Women’s Firsts: The Nobel Prize Winners

The Nobel Prize has only been awarded to 48 women between 1901 and 2015, compared to 825 men. While the divide between men and women may be slowly closing, with women receiving 11.1 per cent of the awards since 2010, there is still a long way to go before we reach equality.  

These prestigious international awards are bestowed in recognition of academic, cultural or scientific advancements. This Women’s History Month, we’re honouring the first women to be awarded the Nobel Prize in each field.

Marie Curie (Physics and Chemistry)

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1903 Madam Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. She shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Antoine Henri Becquerel and her husband Pierre Curie.

“In recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel”

Becquerel discovered radioactivity in 1986, inspiring Marie and Pierre Curie to further investigate the phenomenon. From their research, they extracted two previously unknown elements, polonium and radium, which were both more radioactive than the previously discovered uranium.

Curie is also the only woman to have been honoured twice, also becoming the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911. She died in 1934, aged 66, due to exposure to radiation during her research and service in X-ray units during the war.

Baroness Bertha von Suttner (Peace)

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In 1905 Baroness Suttner was the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Suttner wrote the influential anti-war novel Lay Down Your Arms in 1989, which was published in 37 editions and translated into 16 languages. She became one of the leaders of the international peace movement and established the Austrian Peace Society in 1891. She was also a close correspondent of Alfred Nobel’s and many give her credit for his establishment of a peace prize.

With 16 female winners this is the field in which women have been honoured the most. The most recent female recipient was Malala Yousafzai in 2014, for her fight towards equal rights in education.

Selma Lagerlöf (Literature)

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Selma was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1909. Her first novel The Story of Gösta Berling was published in 1981, and she is most well-known for The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, a geography book for school children published in 1906.

“In appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterize her writings”

Her writing draws on Nordic nature, myths, history and folklore, and is always accompanied by “ethical strength and deep religious feeling”. Selma was also an active speaker for the women’s suffrage movement, and was the first woman to be depicted on a Swedish 20 Kronor banknote.

Gerty Cori (Physiology or Medicine)

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In 1947, Gerty Cori was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, shared with her husband Carl Ferdinand Cori and physiologist Bernardo Houssay.

“For their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen”

Their research looked at metabolism, and the way lactic acid forms when we use our muscles, and is then converted into glycogen which breaks down into glucose. First described in 1929, this is now known as the Cori cycle. Gerty also has craters on the Moon and Venus named after her, in recognition of her achievements.

Elinor Ostrom (Economic Sciences)

Image: Holger Motzkau/WikimediaCommons

Elinor Ostram was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, in 2009, shared with Oliver E. Williamson.

“For her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons”

Her research showed how common resources could be managed successfully by the people who use them, without government regulation or privatization. As a political scientist, she challenged the work of most economists, looking at actual reality and field studies, instead of starting with an assumed hypothesis.

To date, she remains the only woman to have received the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

While we recognise the incredible work of women throughout history, and acknowledge their achievements, the only way we will continue to bridge the gender divide is by encouraging young women to pursue their dreams. It’s important that we speak about the success of women, whether that’s through literature, medicine, peace or science, and inspire the future Nobel Prize winners.

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