange ‘rays’ (which we know as radioactivity, a term invented by Marie Curie) that French physicist Henri Becquerel had found to come from uranium salts. Denied a true laboratory, the Curies studied in a discarded dissecting room for the Sorbonne’s School of Medicine, which was freezing in the cold and leaky in the rain. They faced a further (and unknown) difficulty since, because of their radioactive nature, some of the elements the Curies were struggling to identify were literally transforming into different substances during the study. Yet they persevered and discovered two new elements, radium and polonium.

For those efforts, Marie and Pierre shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with Henri Becquerel. Fame . . . and even funding followed. And this year marks the centennial anniversary of her 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Yet hardships remained, as Pierre was killed in a tragic accident in 1906.

Marie dedicated the rest of her life to discovery and innovation: To learning more about radium and radioactivity, and applying its properties to healing. During World War I, she oversaw the assembly of some 20 mobile X-ray stations, which were driven to the front and used by doctors caring for wounded soldiers. One of her assistants was her daughter Irène, who went on to win the 1935 Nobel Prize with husband Frédéric Joliot for, “their synthesis of new radioactive elements.”

The women scientists supported by the Energy Department are continuing the work of the Curies, making fundamental discoveries for the benefit of us all. We’re proud to honor them in this month of women’s history and this International Year of Chemistry. So join us in saluting them . . . assuming you’ve brought your own beaker!

The discovery

Since 2005, Spanish professor Francisco Mojica described how the bacteria and archaea&rsquos immune system worked, his studies showed that bacteria protected themselves from viruses by copying the virus RNA (Ribonucleic acid) and then using it to destroy it, he called that system CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats).


In 2011, Dr. Charpentier published her studies on the Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria, one of the most harmful for humans, she discovered that a relatively new known molecule called tracrRNA was present in that bacteria and was part of the bacteria&rsquos immune system (the CRISPR). Later, in 2012, she met Dr. Jennifer A. Doudna during a conference and invited her to collaborate in the search for new applications of the mentioned molecule.

The idea of &ldquocutting&rdquo DNA has been exciting for the scientific community and several researchers are using Charpentier and Doudna&rsquos insights in the last years

Making history: First time two women have won the Nobel Prize in chemistry without a male copartner

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Oct. 7, 2020. "KavliPrize-6796" by Trondheim | Gjøvik | Ålesund is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0.

Published Oct 29, 2020 9:33am

Updated Oct 29, 2020 9:33am

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Oct. 7. They had been working on their project for nearly nine years, and their hard work has paid off. The two decided to collaborate in 2011, and in 2012 they discovered the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors. This was seen as a pivotal moment in their careers, and they received much recognition from it.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences decided to award Charpentier’s and Doudna’s success for “the development of a method for genome editing.” Charpentier was surprised to receive a phone call from the academy although she knew that one day she would win.

“In general, Nobel Prizes are awarded 20, 30 years after the discovery," Charpentier said. She was in shock and emotional that her recognition came so soon.

To get some insight into how the science community feels, two professors at the University of Arizona noted that since the Nobel Prize winner’s work has been deemed as groundbreaking for many years, the science community was hopeful to see these collaborators one day receiving the Nobel Prize in chemistry.


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Jacob Schwartz, an assistant professor for chemistry and biochemistry, said that he was especially excited to hear the news.

“Jennifer [Doudna] and I had the same mentor for our postdoctoral work so it’s especially exciting for me and I know how excited Tom Cech is over this year’s Nobel prize,” he said.

Craig Aspinwall, a chemistry professor who works in the division of analytical research for chemistry, brought a fresh perspective on how research in the chemistry field is conducted.

“We focus heavily on teaching the scientific method and the importance of learning from one’s failures,” Aspinwall said. He tries to educate individuals on the notion that it "often takes a series of small, hard earned, steps forward to position us to make those big discoveries.”

Aspinwall noted that historically, “The Nobel committees frequently share the prize three ways and they have tended to overlook the contributions of female scientists. It is further surprising because those same shortlists that highlighted the likelihood that the Nobel would be awarded for this discovery, also suggested a few different third winners, almost all of whom were male."

As for Schwartz’s reaction to hearing that this is the first time a solely female group has won, he was not in the slightest bit surprised. He is aware that these two individuals are bright and have provided a new outlook in the biochemistry field. With that being noted, he believes that it is refreshing to see “these old walls torn down."

An important aspect to explore is whether or not a Nobel Prize should be awarded upon a singular discovery or based on a track record of several discoveries. Both professors had various perspectives on the topic.

