Prior to this blog post, the only female Nobel Laureate in chemistry that I knew of was Marie Curie and I didn’t know that there were any in the field of medicine. This may have just been my ignorance but now I know all of them and have been empowered because of it.

There have been four female laureates on the Chemistry award out of 175 individuals. The average age of all of these winners is about seventy, they would have been born in a generation when women were more discouraged to do science and this gives hope for the next seventy years.

Ada E.Yonath- 2009

2009 Chemistry Laureate- Ada Yonath

She became the first Israeli woman to win the prize but she herself said, despite being the first lady-winner in chemistry in 45 years, that there was nothing special about a woman winning the prize. Her work was in the study of the structure and function of the ribosome which allowed for structure- based drug design to be pioneered by showing that the ribosome is a ribozyme (an RNA molecule which can act like an enzyme, as a catalyst) and that they are  suitable for peptide bond formation as they  join amino acids together. Her understanding on this allowed her to identify which and why antibiotics would target ribosomes, providing insight into antibiotic resistance and how ribosomes can become resistant to pathogenetic bacteria. She used ribosomal crystallography revealed how the peptide bond is formed and the involvement of ribsosomes in cell regulation.

“The ribosome is a complex of proteins and RNA chains; its structure is extraordinarily intricate; it is unusually flexible, unstable and lacks internal symmetry, all making crystallization an extremely formidable task.”

Dorothy Hodgkin- 1964

1964 Chemistry Laureate- Dorothy Hodgkin

Hodgkin was born in Cairo, Egypt to two British archaeologists. She was also the third woman to graduate with a first class honours degree in Chemistry at Oxford University in 1932. She also worked in the field of protein crystallography, as well as X-ray crystallography which allowed her to find the three dimensional structure of molecules like penicillin and vitamin B12 (this was especially difficult as the only element that she knew was present was cobalt but was still able to deduce a ring structure called pleochroic, allowing it to absorb different wavelengths of light) . This method is important because understanding the structures of biological molecules is the first step to understanding its function and how this function is carried out.

“I once wrote a lecture for Manchester University called ‘Moments of Discovery’ in which I said that there are two moments that are important. There’s the moment when you know you can find out the answer and that’s the period you are sleepless before you know what it is. When you’ve got it and know what it is, then you can rest easy.”

Irène Joliot Curie- 1935

1935 Chemistry Laureate- Irene Joliot Curie

Curie was born in France, the daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie and she won the Noble Prize alongside her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie for their work in artificial radioactivity. The couple worked on the nuclei, discovering the ‘positron’ and the electron and their research replaced the ‘plum-pudding model’ of John Dalton. They were able to turn one element into another by irradiating the element with an alpha particle; doing this with aluminium made unstable phosphorus. This synthesis of new radioactive elements was important because radioactive metals were becoming important in medicine and their research made it easy to produce these metals in bulk quickly and cheaply. Their research also led to other scientists discovering nuclear fission.

“We have shown that it is possible to create a radioactivity characterized by the emission of positive or negative electrons in boron and magnesium by bombardment with alpha rays.”

Maria Skłodowska-Curie- 1911

1911 Chemistry Laureate- Marie Sklodowska Curie

Curie was the first person and woman to win the Nobel Prize twice and the first woman to win a Noble Prize. She coined the term radioactivity as well as pioneering how to isolate radioactive isotopes. She successfully produced radium as a pure metal and documented the properties of radioactive elements and their compounds. This was important because radiation became important in treating tumours.

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
There are twelve female Noble Prize Winners for Physiology or Medicine out of 211 individuals.

Tu Youyou- 2015

2015 Medicine Laureate- Tu Youyou

Her Nobel Prize was given for her therapy against malaria by her being able to extract artemisinin which inhibits the malaria parasite quicker than any other drugs from sweet wormwood, a herb used in traditional Chinese medicine, which has allowed better drugs to be based off of the substance, improving millions of lives. Artemisinin also doesn’t cause harmful side effects. The only drawback of artemisinin is that the drugs cost a lot to make and sweet wormwood isn’t readily available and therefore since countries that have the most malaria are usually also quite poor, the potential of the drug is yet to be fulfilled (3.2 billion are at risk), but of course, this doesn’t take away from the amazing discovery. On her way to the discovery, Youyou and her team screened over 2,380 traditional Chinese recipes and herbal extracts and she volunteered to be the first human subject.

“As head of this research group, I had the responsibility”

May- Britt Moser- 2014

2015 Medicine Laureate- May Britt Moser

Found the cells that form the positioning system of the brain. These cells are called grid cells, which are identified by a regular triangle pattern when a dot is placed above a rats head every time a neurone emits a change in electrical potential along the membrane of nerve cell with an impulse, and are a type of neuron. When a rat passed certain points in a hexagonal grid, nerve cells that coordinate navigation were stimulated. I think that this was important because we have little understanding of how the brain works in proportion to how much we know about other organs and maybe by understanding how cells coordinate with each other we will eventually be able fix diseases that rely on brain cell coordination.

“We didn’t care about salaries and having a nice car. We just cared about science and were really ambitious.”

Carol W. Greider, Elizabeth Blackburn- – 2009

2009 Medicine Laureate- Carol Greider
2009 Medicine Laureate- Elizabeth Blackburn

Greider and Blackburn, her mentor, were prized for the discovery of the enzyme telomerase and how telomores protect chromosomes as it is important for all of the genetic material to be inherited and maintained that chromosomes are protected. Greider found that they have a cap called a telomere that protect chromosomes from being broken down which can lead to cancer-causing chromosome fusion and biological aging and telomerase is what produces the DNA that allows this to happen, rebuilding the tips of chromosomes which determines the lifespan of cells, therefore the health and aging of people.

