Nov 2002 Journal

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Women and the Nobel Prize

The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901. A century later, only 11 women scientists have received this distinction. Of course, we remember Marie Sklodowska Curie, who won the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics (jointly with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel), for her pioneering work on radioactivity, as well as the 1911 Nobel Prize in chemistry for her discovery of radium and polonium. But not all women scientists who deserved Nobel recognition received it.

One such was Lise Meitner, a nuclear physicist who, because of her Jewish descent, had to flee from Berlin to Sweden in 1938. There she and her refugee nephew Otto Frisch explained that the totally unexpected experimental results obtained by her former co-worker Otto Hahn in Berlin on bombarding uranium with slow neutrons were due to the splitting of the uranium nucleus. But it was Otto Hahn alone who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1944, although Meitner later received other honours.

Another woman denied proper recognition was Rosalind Franklin, described as the ‘Dark Lady of DNA’ by Brenda Maddox in a book recently serialised on Radio 4. She was the attractive daughter of a successful Anglo-Jewish family. Her fine X-ray photographs at King’s College London revealed that DNA had the form of a helix and this contributed much to establishing its structure. Sadly, she died in 1958 at the age of 38, and the resulting Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1962 was shared by Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins.

It is not only Jewish women scientists who failed to obtain deserved Nobel honours. A well-known example is Jocelyn Bell, who, as a research student in Cambridge, discovered unusual and regular radio signals from space which were subsequently shown to be produced by rapidly rotating neutron stars named pulsars. This discovery helped her supervisor, Antony Hewish, to win the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics jointly with the radio astronomer Sir Martin Ryle. Jocelyn became Bell Burnell on marriage and has had a distinguished career in astronomy.

A Jewish woman scientist who did succeed in winning a Nobel Prize was the Italian cell biologist Rita Levi-Montalcini. She was forced to hide in various places during the war and in 1947 emigrated to the USA, returning to Italy only in the 1970s. Her discovery of nerve growth factors advanced our understanding of the development of embryo tissue and gained her the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, jointly with the American biochemist Stanley Cohen.
Michael Spiro

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