Issue Date: September 11, 2017
These female scientists should have won the Nobel
“The Nobel Prize is the most prestigious recognition a scientist can have,” according to Magdolna Hargittai of Budapest University of Technology & Economics. “It’s also the prize that is best known and appreciated by the general public.”
Therefore, many have lamented over the years the dearth of women on the list of science Nobel winners. Speaking at last month’s ACS national meeting in Washington, D.C., Hargittai noted that only 17 women have ever won Nobel Prizes in chemistry, physics, and physiology or medicine. Marie Curie, who won chemistry and physics Nobels, her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, and Ada E. Yonath are the only women among the 175 chemistry Nobel winners. Physics counts just two women among its 204 awardees, and physiology or medicine has had only 12 female laureates out of 211.
These 17 women represent about 3% of the total number of science awardees since the Nobels started. Women, meanwhile, make up about 50% of the global population. A possible sign of improvement, Hargittai said, is that about 6% of 21st-century science Nobels have gone to women, compared with only 2% in the 20th century.
Whether women’s representation among Nobel Prize winners will continue to improve is still an open question. But Hargittai suggested that passages from medical physicist Rosalyn Yalow’s 1977 Nobel ceremony banquet speech are worth remembering: “The failure of women to have reached positions of leadership has been due in large part to social and professional discrimination. … We must believe in ourselves or no one else will believe in us. … The world cannot afford the loss of the talents of half its people if we are to solve the many problems which beset us.”
Building on the popularity of a session held at last year’s ACS spring national meeting about chemists who should have won Nobels, Hargittai and others discussed female scientists who’ve been snubbed in the Nobel selection process during a session titled “Ladies in Waiting for Nobel Prizes: Overlooked Accomplishments of Women Chemists,” sponsored by the Division of the History of Chemistry and the Women Chemists Committee. The following are some of the women they discussed.
Marietta Blau: Symposium co-organizer Vera V. Mainz, a retired director of the nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy lab at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, discussed physicist Blau, who, with her student Hertha Wambacher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, was first to use film emulsions to capture nuclear processes. Blau and Wambacher developed the use of emulsions to track and identify relativistic particles from radioactive materials, accelerators, and cosmic rays and to record sprays of particles that emerge from high-energy particle collisions. In a 1937 Nature paper, they reported the first indisputable evidence showing the disintegration of heavy nuclei in accelerators, Mainz said. Blau was nominated for the chemistry Nobel once and the physics Nobel four times. But Cecil Frank Powell was sole winner of the 1950 Nobel Prize in Physics, in part for developing “the photographic method of studying nuclear processes.”
Katharine Burr Blodgett: Many chemists know that Irving Langmuir helped develop Langmuir-Blodgett films, single-molecule surface layers that have been used to create coatings, membranes, sensors, and electronic devices. Langmuir received the 1932 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for that work and other surface chemistry achievements. But how many know who Blodgett is, asked Margaret Schott of Northwestern University at the ACS symposium. Blodgett worked closely with Langmuir at General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y., to develop Langmuir-Blodgett films and the apparatus that generates them. Langmuir deserved the prize, but Blodgett helped with key experiments and could have shared it, Schott said.
Rachel Carson: Amanda Coffman of the University of North Alabama suggested that Carson of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service should have won a Nobel. In September 1962, Carson published “Silent Spring.” The book said that indiscriminate use of six chemical pesticides hurt animals and people, and it recommended increased regulation. There were many critiques of “Silent Spring,” including in the pages of C&EN, but in 2012 ACS designated the book a National Historic Chemical Landmark. Today, the work is widely credited for having launched the modern environmental movement, Coffman said. It helped lead not only to bans or restrictions of all six pesticides it discussed but also to the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and passage of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. Carson “was not a chemist,” Coffman said. “She did, however, have a great impact on society and was deserving of a Nobel Prize.”
