Jewish women and the Nobel Prize

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As the 2009 Nobel prizes are being handed out, many are fussing over Obama's Peace Prize -- does he deserve it, will this affect his approach with Iran, etc.  Important questions, certainly, but don't let them distract you from the real story this year: 2009 is a record year for women Nobel Prize-winners

Only 40 women have ever won the prestigious Nobel Prize, 5 of whom were awarded the prize this year, one of whom is Israeli Jewess Ada Yonath, winner of the Chemistry Prize.

Ada Yonath is the newest member of an elite group of Nobel-winning Jewish women.  She shares this honor with three American Jewish women. The first is Gerty Theresa Radnitz Cori, who became an American citizen in 1928 and received the Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1947, becoming the first Jewish American woman to win a Nobel in science.  The second is Rosalyn Yalow, who became the first American-born Jewish woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the first American-born woman to win a Nobel Prize in science.  In 1988, Gertrude Elion followed these American Jewish women, winning the prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1988.

Foreign Jewesses to win Nobels include Nadine Gordimer, who became the first South African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, and Nelly Sachs, who was the first German-speaking woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966. There is also Lisa Meitner, who was overlooked by the Nobel Committee when she fled Nazi Germany despite her integral work on splitting the atom. The 1944 Chemistry prize was awarded to her lab partner, Otto Hahn, and did not recognize her involvement or contribution to the discovery of nuclear fission. 

Rita Levi-Montalcini at her 100th birthday celebrationFinally, there is Rita Levi-Montalcini, featured in today's This Week in History. Twenty three years ago today, Levi-Montalcini, a Jewess from Turin, Italy, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her pioneering work on nerve growth.  Rita Levi-Montalcini celebrated her 100th birthday in April this year, her mind as sharp as ever. Learn more about her story at This Week in History.

What is so remarkable about these Nobel Prize-winning Jewish women is that the majority of them are scientists. Former Harvard President Larry Summers reminded us of the challenges facing women in science when he publicly stated that women were not as capable as men when it came to numbers and molecules and all that "sciency" stuff.

Elana Sztokman writes about Ada Yonath and what her Nobel Prize means for girls in science. She reminds us that there are still barriers to success for women in science.  Some of these barriers are beginning to break down, but there is still a ways to go.  In addition to the fight for equal access and support for women in science education is the battle for recognition of achievement, put into sharp focus by the Nobel and other prize-awarding institutions that have historically favored male achievement. Read more about Ada Yonath and what her Nobel Prize means to Jewish women at the Sisterhood.

So as the Nobel news circuits continue to buzz about Obama and his potentially premature Peace Prize (how's that for alliteration?) take a minute to read about Ada Yonath, Gertrude Elion, Rita Levi-Montalcin, and the other brilliant Jewesses paving the way for future women scientists.  Mazel Tov!

Photo: AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca, Huffington Post.

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