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5 Great Women of Chemistry

Two Elements Named in Their Honor, Five Nobel Prizes Earned


Dorothy Hodgkin - A British biochemist (b. 1910), received the 1964 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her discoveries in biomolecular structure. Her accomplishments include the development of protein crystallography and the discovery of the structures of vitamin B12 and insulin. Among her students was former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher, who was trained in chemistry at Oxford University and specialized in x-ray crystallography. She is the only British woman to win a Nobel Prize in any field.


Irene Joliot-Curie - Daughter of Nobel Prize winners Marie and Pierre Curie, Irene is a female chemist responsible along with her husband Frederic Joliot-Curie (Frederic accepted his wife's surname out of admiration for the Curie family. He was also a laboratory assistant to Marie Curie, Irene's mother) for discovering artificial radioactivity. Both Irene and Frederic won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935. Interestingly, Irene's mother and father also jointly won a Nobel Prize in Physics for their research in radioactivity. The Curie's hold the most Nobel Prizes of any family; Irene's mother won two.


Gertrude B. Elion - Born in 1918 New York City and winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine, Elion was a trained chemist who developed research methods that led to the synthesis of numerous pharmaceuticals including the AIDS drug AZT (azidothymidine). With respect to American pop culture it's interesting to note that AZT was the valuable drug in the 2013 film Dallas Buyers Club, starring Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. Gertrude Elion is the first female inductee into the National Inventors' Hall of Fame.


Lise Meitner - Born in Vienna in 1878, Lise Meitner was a member of the research group that discovered nuclear fission (the concept that heavier radioactive elements break down into lighter elements), an accomplishment that earned the Nobel Prize--her colleague Otto Hahn received the award and it's widely believed that she was unfairly excluded. Her name however is honored by the naming of Element 109, Meitnerium (Mt). Craters on the Moon and Venus are named in her honor, along with an asteroid in the asteroid belt (6999 Meitner). Not a bad legacy, eh?


Marie Curie - Perhaps the most famous of all female scientists, Marie Curie was originally from Warsaw, Poland (b. 1867) and is the winner of two Nobel Prizes -- one jointly won with her husband in physics in 1903, and one in the field of chemistry in 1911. Among her accomplishments are the discovery of polonium and radium and becoming the first female professor at the University of Paris and the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. Element 96, Curium (Cm) is named after her and her husband Pierre.