Nobel Women

Inventas vitam juvat exclouisse per artes - “And they who bettered life on earth by their newly found mastery”

Taken from Vergilius Aeneid, these are the words which adorn the medal of one of science’s most prestigious awards, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

The 27th November 1895 saw Alfred Nobel, inventor of the dynamite, give the majority of his fortune towards an international award known as the Nobel Prize; consisting of a personal diploma, cash reward and medal. Actively involved in medical research, it was appropriate that Physiology and Medicine would become amongst the five possible Nobel prizes. But how does one go about being globally acknowledged and celebrated for their work? In none other than Mr Nobel’s words himself, they must ‘have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine’.

The unenviable task to distinguish which discovery has most greatly impacted mankind falls to the 50 Nobel Committee elected-voting professors making up the Nobel Assembly, at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. The Nobel Assembly have a choice of candidates suggested by invited nominators, the candidates selected are then assessed by specifically appointed expert advisors who aid the Nobel Assembly and all these filters set in place to make the best possible decision for that given year. The winner is then ordained a ‘Nobel Laureate’; it’s origin hailing from ancient Greece where circular laurel wreaths, composed of leaves and branches, crowned athletic victors, as well as symbolising honour during poetic gatherings.

Science has long been a largely male dominated field, nevertheless over the past 22 years the number of women making the top 1% of academic scores has risen from 8% to 25%. Women are undoubtedly starting to show the statistics, suggesting males vastly outnumber the females in this field, the door. As a female scientist myself, it’s a promising indication that science will continue to progress into a gender balanced field and with the 200th Nobel Laureate likely to be announced this year, it is fitting to look back at the incredible discoveries women have made in the domain of physiology or medicine.


Gerty Cori becomes the first female Nobel Laureate in Physiology or medicine in 1947 for the ‘discovery of the course of catalytic conversion of glycogen’. Amongst the team was her husband, Carl Cori giving the achievement a joyous family element.


The 1977 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was shared between Rosalyn Yalow, Andrew V. Schally and Roger Guillemin ‘for the development of radioimmunoassay of peptide hormones’.


Barbara McClintock was acknowledged ‘for her discovery of mobile genetic elements’, moreover she stands as the only female in history to obtain an unshared prize! This truly makes 1983 an inspirational year for female scientists everywhere.


The 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine waste shared between Rita Levi-Montalcini and Stanley Cohen ‘for their discoveries of growth factors’. This discovery was key to furthering our understanding of nervous system development, as the growth factors released by nerve cells where involved in stimulating and regulating the process.


The 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine was shared between Gertrude B. Elion, Sir James W. Black and George H. Hitchings ‘for their discoveries of important principles for drug treatment’.


The 1995 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine was shared between Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Edward B. Lewis and Eric F. Wieschaus ‘for their discoveries concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development’.


The 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was shared between Linda B. Buck and Richard Axel ‘for their discoveries of odorant receptors and the organisation of the olfactory system’.


The 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or medicine was shared between Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Luc Montagnier and Harald zur Hausen ‘for their discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus’.


2009 saw two women winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, shared with Jack W. Szostak ‘for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres’.

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