The Nobel Prize is considered one of the most prestigious awards in the STEM fields of Physics, Chemistry, and Physiology or Medicine (other prizes include Literature, Peace, and the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economic Sciences). Established by scientist and industrialist Alfred Nobel in his will, the prize is given “to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind” within their respected fields. The first awards were given in 1901. Although Marie Curie was the first women to receive a Nobel Prize in 1903, one of only four individuals with multiple Nobel Prizes, and the only individual to receive the prize in two of the STEM fields (physics in 1903 and chemistry in 1911), the awards have been heavily awarded to men. From 1901 to 2000 only 30 prizes were awarded to women. Since 2000, including this year’s awards, 28 women have been honored, but overall only 3% of Nobel Laureates are women. Thirty-five of those 58 Nobel Prizes went to women in the non-STEM categories (17 Peace, 16 Literature, and 2 Economics). While the low percentage of women in STEM historically is a factor (of repression, not ability) in these overall statistics, it isn’t the only factor. The following scientists found their Nobel Prize winning work awarded to their male colleagues even though they had equal or greater accomplishments in the same work.
Lise Meitner (1878-1968) – Physicist
Lise Meitner and her research partner had collaborated since 1907 before she fled the Nuremburg Laws barring her, as a Jew, to hold prominent positions as a physics professor in Germany. Still, from Sweden, she, her partner (still in Germany), and her nephew were able to work out the process of nuclear fission. While her partner was able to produce and reproduce the fission experiments, he was unable to figure out the theory behind the process. Meitner created the physical theory that led to the development of the first nuclear bomb and nuclear reactors. Though the atom bombs’ development is one of humanities most infamous achievements, the research that led to its creation has been highly awarded by the Nobel committees. Meitner’s research was no exception to this fact. However, due in part to Nazi Germany’s ban on Jewish scientists, her name was left off of the paper that led to the awarding of the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry solely to her long time collaborator instead. Her nephew was also dismissed from contention, but Meitner recounted that at least one of the committee members actively repressed her contributions because she was a woman. In the physics world, Meitner’s work is highly valued and awarded (even the 109th meitnerium element was named for her), but like many brilliant women in STEM, the Noble committee denied her the notoriety that accompanies winning the Nobel Prize.
Frieda Robscheit-Robbins (1893-1973) – Pathologist
Through their study of the effects of diet on pernicious anemia, Frieda Robscheit-Robbins and her research collaborator discovered that a diet high in liver aided in the recovery from anemia in dogs. Dr. Robscheit-Robbins and her co-author published 21 papers on their research between 1925 and 1930. Their research led to the successful treatment of pernicious anemia by using a liver based diet. The 1934 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to three men including Dr. Robscheit-Robbins’ research partner “for their discoveries concerning liver therapy in cases of anaemia.” Dr. Robscheit-Robbins was not recognized in the award even though she was an equal partner in the research leading to the treatment motivating the prize (he did share the prize money). While the rules stipulate that only three individuals may share an individual prize, there is one glaring difference between Dr. Frieda Robscheit-Robbins and the three men who won. At the time, she would have been the second woman to receive a Nobel Prize and it would have been only the third prize awarded to a woman.
Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997) – Physicist
Known to some as the “Chinese Madame Curie” and the “Queen of the Nuclear Research,” Chien-Shiung Wu developed and conducted the Wu Experiment (named for her) which over turned the major assumption in physics called parity conservation, basically that a mirrored version of the universe would behave in the same way as a mirror image of the universe, not distinguishing right from left. The experiment, unexpectedly, showed that this was not the case in weak interactions (radioactive decay). Despite this essential step of experimentation, achieved primarily by the work of Dr. Wu, and though her efforts were mentioned in the acceptance, the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics just went to two male physicists whose work theorized the idea that led to the Wu Experiment.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943-) – Astronomer
As an astronomy graduate student, Bell Burnell detected pulsars (the quickly rotating, dense neutron star remnants of super novae) for the first time using the radio telescope she personally helped assemble. But as she diplomatically puts it, “[t]he picture people had at the time of the way that science was done was that there was a senior man—and it was always a man—who had under him a whole load of minions, junior staff, who weren’t expected to think, who were only expected to do as he said.” So, though she was the actual discoverer, the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics was given solely to her male advisor “for his decisive role in the discovery of pulsars” instead.