Analysis: meet the Nobel women who made world changing discoveries, solved seemingly impossible problems and still inspire scientists today

By Ellen Fay and Joanna McGouran, TCD

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry is the most prestigious and highly regarded prize a chemist may receive in their lifetime. The prize is awarded to up to three chemists every year for contributions that have revolutionised Chemistry. Since its commencement in 1901, it has been awarded to a total of 184 chemists, but only 5 of these Nobel Laureates are women. As trailblazers in a male dominated space, we take a closer look at the life of these Nobel winners who made world changing discoveries, solved seemingly impossible problems and still inspire scientists today.

Marie Curie

Arguably one of the most widely known chemists is Marie Curie. Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Warsaw in 1867, she studied at the Sorbonne University in Paris, where she met Pierre Curie, a Professor in the School of Physics, who would become her husband and colleague in the field of radioactivity.

Marie Curie meets the press on a ship in 1915. Photo: Edwin Levick/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 for her discovery of the radioactive elements radium and polonium which she named after the term 'rays' and her home country of Poland. This was not her first Nobel Prize however, and she received the award in Physics in 1903, along with her husband and Henri Becquerel, in recognition of their research into radioactivity. In fact, Curie remains the only person to have been awarded the prize in two scientific disciplines.

She described radioactivity as a "child I saw being born and that I contributed, with all my might, to bring up". However, this "child" would eventually end up killing her. At the time of her work, the long-term damaging effects of radiation were unknown and Curie carried out her research exposed to radiation without any safety measures. This exposure to radiation led to severe health complications for Curie and eventually led to her death of aplastic anaemia in 1934.

Irène Joliot-Curie

Marie and Pierre Curie went on to raise two children of their own, one of whom, Irène Joliot-Curie, followed in her mother’s footsteps. Irène was primed to be a scientist from a young age. Along with other French scholars, Curie set up their own home-schooling system where they taught each other’s children for around two years.

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From AtomicHeritage, a look at the scientific partnership of Irène Joliot-Curie and her husband Frédéric

Having started her studies at the Faculty of Science in Paris, Joliot-Curie served as a nurse radiographer during the First World War. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 with her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie for their synthesis of new artificial radioactive elements.

They were the first people in history to artificially create a radioactive element and, since then, 29 elements of the Periodic Table have been discovered by artificial synthesis. However, like her mother, Joliot-Curie also unknowingly sacrificed her health in the pursuit of her research and died in 1956 from leukaemia due to her exposure to radioactive materials.

Both mother and daughter were involved in the birth of radioactivity as a field of research, an area that has been crucial to the development of modern life. Radioactive sources are used in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases including cancer and are present in everyday items such as smoke detectors. During the First World War, they helped to bring X-ray technology to field surgeons using their X-ray mobile units.

Marie Curie (right) and her daughter, Irène. Photo: Getty Images

Dorothy Hodgkin

Another chemist who was interested in the use of X-rays was Dorothy Hodgkin. This inspiring and well known female Nobel Laureate was born in Cairo in 1910, but her family moved to England when she was a young girl. At the age of 15, she received a gift of Sir William Henry Bragg's book, Concerning the Nature of Things. from her mother. In this book, Bragg describes the use of X-rays to "see" the arrangement of atoms and molecules. An unusual present and one that would draw confusion from most 15-year olds, yet it sewed the seed of inspiration for Hodgkin’s interest in X-ray crystallography.

Hodgkin spent most of her academic career at Oxford where she pioneered the use of X-rays to determine the three-dimensional structure of complex molecules. She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 28, which left her hands distorted and in pain. However, she continued to carry out the precise manipulations required for the handling of crystals and she became one of the most skilled crystallographers of her time. Using X-ray crystallography, Hodgkin solved the structures of the antibiotic penicillin and vitamin B12. Both structures were quite controversial at the time as they contained chemical features that had not been encountered before and that many scientists believed to be impossible.

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From AP Archive, Dorothy Hodgkin interviewed about her Nobel Prize win in 1964

In 1964, Hodgkin was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work in the determination of the structures of biomolecules important to life. Her work changed the way we treat bacterial infections and led to the generation of many penicillin-derived antibiotics. It has been estimated that penicillin has saved up to 200 million lives.

Subsequently, Hodgkin also determined the chemical structure of insulin. Although she first grew crystals of insulin in 1935, the monumental task of solving its three-dimensional structure would take her another 34 years. Hodgkin’s work has been of great significance within the area of X-ray crystallography. It has also had major impact further afield in the generation of many commonly prescribed antibiotics and in the development of essential treatment for diabetes.

Ada E. Yonath

45 years after Hodgkin was awarded her Nobel Prize in Chemistry, another woman was awarded the prize for her work, again in the area of X-ray crystallography. Ada E. Yonath was awarded the prize in 2009, in conjunction with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas A. Steitz, for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome, a vital subunit found in cells.

Born in Jerusalem in 1939, Yonath led the only protein crystallography laboratory in Israel during the 1970s. It was then that she started her project on the mapping of the structure of ribosomes. As ribosomes are made up of hundreds of thousands of atoms, many scientists dismissed Yonath's attempt to solve their structure, a task they deemed impossible.

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From Agência FAPESP, 2014 interview with Ada E. Yonath

However, Yonath was inspired when she heard about polar bears and how they organise their ribosomes during hibernation: if she could re-create a similar organisation, it would then be possible to obtain the X-ray structure. It was not until 2000 that Yonath’s hard work finally paid off and she and her co-workers successfully completed the mapping of the ribosome. Her work has a wide range of applications and provides a central tool for scientists working on the development of life-saving treatment for antibiotic resistant infections. Yonath continues to lead her research group in the Weizmann Institute of Science, further investigating antibiotics that target ribosomes.

Frances Arnold

The most recent woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry is Frances Arnold. She was awarded the prize in 2018, along with Sir Gregory Winter and George Smith for their production of new enzymes and antibodies by directed evolution.

Born in 1956 in Pittsburgh, Arnold joined the faculty of chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology in 1986. Her aim was to design new enzymes (proteins that carry out biological reactions) that could produce important materials including pharmaceuticals and plastics. These materials are conventionally made using toxic chemicals. However, her modified enzymes provide a fast, environmentally friendly route to their manufacture.

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From the Nobel Prize, Frances Arnold's 2018 Nobel Lecture in Chemistry

Arnold established a method of tailoring enzymes so that they can carry out their function more efficiently, or carry out new functions altogether. Custom enzymes produced via the directed evolution method designed by Arnold are now used in the production of biofuels and medicines worldwide. Arnold continues to carry out research in the engineering of new enzymes at the California Institute of Technology.

These five women have been awarded the most prestigious prize in a field that has been historically dominated by men. These pioneering women demonstrate that chemistry can and should be a fully inclusive subject. Although just 2% of scientific Nobel Prizes were awarded to women in the 20th century, this figure has increased to 5% in the 21st century.

On being one of two women to be awarded a 2018 Nobel Prize in a scientific field, Frances Arnold said, "I predict this is the beginning of a steady stream." These inspiring Nobel Laureates have left a legacy beyond their ground-breaking research including various institutes, fellowships and scholarships in their honour. Immortalised in history, they will continue to be role models for young scientists, motivating the next generation to join them as world changing chemists.

Ellen Fay is a PhD student at the School of Chemistry at Trinity College Dublin and a member of the McGouran Laboratory. She is an Irish Research Council awardee. Dr Joanna McGouran is the Schuler Assistant Professor in Translational Organic Chemistry with the School of Chemistry at Trinity College Dublin. She is also a funded investigator with SSPC, the SFI Research Centre for Pharmaceuticals.


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