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Nobel Prize week is now done and dusted for another year. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry (2018) was awarded to scientists who used directed evolution to produce new enzymes and antibodies, including Frances H Arnold. How many other women have won the prize since it started in 1901? This graphic takes a look at all of the winners! [Note: The graphic has now been updated to reflect the winners up to 2020]

As the graphic shows, Arnold is only the fifth woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The previous women who have won are:

  • Marie Curie (1911): Awarded the Nobel Prize “in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.”
  • Irène Joliot-Curie (1935): Awarded the Nobel Prize jointly with her husband, Frédéric Joliot, “in recognition of their synthesis of new radioactive elements.”
  • Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1964): Awarded the Nobel Prize ”for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances.”
  • Ada E. Yonath (2009): Jointly with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas A. Steitz “for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome.”

The Nobels have come under fire for their balance of male and female winners of the prizes in the past. The low number of women who’ve won certainly isn’t down to a lack of meritorious nominees. Rosalind Franklin, a commonly cited example, was not awarded a Nobel Prize for her work towards the discovery of the structure of the DNA. However, this was due to her death prior to the award of the prize which rewarded the discovery, and the Nobels are not awarded posthumously. 

Franklin aside, there are plenty of other examples of women who could have won a Nobel Prize but didn’t. One of the most notable is Lise Meitner, considered to be amongst the biggest Nobel snubs. She was nominated a combined 48 times for the chemistry and physics prizes for her part in the discovery of the nuclear fission of uranium. The man she led a research group with, Otto Hahn, was awarded a Nobel Prize for this discovery in 1944, but her contributions were not recognised.

There are plenty of others too – over at C&EN, they put together a run-down of some of the women overlooked over the Nobel Prize’s history which is worth a read. You can also explore the Nobel Prize nomination archives to see all of the scientists nominated for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry from 1901 to 1966.

As the graphic shows, Arnold’s win this year means that there have now been more female Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry in the past 9 years than there were in the previous 74. Though there’s still a way to go, let’s hope that this is indicative of women in chemistry more regularly being recognised for their achievements.

One final point: if you’ve gone to the trouble of counting up all of the little figures on the graphic, you’ll have noticed that there are 176 male figures, in contrast to the 175 male winners mentioned at the top. This is because Frederick Sanger won the prize twice (in 1958 and 1980). He’s still the only person to have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry more than once. Marie Curie also won two Nobel Prizes, but her other prize was in Physics.





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