Schwartz said that the two were inseparable and that success is not earned overnight. A series of failures and hard work over a long period of time is what typically gains the recognition of The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and those in the science communities.

From Aspinwall’s perspective, the awards go to both types of work. An example of this would be when the polymerase chain reaction was invented. Aspinwall stated that “technology has lead to the ability to sequence entire genomes and proven to be a cornerstone for biology and biochemistry. It was discovered in 1985 and won the Nobel in 1993.”

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Breaking the glass ceiling: Women win big at Nobel 2020, four female laureates get recognition

Marie Curie was the first woman laureate in 1903 in physics, and is to date the only one to have won two Nobels.


PARIS: The Nobel prizes remain very much a man's world, especially in science, but with four female laureates named this year, women are gradually getting more recognition.

Since the first Nobel prizes were given out in 1901, 58 women have been rewarded, representing only 6.2 percent of the 934 laureates (excluding institutions) overall, according to an AFP database.

However the number of women laureates has been steadily increasing over the decades, with 11.1 percent in the 2010s and 9.2 percent in the 2000s, against 5.4 percent in the 1900s and 2.6 percent in the 1910s.

There were, however, none in the 1950s.

The latest additions to the Nobel club are America's Louise Gluck (the poet took the literature prize), Andrea Ghez (who shared physics) and Jennifer Doudna who won the chemistry award with France's Emmanuelle Charpentier.

The three women scientists have pulled off quite a feat in getting their prizes in two of the most male-dominated disciplines.

Doudna and Charpentier's chemistry win is only the third time in Nobel history that a woman or an all-female team have taken it, after Marie Curie and the British X-ray crystallography pioneer Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin won it on their own in 1911 and 1964 respectively.

As a Frenchwoman, Charpentier follows in the footsteps of Curie and her daughter Irene Joliot-Curie, who won the prize in 1935 in a tandem with her mother and husband Frederic Joliot.

Marie Curie was the first woman laureate in 1903 in physics, and is to date the only one to have won two Nobels (1903 in physics and 1911 in chemistry).

Women make up only 1.9 percent of physics laureates, or four out of 216, while they won seven out of 186 chemistry prizes.

The medicine and economics awards are also heavily male dominated, with 5.4 percent of women laureates in medicine (12 out of 222) and 2.3 percent (two out of 86) in economics.

The Nobel peace prize (15.9 percent, or 17 out of 107), not taking into account those awarded to institutions, and literature (13.7 percent, 16 out of 117) are slightly more women friendly.

Like the prizes themselves, the Nobel committees awarding them are also male-dominated, with women holding less than a quarter of the places.

There are, for example, only two women among the seven members of the committee which selects the literature laureate, one out of seven for physics and four out of 18 for medicine.

What's the story with women and the Nobel prize?

Ordinary Matter, the second collection of short fiction from Brisbane author Laura Elvery, is not what it says on the tin. Part riddle, part ode to trail-blazing women scientists, part reflection on their breakthroughs and the injuries some have caused the planet, this collection is anything but ordinary. Here is a restless book that teaches its readers that not everything can be understood at first glance.

Laura Elvery takes a very oblique look at women who have won a Nobel prize. Credit:

The blurb on the back begins with a history of the Nobel Prize and mentions the 20 women who’ve won the award. A quote beneath tells us we should expect to read ‘‘a beautifully crafted and moving collection of stories about women who change history while struggling against its constraints’’. We might, then, be forgiven for expecting to read 20 short fictionalised biographies about the female recipients of the Nobel Prize.

The first story, You Run Towards Love, opens with an epigraph: ‘‘1903 | Marie Curie | Physics.’’ We read this and prepare our imaginations: steam trains, corsets, Paris in 1903. The first sentence seems to confirm our assumptions: ‘‘The train moved from station to station through the French countryside.’’ Yes, we can almost smell the coal soot.

The story continues: ‘‘Faye turned her face towards the broiling world outside.’’ We are pulled up – Faye? Who is Faye? An associate of Marie Curie’s? Faye approaches her former lover and speaks: ‘‘Do you think it’s fair that the Minister is on holidays in the snow while the country burns?’’ A jolt, then.

This could very well have been written when our own Prime Minister was on holidays in Hawaii, seemingly unaware of the fires that ravaged his country’s east coast. As we read on we find that we are not in 1903, but one century later, in 2003, and our protagonist, Faye, is on her way to Paris to shut down a nuclear reactor. ‘‘Time,’’ the narrator goes on, ‘‘seemed to telescope.’’ Indeed it did.

