What great news that Elizabeth Blackburn and her former student Carol Greider have shared the 2009 Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine. Together with Jack Szostak, who also shares the prize, they discovered that DNA sequences at the ends of chromosomes, called telomeres, protect the chromosome from degradation every time the cell makes new copies of its DNA. Working with Blackburn, Greider also discovered the enzyme telomerase that supports the reconstruction of the telomeres.
Their success brings the total number of times a woman has been awarded a science Nobel to fifteen. Two of those occasions involved the same woman, Marie Curie, who won both the Chemistry and Physics prizes. Ten of the prizes were for Physiology or Medicine, just five for Physics or Chemistry. There have been just three for Chemistry, one of them won by Dorothy Hodgkin.
It was curiosity about Hodgkin’s tremendous achievement – she remains the only British woman ever to have won a science Nobel – that got me started writing about scientist’s lives. How did she do it? Parents with high intellectual expectations of their daughters, a women-only college at Oxford, a husband who didn’t make her stop working, cheap childcare, supportive and liberal-minded male colleagues, a new and rapidly-advancing field, and above all her own formidable skills as a chemist and crystallographer – all these played a part.
Crystallography is often said to be a field in which women excel. If so (one thinks of Kathleen Lonsdale, Rosalind Franklin, Judith Howard, Louise Johnson and many others as well as Hodgkin), it may have to do with a ‘founder’s effect’ caused by a small number of labs from which women who were well supported went on to found their own, equally female-friendly labs. According to Catherine Brady’s excellent biography of Blackburn, the same is true of telomere research. Both Blackburn and Greider are mothers, and both run their labs, to the benefit of both men and women, with a proper respect for the balance of work and home life.
The progress of women to the highest echelons of science is still painfully slow. Hodgkin, Blackburn and Greider show that it can be done, and without compromising family life.