4 women whose work won the Nobel prize for their male colleagues

Throughout history, female scientists have made groundbreaking discoveries that have contributed to the betterment of humankind. To celebrate Women’s History Month, this Special Feature looks at some of the most influential female scientists who never received a Nobel Prize for their work. Instead, the Prize landed in the hands of their male colleagues.

black and white photo of Lise Meitner looking up to her male colleaguesShare on Pinterest
Lise Meitner in conversation with Prof. Fritz Strassmann (left) and Prof. Otto Hahn at the Opening of the Max Planck Institute in Mainz, 1956.

The Nobel Prize is a coveted honor granted to individuals in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine or physiology, literature, and peace. The award goes to those who, by decree of Alfred Nobel in his will, “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”

A Nobel Prize committee, which comprises five people whom the Storting (the Norwegian Parliament) have elected to the position, select the recipients of the award. The current Nobel committee members include three women: Berit Reiss-Andersen, Anne Enger, and Kristin Clemet. Two men, Jørgen Watne Frydnes and Asle Toje, make up the committee.

From the first Nobel Prize award in 1901 to the most recent in 2020, only 57 women have received this honor.

This list of female laureates includes Marie Curie, who was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize. Curie actually obtained the Prize twice, receiving it in Physics in 1903 and then in Chemistry in 1911.

Many female scientists have made equally outstanding contributions that should have resulted in a Nobel Prize award, but they never became laureates.

Instead, male colleagues took the credit and subsequently received the Nobel Prize.

In other instances, Nobel committees perhaps overlooked these women’s accomplishments at the time.

Who were these women who bestowed a great benefit on humankind yet, perhaps because of unfounded social inequities, never earned a Nobel Prize? Below is a comprehensive list of women in science who, in their lifetime, never became Nobel Prize laureates for their accomplishments.

The year was 1906, and Lise Meitner became the second woman to obtain a doctorate from the University of Vienna. Soon after graduation, Meitner moved to Berlin to begin attending the lectures of German theoretical physicist Max Planck. She later began to work with German chemist Otto Hahn, investigating isotopes.

This partnership led to a position at Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in 1913.

It was the collaboration with Hahn that led to the discovery of protactinium in 1917. However, Hitler’s rise to power abruptly interrupted her endeavors, forcing her to flee Nazi-controlled Germany in 1938 and head to Sweden without her possessions.

Once established in Stockholm, the two scientists continued their work, which ultimately led to the development of nuclear technology. Although Hahn received the Nobel Prize for isolating atomic fission, Meitner was the one who described how the process occurred.

This nuclear technology was the pathway to the Manhattan Project, which, interestingly, Meitner refused to be a part of, stating, “I will have nothing to do with a bomb.”

Despite the Nobel Prize committee overlooking her work, Meitner garnered acknowledgment for her role in atomic fission when she and her colleagues accepted the Enrico Fermi Award in 1966.

Chien-Shiung Wu was born in a small town near Shanghai, China. Her journey into physics began at a girl’s school that her father founded in the belief that all young women should have the opportunity to pursue an education. This progressive way of thinking was not commonplace at the time.

Wu went on to major in physics at the University of Shanghai, and in 1940, she obtained her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

In 1944, she joined the Manhattan Project, primarily focusing on radiation detectors. Wu furthered her career with a position at Columbia University, NY, where she immersed herself in the study of beta decay, a process of radioactive degeneration.

As her skills and knowledge became known throughout the scientific community, Wu attracted the attention of theoretical physicists Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang. Also interested in radioactive technology, they had an unproven theory based on the idea that identical nuclear particles did not act similarly. The two scientists approached Wu to create an experiment that could prove this theory.

Using radioactive cobalt at absolute zero temperatures, Wu proved their theory beyond doubt.

Lee and Yang received the Nobel Prize for this groundbreaking discovery in 1957. However, the two men failed to acknowledge Wu’s work on the project.

Early on in her life, Rosalind Franklin had an affinity for science. She graduated from Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1941, then diverted from her studies to work at the British Coal Utilization Research Association. Here, she investigated the carbon and graphite microstructures that formed the basis of her Cambridge University doctorate in physical chemistry, which she earned in 1945.

In 1951, her life would take yet another turn, this time into the study of DNA.

As a research associate in John Randall’s laboratory at King’s College, London, Franklin met James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins, who were part of a separate research team.

Using X-ray crystallography, an X-ray diffraction analysis technique that she had mastered, Franklin photographed DNA’s double-helical structure, which resulted in a picture dubbed “Photograph 51.”

When Wilkins showed Watson one of her photographs, he immediately published it in the journal Nature. However, Watson did not mention his female colleague’s work in the article.

Although her contributions were critical in understanding DNA structure, it was Watson, Crick, and Wilkins who garnered the Nobel Prize in 1962, after Franklin’s death from ovarian cancer in 1958.

This complete disregard of Franklin’s work incited a proverbial war of memoirs. In his book, The Double Helix, Watson hinted at the existence of double standards in science.

Conversely, the biography Rosalind Franklin and DNA, by author Anne Sayre, is critical of Watson’s account, describing “elements of double deceit” against Franklin.

Despite the lack of respect that Franklin may have received from her peers, her legacy lives on at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in North Chicago, IL. This college exists to foster the traits of inquiry, diligence, and academic excellence — all attributes that this educational institution’s namesake exemplified.

After graduating from high school in the Bronx, NY, Esther Lederberg ultimately went on to Stanford University, where she obtained a master’s degree in genetics.

In 1950, she discovered lambda phage, a virus that infects Escherichia coli. This finding opened a new pathway to understanding viruses, which is the basis of viral models to this day.

Her later work involving genetics and immunology was in partnership with her husband, Joshua Lederberg.

Their combined efforts resulted in the discovery that bacteria can exchange DNA and create a new strain. Even though their work was in tandem, her husband received the Nobel Prize for this breakthrough.

According to an article in TIME, her husband vaguely acknowledged her contributions in his Nobel acceptance speech, saying that he had “enjoyed the companionship of many colleagues, above all my wife.”

The same article points out that in a written remembrance to Esther, microbiologist and Stanford professor Stanley Falkow noted that her “independent seminal contributions in Joshua’s laboratory […] surely led, in part, to his Nobel Prize.”

Although these women all left this world without the honor of a Nobel Prize, the scientific community will not forget their contributions. They lived and worked when inequality was the norm, overcoming a traditionally male-dominated discipline and forging a pathway for future women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

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