Flipping to the author’s notes at the back of the book, the tangential link is explained: ‘‘One hundred years after Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, Paris (like much of Europe in the summer of 2003) sweltered through a record-breaking heatwave. At this time, the French Government relaxed environmental laws to allow cooling water from the nuclear reactors to be released into waterways at a higher temperature than normal.’’

In later stories, when we might struggle to see how Irene Joliot-Curie’s achievements in chemistry might be related to a surreal story in which wildlife agencies have the power to grant adoption on Australia’s Gold Coast, the book’s characters keep reminding us how to read them. ‘‘There was nothing in you that said you would only ever look at something in a single way,’’ says the fictionalised brother of the female artist who would paint scientist Dorothy Hodgkin’s portrait.

And in a later story, Rosalyn Yalow ‘‘sets a finger on the table. She prods its surface here then there, traces a jagged line in the space between the two spots. ‘I just took different routes to get there,’’’ she says to a young woman and fan who has come to her hotel to find her on the eve of her Nobel prize ceremony.

We are reminded again and again that brilliance is achieved when we look at something askance that the scientists these stories are inspired by had to think laterally, not only because they were on the frontier of discovery, but because they were women, and very often mothers, who had to fight to earn their place in a lab.

Elvery has met the legacies of these Nobel laureates with her own lateral approach, eschewing biographies for moments in time that might have shaped these women or been shaped by them – sometimes directly, sometimes centuries later, sometimes only as imaginative conceits. We meet some of these women, and sometimes we don’t.

But we always delight in Elvery’s way of seeing: her playful imagination, her similes that wake up the world around us, her ability to see a person’s legacy from surprising angles. Ordinary Matter is not what it says on the tin, it’s better. Fully charged and slightly unstable an element with surplus electrons, ready to jump.

Pip Smith was a Sydney Morning Herald best young Australian novelist in 2018. Her novel Half Wild is published by Allen & Unwin.

Einstein encouraged her during one of the worst years of her life

Albert Einstein and Curie first met in Brussels at the prestigious Solvay Conference in 1911. This invite-only event brought together the world’s leading scientists in the field of physics, and Curie was the only woman out of its 24 members. Einstein was so impressed by Curie, that he came to her defense later that year when she became embroiled in controversy and the media frenzy that surrounded it.

By this time, France had reached the peak of its rising sexism, xenophobia, and anti-semitism that defined the years preceding the First World War. Curie’s nomination to the French Academy of Sciences was rejected, and many suspected that biases against her gender and immigrant roots were to blame. Furthermore, it came to light that she had been involved in a romantic relationship with her married colleague, Paul Langevin, though he was estranged from his wife at the time.

Curie was labeled a traitor and a homewrecker and was accused of riding the coattails of her deceased husband (Pierre had died in 1906 from a road accident) rather than having accomplished anything based on her own merits. Though she had just been awarded a second Nobel Prize, the nominating committee now sought to discourage Curie from traveling to Stockholm to accept it so as to avoid a scandal. With her personal and professional life in disarray, she sank into a deep depression and retreated (as best she could) from the public eye.

Around this time, Curie received a letter from Einstein in which he described his admiration for her, as well as offered his heart-felt advice on how to handle the events as they unfolded. “I am impelled to tell you how much I have come to admire your intellect, your drive, and your honesty,” he wrote, 𠇊nd that I consider myself lucky to have made your personal acquaintance . . .” As for the frenzy of newspaper articles attacking her, Einstein encouraged Curie “to simply not read that hogwash, but rather leave it to the reptile for whom it has been fabricated.”

There is little doubt that the kindness shown by her respected colleague was encouraging. Soon enough, she recovered, reemerged and, despite the discouragement, courageously went to Stockholm to accept her second Nobel Prize.

The Nobel Prize in economics was first awarded in 1969 to Ragnar Frisch and Jan Tinbergen. The first woman to get a prize was Marie Curie in 1903 in physics. Marie Curie was also the first person to win the Nobel Prize more than once after receiving the chemistry prize in 1911. Malala Yousafzai is the youngest person to receive a Nobel Prize when she won the Peace Price in 2014 at the age of seventeen.

From 1901 to 2017, there have been a total of 923 people and establishments that have received Nobel Prizes. These prizes were bestowed 585 times where 884 of the total number of recipients are men, 48 are women, and 24 are organizations. These numbers do not add up to 923 because some people and organizations have received the prizes more than once. This number also includes the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, which was established in 1968 by the central bank of Sweden.


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