Erika Cremer: German physical chemist Cremer was overlooked by the Nobel Committee for her work developing solid-state gas adsorption chromatography. She did the work in 1944 in Austria, which was then part of Nazi Germany, said historian Jeffrey Johnson of Villanova University. In spring 1945, a report on her work was in press at Naturwissenschaften, a German journal similar to Science. However, the press was bombed before the paper could be printed, and an air raid damaged Cremer’s lab, disrupting her research program. After the war, one of her students built a gas chromatograph in a nearby high school lab, and another optimized the apparatus and used it to separate gases. But postwar problems with German journals delayed Cremer’s scientific publications until 1951, and even then her work remained obscure. British chemists A. J. P. Martin and R. L. M. Synge won the 1952 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing liquid partition chromatography. If Cremer’s independent work had been better known at the time, it could have justified a third share of the 1952 prize, Johnson said.
Rosalind E. Franklin: Burtron H. Davis of the University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research told the story of English chemist Franklin’s contributing role to the 1953 determination of the structure of DNA. Working at King’s College London to decipher the structure, Franklin and a postdoc obtained a key X-ray diffraction image called Photo 51. Without Franklin’s approval or knowledge, her colleague Maurice H. F. Wilkins showed James D. Watson the photo, which gave Watson critically important clues about DNA’s architecture. Later on, Francis H. C. Crick wrote, “The data which really helped us to obtain the structure was mainly obtained by Rosalind Franklin.” Because Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously, Franklin’s untimely death from cancer in 1958 eliminated the issue of whether she should be included in the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which went to Watson, Crick, and Wilkins for deciphering the structure. Davis noted that Franklin was not nominated for a Nobel Prize before her death and that Watson, Crick, and Wilkins had also not yet been nominated at that point.
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Female chemists overlooked for a Nobel
Elena Galpern: Budapest University of Technology & Economics’ Hargittai thinks Galpern, a computational chemist at the Russian Academy of Sciences, might have been considered for inclusion in the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for buckminsterfullerene (C60). In a 1973 Russian paper, Galpern made the first computational prediction of the stable structure of C60, Hargittai said. In 1985, Harold W. Kroto, Robert F. Curl, Richard E. Smalley, and coworkers published their landmark Nature paper reporting the experimental production and observation of C60. The three principal investigators received the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the work, but Galpern’s prediction was not recognized. “If you live in a closed society” like Russia, Hargittai said, “where there used to be little opportunity for interaction with world scientists, there is a big chance that if you discover something important, its significance will be lost.”
Darleane C. Hoffman: U.S. radiochemist Hoffman, who is 90, could still win a Nobel Prize, said Caroline Mason of Research Applications Corp. In 1971, scientists still believed that transuranium elements did not occur in nature, but in that year Hoffman, working at Los Alamos National Laboratory, discovered small amounts of plutonium-244 in a rock formation. Hoffman also isolated and characterized fermium-257—work that represented a monumental advance in the understanding of the fission process, according to the late Nobel Prize winner Glenn T. Seaborg. Hoffman also studied the chemical and nuclear properties of rutherfordium, bohrium, and hassium, and she confirmed the existence of seaborgium. She deserves Nobel recognition for those achievements, Mason said.
Isabella Karle: Budapest University of Technology & Economics’ Hargittai believes Karle, the spouse and scientific collaborator of Nobelist Jerome Karle at the Naval Research Laboratory, should have won a chemistry Nobel. Jerome Karle and Herbert A. Hauptman shared the 1985 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing crystal structure determination methods, work to which Isabella made critical contributions. When Jerome first learned he had won, he immediately asked whether Isabella had won too, but she had not. Isabella Karle, now 95, told Hargittai that she and Jerome “worked together, separately.” Hargittai has found that many scientific couples have a similar arrangement, complementing each other’s efforts to achieve important goals.
Kathleen Lonsdale: Mary Virginia Orna of the College of New Rochelle and Maureen Julian of Virginia Tech named crystallographer Lonsdale as another Nobel-deserving scientist. At the University of Leeds in 1927, Lonsdale provided the first experimental proof of the planarity of the benzene ring, the geometry of which was uncertain at the time. This finding provided a major foundation for organic chemistry as we know it today, Orna said. Working with W. H. Bragg at the Royal Institution in the 1930s, Lonsdale also helped confirm the concept of σ and π molecular orbitals by measuring their dimensions experimentally.
Lise Meitner: Tina Leaym of Dow Chemical offered Meitner’s name on behalf of her Dow colleague Jaime Curtis-Fisk, who prepared the presentation on Meitner’s work but couldn’t attend the session. Meitner and Otto Hahn led a group at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin that first discovered nuclear fission of uranium. Hahn won the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for that discovery. According to the Nobel Prize nomination database, Meitner received 48 total chemistry and physics Nobel Prize nominations for her contributions to that effort, but she never received a prize.
