Getting physical with Nobel prizes

It was great to hear on Monday that Norwegian neuroscientist May-Britt Moser had shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with her husband Edvard and their former colleague John O’Keefe of UCL. That brings the all-time number of women awarded Nobel prizes up to 16, and the number of prizes awarded to women to 17 (Marie Curie won twice).

With 572 recipients honoured since 1901, women account for a little under 3 per cent. Things are improving: in the first 56 years only four women received the prize, with the remaining 13 awards since then, and the intervals seem to be decreasing.

Dorothy Hodgkin and her husband Thomas at the Nobel ball
Dorothy Hodgkin and her husband Thomas at the Nobel ball

But if you look at the distribution across the three categories of science, then one fact stands out. Women have received only six prizes in the physical sciences, two in Physics (1 per cent) and four in Chemistry (2.4 per cent). Over 5 per cent of the recipients of the Medicine prize have been female.

Splitting the Nobel era into two halves again, the number of women winning physical science prizes has stayed static. There have been only three since 1957. Maria Goeppert-Mayer won the prize for physics in 1963. Two women have won the prize for Chemistry, and both were X-ray crystallographers. Britain’s Dorothy Hodgkin won in 1964 for her work on penicillin and vitamin B12, and Israeli scientist Ada Yonath in 2009 for her work on the ribosome.

As her biographer, I’m obviously enjoying all the attention currently being paid to Dorothy Hodgkin on the 50th anniversary of her prize (such as the radio series on her letters, and the new edition of my book). I tend to labour the point that no British woman has since won a science Nobel in any category. But I wonder if I shouldn’t instead be asking why only one woman of any nationality has since won a Nobel in Physics or Chemistry – and she was another crystallographer, a field that has been unusually welcoming to women.

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