In honor of the 2016 Nobel Prizes announced this last week, this post is the second in my series of Nobel Women, highlighting the women who've won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. You can also read my previous post about the women who've won a Nobel Prize in Physics.
There have been twice as many Nobel Prizes awarded to women for their work in chemistry than for physics. While that might sound impressive, it's really not when you consider that only two women have received a Nobel Prize for physics, meaning that only four have gone to women for chemistry. And even less so when you realize one remarkable woman appears on both lists.
Who were these women and what made their research noteworthy to the Nobel Committee?
Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 "in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element."
After winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, Marie Curie continued her research radioactive elements, working to isolate them from the other elements found in pitchblende -- the material she had been working with all along. Through her diligence, she was finally able to use chemical processes to separate radium from the similar barium in the pitchblende, proving unequivocally that it was its own unique element.
Irène Joliot-Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 along with Frédéric Joliot-Curie "in recognition of their synthesis of new radioactive elements."
Considering her parents, it shouldn't be a surprise to learn Irène Curie grew up in a house filled with scientific discussions and had her natural mathematical and scientific talents recognized early and nurtured throughout her youth. During World War I, she worked with her mother setting up mobile x-ray labs around France to aid doctors in treating wounded soldiers. After the war, she continued to study chemistry, writing her doctoral thesis on the alpha decay of polonium.
After earning her Ph.D., she began working with Frédéric Joliot. Together the two continued researching the nature of atomic nuclei, eventually identifying both the positron and the neutron. In 1934 the couple, now married, discovered a way to turn one element into another. By irradiating the natural stable isotope of aluminum with alpha particles, they were able to create an unstable isotope of phosphorus. This enabled the quick and inexpensive production of radioactive materials for use medical applications, replacing the laborious methods used by Irène's mother, Marie.
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1964 "for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances."
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin developed increasingly sophisticated methods of crystallography -- the application of X-ray diffraction to crystals of biological substances in order to determine their three-dimensional biomolecular structures. Through this technique, she was able to unlock the structures of many molecules with significant medical importance -- most notably penicillin, insulin, and vitamin B-12. As each new structure was unlocked, the drive to understand more complex structures increased, forcing her to refine her crystallography to overcome the previous technique's limitations, which often also included the use of computers to work through the complex computations required for larger molecules.
Ada E. Yonath
Ada E. Yonath won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009 along with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas A. Steitz "for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome."
Ada Yonath pioneered ribosomal crystallography with a technique using cryo bio-crystallography -- crystallography at cryogenic temperatures -- which enabled the identification of the molecular structure of large biological macromolecules while maintaining their solution state which is necessary for improved resolution in data collection. In other words, she figured out how to determine the molecular makeup of complex biological substances -- in her case, the ribosome -- by using x-ray crystallography at near-freezing temperatures. This knowledge has improved the scientific understanding how how the RNA process works, and has led to better research on antibiotics that target the ribosome.
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