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Innovative Women

Sidebar to Mothers of Invention: Women in Technology

Thomas S. Kuhn’s 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, explored how belief structures influence scientific inquiry and discovery. Legal and administrative structures dramatically distorted both the scope and record of women’s research activities.

Prior to implementation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, state laws and university policies conspired to deny jobs to the wives of university employees. As a consequence, universities benefited from husband and wife scientist “teams” for which only the husband received compensation and recognition. In addition, universities in the U.S. permitted women as students and teachers, but not as researchers. Women were required to have male mentors to obtain access to labs. A few examples from Nobel Prize history illustrate the ensuing complications.(1)

  • Gerty Radnitz Cori (Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, 1947) was the third woman and the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize. University of Rochester administration told her husband and research partner that it was “un-American” for him to work with his wife. After leaving New York, they were allowed to work together at the private Washington University in St. Louis, supported by a grant from Eli Lilly & Company to continue studies in carbohydrate metabolism. Gerty and her husband shared the Nobel Prize for their work in enzyme research

  • Maria Goeppert-Mayer (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1963) received her prize thirteen years after making her pivotal discovery about the nuclear shell model—and just three years after finally landing a full-time paid university job at the University of California at La Jolla. She, along with other women, faced the challenge of being ineligible for university employment.

  • Barbara McClintock (Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, 1983) was the lone recipient of her prize for the discovery of genetic transposition. In 1936, while vice president and president-elect of the Genetics Society of America, she did not have a job because research was considered men’s work.

  • The other Nobel Prize awarded to date for genetics went to James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins. The woman behind the scenes was Rosalind Franklin. It was her then unpublished X-ray diffraction pattern of the B form of DNA that provided the crucial evidence for the helical structure. Watson remembered its impact in his autobiography: The instant I saw the picture, my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race… the black cross of reflections which dominated the picture could arise only from a helical structure… mere inspection of the X-ray picture gave several of the vital helical parameters. Franklin died at the age of 38—four years before Watson, Crick, and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize. Their Nobel lectures cited ninety-eight references. Franklin was not cited among them, although Wilkins did mention her.

  • Another young British woman, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, discovered pulsars as a graduate student, wrote up her thesis, and left academia for family life. Her thesis advisor received a Nobel Prize for the discovery of pulsars.

  • Prior to 1977, only one woman (Gerty Cori) had received a Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine. Beginning with the 1977 award to Rosalyn Sussman Yalow for radioimmunoassay in investigative medicine, however, four women have received Nobel Prizes. The most recent woman on the list is Christiane Nusslein-Volhard, who was recognized in 1995 for her achievement in genetics (early embryo development).

Endnotes

  1. The challenges faced by women whose work received Nobel Prize recognition are discussed by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne in Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries (Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 1998).