It’s Nobel Prize season! The three big science categories—physiology or medicine, physics, and chemistry—were just announced on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Of the eight science winners, how many are women? Zero!
That’s the usual number of women in the annual mix. No female scientist has been awarded a Nobel Prize since 2009. In “The Nobel Prize: Where are All the Women?” we wrote about the paucity of women among Nobel laureates in the sciences and about some of the women who had been awarded the prize. “In more than a century, only 15 women have been awarded the Nobel Prize in a science category,” we wrote. While we document there some of the ways that the deck is stacked against women, women have made and continue to make significant contributions to science.
You wouldn’t know that from ABC News, which listed “5 Achievements That Haven’t Won a Nobel Prize” and mentioned only male scientists. So, here, we share the accomplishments of five women who should have been more widely lauded for their research. Some made foundational contributions to work that ultimately won the Nobel Prize. Some were genuinely ripped off. Each of them deserved greater recognition for adding to our understanding of the world.
Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941)
American astronomer Annie Jump Cannon was one of the so-called Pickering’s Harem, a group of women hired by Edward Pickering at Harvard Observatory. These underpaid women were charged with the painstaking task of mapping and classifying every star in the sky.
When disagreement over how exactly to classify stars arose, Cannon came up with the logical system based on spectral absorption lines. She alone observed and classified more than 200,000 stars over a forty-year career. Instead of being honored with a Nobel, her work is encapsulated in the mnemonic to remember the star classification letters: Oh, be a fine girl, kiss me!
Lise Meitner (1878-1968)
Austrian-born Lise Meitner was one of the physicists on the team that discovered how nuclear fission worked. Her contributions to the research were central and she had an especially important role in working out the basic math. Her colleague Otto Hahn, with whom Meitner worked closely for thirty years, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery.
Her tombstone doesn’t say, Nobel Laureate. Instead, it reads: Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity.
Emmy Noether (1882-1935)
German mathematician Emmy Noether worked in the area of abstract algebra and developed a theorem—Noether’s Theorem—that became important in theoretical physics. It’s helped physicists better understand conservation of energy, and the formula is also a practical tool to test theoretical models of physical systems.
At the time of her death at the age of 53, shortly after an ovarian cyst was discovered, Noether was still actively lecturing and investigating mathematics. Noether helped recast the field of algebra for twentieth-century use and is generally recognized as the greatest female mathematician. But that didn’t attract a Nobel Prize.
Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
British biophysicist Rosalind Franklin made important contributions to the field of genetics, particularly to our understanding of DNA and RNA. She published independent findings about the DNA helix. Her x-ray crystallography images of DNA led Francis Crick and James Watson to develop their double helix model of DNA, for which the male scientists (along with Maurice Wilkins) were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962.
Franklin seems to have borne little grudge, accepting the gender dynamics of scientific research, especially present in the 1950s. However, she may not have known how much access Crick and Watson had to her data, data that was shared without her permission or knowledge. She died before they were awarded the Nobel. It’s possible that, had she not died, she might have joined the Nobel ranks with her male colleagues, but it’s unlikely. By 1962, when work on the double helix of DNA was awarded the big prize, only three women had won a Nobel Prize in a science category. Two of those three shared the same last name Curie. Crick later commented, “I’m afraid we always used to adopt–let’s say, a patronizing attitude towards her.”
Jocelyn Bell Burnell (born 1943)
Of the women on our shortlist of Nobel should-have-beens, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell is the only one alive and, therefore, the only scientist on our list still eligible for a Nobel. But she won’t get one.
Bell Burnell, while working under Antony Hewish, first observed radio pulsars, or rotating neutron stars. In the paper documenting the discovery, Hewish was the first of five authors, and Bell (her last name at the time) was listed second, as is customary for mentor-student publications. In 1974, the Nobel committee awarded the prize in physics to Hewish and Martin Ryle, overlooking the woman who had pinned down those pulsars in the first place.
These five women excelled in their fields and laid the groundwork for scientific research that continues today. They serve as predecessors for women scientists working today and for girls interested in studying science. But times shift slowly, and assumptions about gender are deeply engrained in the culture of scientific inquiry and in larger cultural attitudes about science. While it’s not clear that today’s female groundbreakers have any better shot at a Nobel than Bell Burnell did almost four decades ago, it’s time for women to rise to the top ranks in the sciences more often and be recognized.