“I think actively promoting women in science is very important because the data has certainly shown that there has been an underrepresentation.”

“I’ve only actively promoted what we always hope is good science.”

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi- 2008

2008 Medicine Laureate- Francoise Barre Sinoussi

Sinoussi is a French virologist. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of HIV, a retrovirus in patients with swollen lymph glands, attacking lymphocytes, the type of blood cell that is vital in the body’s immune system, which was proved to be the cause of AIDS and her discovery improved the treatment of AIDS patients because it led to diagnostic tests to control the disease spreading. Her understanding of viruses included, the factors that increase risk of mother to child transmission (for example, smoking during pregnancy, a low baby birth weight, frequent unprotected sex), the characteristics that allow HIV-positive individuals to stop HIV replication with the antiretroviral drugs to limit this to decrease the amount of the virus in the bodily fluid and therefore the risk of transmission to others.

Linda Brown Buck- 2004

2004 Medicine Laureate- Linda Brown Buck

Buck was born in Seattle and is a Nobel Laureate for her work in olfactory receptors which allowed us to understand how smells are composed and how our body interprets the signals from our receptors as when an odorant attaches itself to a receptor it changes, causing an electric signal to be sent to the brain.

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard – 1995

The scientist was born during WW2 in Germany, choosing to become a biologist at age 12 and her work concerned the genetic control of early embryonic development by studying the development in fruit flies  (used because of their quick generation time)which allowed them to classify the genes that tell cells to form a new fly. These genes are homologues in other species and so her research is applicable beyond fruit flies.

“People think if you have deciphered the genome of humans that you can change everything. But you cannot change everything, because you do not know what the genes mean, and you have no methods for changing them, and you can’t do experiments with humans like you can with animals.”

Gertrude B. Elion- 1988

1988 Medicine Laureate- Gertrude Elion

Elion was born in New York and was inspired to start her journey in physiology when her grandfather died of cancer. She was eventually able to find work as a chemist after battling with male-dominance during the war and then moved to the research laboratory now called GlaxoSmithKline until her death and was granted her prize for establishing important principles in drug treatment in the field of pharmacology. Her main influence was devising a systematic method of producing drugs from the existing knowledge from fields like biochemistry whereas before drugs had been based off of natural substances which relied too heavily on trial and error. This has helped to develop drugs for malaria (invented Daraprim) and organ transplants (she invented Imuran, the first immune-suppressant drug) and others.

“Nobody… took me seriously. They wondered why in the world I wanted to be a chemist when no women were doing that. The world was not waiting for me.”
“I think it’s a very valuable thing for a doctor to learn how to do research, to learn how to approach research, something there isn’t time to teach them in medical school. They don’t really learn how to approach a problem, and yet diagnosis is a problem; and I think that year spent in research is extremely valuable to them.”

Rita Levi-Montalcini- 1986

1986 Medicine Laureate- Rita Levi- Montalcini

Was born in Turin, Italy to an electrical engineer father and a painter mother and was gifted for her discovery of growth factors; a substance that stimulates cell growth and differentiation and therefore maturation, usually a protein or steroid. Montalcini succeeded in isolating a substance from tumours in mice that caused growth in the nervous system of chicken embryos, this was the nerve growth factor which regulates the growth and maintenance of certain neurones. Her discovery gave an understanding of growth factors that changed the way deformities and delayed wound healing are thought about. She lost her position as an assistant in an anatomy department in 1938 because she was a Jew and her family’s wealth made it possible for her to set up a laboratory in her bedroom and had to set up another when the family fled the Germans, moving further south to Florence.

“Progress depends on our brain. The most important part of our brain, that which is neocortical, must be used to help others and not just to make discoveries.”

Barbara McClintock- 1983

1983 Medicine Laureate- Barbara McClintock

McClintock was born is Hartford, USA and won her Nobel Prize for her discovery of mobile genetic elements. She developed the technique of visualizing maize chromosomes I’d say, in a more advanced ‘version’ of Mendel’s peas, she studies the characteristics that each generation of corn inherited like the colours of the kernels, linking to the plants chromosomes and she was able to prove that genetic elements can cause chromosomes to be active or inactive like genetic recombination which is the production of offspring with different traits to the parents. I think that this also formed the basis of epigenetics as other factors as well as DNA are affecting the physical or responses of the inheritance.

“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.”

Rosalyn Yalow- 1977

1977 Medicine Laureate- Rosalyn Yalow

Was another New York Laureate who received the Nobel Prize for the development of ‘radioimmunoassay’ of peptide hormones which is used to small concentrations of substances in the body like the hormones in the blood and so she, and her colleague Solomon Berson were able to track insulin by injecting radioactive insulin into a patient’s body. From this they were able to prove that Type 2 diabetes is caused by the body’s inefficiency using insulin whereas before people thought that it was a lack of insulin completely that caused it. RIA has been applied to other substances like hormones and enzymes that were too small to be detected previously.

“The excitement of learning separates youth from old age. As long as you’re learning you’re not old.”

Gerty Cori- 1947

1947 Medicine Laureate-Gerty Cori

Cori was awarded for their discovery of the catalytic conversion of glycogen. She and her partner described the Cori cycle which includes how lactic acid when we use our muscles which is converted to glycogen in the liver and that glycogen is converted to glucose to be absorbed by muscle cells. This cycle follows theoretically how carbohydrates are broken down and how they are synthesised. They were able to discover the enzyme that causes this decomposition also.


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