In 1938, Meitner, who was Jewish, fled Nazi Germany and her research post with Hahn but continued to collaborate with him remotely. Soon after she left, Hahn and his assistant Fritz Strassmann bombarded uranium with neutrons and unexpectedly found that barium had been produced. “Perhaps you can come up with some sort of fantastic explanation” to explain the result, Hahn wrote to Meitner. Meitner was first to realize that uranium had split into smaller elements, losing mass that had converted into energy. Meitner and a coworker published a note in Nature in 1939 on the experiment, calling the process “fission.” Their findings were key to the development of nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors.
When the Nobel Committee’s deliberations on the 1944 prize were made public a half century later, Nobel Prize in Chemistry laureate Max Perutz wrote that “the protracted deliberations by the Nobel jury were hampered by lack of appreciation both of the joint work that had preceded the discovery and of Meitner’s written and verbal contributions after her flight from Berlin.” Curtis-Fisk agrees, calling the snub an underestimation of Meitner’s role and noting that Meitner is one of the top women to have been overlooked for a Nobel Prize.
Ida Tacke Noddack: At the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt in Berlin-Charlottenburg, German chemist Noddack and her husband Walter discovered rhenium in 1925, explained the College of New Rochelle’s Orna. Noddack was also the first person to propose the concept of nuclear fission but did not confirm it experimentally, as did Meitner, Hahn, and Strassmann. Ida Noddack’s work should have earned her a Nobel, Orna said.
Marguerite Perey: French chemist Perey, discoverer of the last natural element, francium, should have been in the Nobel club, according to Sarah Preston of Ursuline College. In 1929, Perey became a chemical technician at the Radium Institute in Paris, where Marie Curie assigned her the task of isolating actinium from uranium ore. In 1939, Perey noted that actinium she had obtained by fractional precipitation of uranium ore emitted an unexpected type of radiation. This finding led to her discovery of a new element, which she named francium.
Francium is the rarest and most unstable of all naturally occurring elements, so the achievement was considerable, Preston said. Perey received five Nobel nominations but never received the prize. The 1952 Nobel Committee decided that her francium studies “undoubtedly are worth being recognized” but fall short of the importance required for a Nobel Prize, according to Erling Norrby’s book “Nobel Prizes and Nature’s Surprises.”
Agnes Pockels: The Center for Applied Energy Research’s Davis discussed the Nobel-worthiness of German chemist Pockels. In the 1880s, while living at home with her parents, Pockels read the scientific literature by borrowing publications from her brother, a professor of physics. In 1882, she developed a slide trough and beam balance that could measure soap-film surface tension, the pressure exerted by soap films as they spread on water. She recorded scientific results in a diary, and beginning in 1891, she also published papers about her work in Nature and German journals. In 1917, Irving Langmuir reported having upgraded Pockels’s experimental apparatus. He went on to win the 1932 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for that work and other surface chemistry achievements, but Pockels was not included. “Langmuir did better surface science work than Pockels,” Davis said, but it was in part “merely an improvement of her work.”
Women’s Nobel stories are recounted on stage
Credit: Portal Theatre
A unique adjunct to last month’s ACS national meeting session on “Ladies in Waiting for Nobel Prizes: Overlooked Accomplishments of Women Chemists” was a performance of “No Belles,” a dramatic presentation on women Nobel Prize winners and nonwinners by the Oregon-based Portal Theatre.
The troupe conceived and developed the play independently and has presented it in other venues before. A grant from the ACS Divisional Activities Committee brought the performance to the ACS meeting, where “it was attended by 100 or so, who gave the performers a standing ovation,” said session co-organizer Vera V. Mainz.
“ ‘No Belles’ is one of the most effective means I have ever seen to communicate to nonscientists why one pursues a scientific career and why it matters,” Mainz added. “I believe everyone who attended reacted emotionally to one or all of the stories of the women scientists presented. I think ACS could do a great job of communicating these ideas to the public by coupling local section sponsorship of the ‘No Belles’ performance to local middle schools and high schools.”
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