Nobel Prize Winners: What’s the count of women laureates?

Oct 13, 2017 05:55 IST

There are few greater honours than winning the Nobel Prize. Alfred Nobel wrote in his last will in 1895, the Prize is given “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind”. The 2017 noble prize awardees were revealed last week and the ceremony is scheduled on the 9th December.


As per record till 2017, Nobel Prizes have been awarded to 843 men, 48 women (Marie Curie won it twice), and 27 organizations.

  • Sixteen women have won the Nobel Peace Prize, fourteen have won the Nobel Prize in Literature,
  • Twelve have won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, four have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, two have won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Only Elinor Ostrom, has won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.
  • The first woman to win a Nobel Prize was Marie Curie, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 with her husband, Pierre Curie, and Henri Becquerel.
  • Curie is also the only woman to have won multiple Nobel Prizes; in 1911, she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
  • Curie's daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935. The two remain the only mother-daughter pair to have won Nobel Prizes.
  • The most Nobel Prizes awarded to women in a single year was in 2009 when five women became laureates. The most recent women to be awarded a Nobel Prize were Tu Youyou and Svetlana Alexievich (2015).

Also Read: On International Day of Peace: 5 female Nobel Peace Prize winners who made a difference


Considering how only 48 women have been awarded the noble prize as opposed to 843 men.  The reports that in some disciplines, the drought has persisted for decades. The last woman to win a Nobel Prize for physics, Maria Goeppert Mayer, was honoured in 1964. The gap reflects long-time institutional biases against women within the sciences, a lag exacerbated by the decades-long backlog of Nobel-worthy discoveries. Nobel Museum curators told the BBC that they have no evidence of the committee refusing to give an award because a nominee was a woman.

They also say that the committee slightly bent prize rules to ensure that Marie Curie shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics. But that may come as small consolation for the supremely qualified female scientists who were never recognized.

For instance, Lise Meitner, one of the co-discoverers of nuclear fission, was nominated for the physics prize 29 times from 1937 to 1965 and the chemistry prize an additional 19 times from 1924 to 1948, according to Nobel Foundation archival records. She never won. Astronomer Vera Rubin's groundbreaking work revealing the existence of dark matter received wide acclaim. Unfortunately, she died on December 25, 2016, with no Nobel to call her own.


Also Read: Supriya Vani Reaches Out For World Peace With Nobel Laureates’ Stories

Where do Women mark their presence?

Peace and Literature are the areas where women perform best - but still, more than eight out of 10 winners in these areas have been male. 15.5 percentage of Nobel Peace laureates are women, while they comprise of 11 percentage of Nobel Literature laureates.



  • One woman has won the Economics Prize, while two have claimed the Nobel for Physics- including Marie Curie.
  • 2.3 % of Chemistry laureates are women, while their representation increases to 5.3 % among Physiology or Medicine laureates.
  • While they have never had a male winner, Belarus, Burma, Iran, Kenya, Liberia and Yemen have all had Nobel laureates due to females.
  •  50 percent of the winners from Chile, Guatemala and Pakistan were female having one male and one female Nobel laureate. Of the countries with the highest number of laureates, 4.2 % of American winners are female, while 4 % of British winners are women.
  •  Three of Poland's eight Nobel Prize winners are women. Women also make up two of Norway's 11 winners and one of India's seven winners - the highest proportions of any country.
  • Three of Poland's eight Nobel Prize winners are women. Women also make up two of Norway's 11 winners and one of India's seven winners - the highest proportions of any country.

The pertinent question – Why no women laureates in the field of science?


According to BBC reports, for the sciences, this year's work is done and many in the scientific community are noticing some similarities about the winners.

In the case of physics, the winning discovery had already been making global headlines.The prize was shared by three researchers for the ground-breaking 2015 detection of gravitational waves.

For chemistry, the committee recognised the less publicised work of developing a new microscopy technique, which the Nobel committee said had "moved biochemistry into a new era".


For physiology or medicine, a team who uncovered a better understanding our body clocks was honoured.

Only 17 women have been awarded a Nobel prize in the three science categories since the awards' inception in 1901. There have been no black science laureates.

Of the 206 physics laureates recognised, two have been women - Marie Curie (1903) and Maria Goeppert Mayer (1963).

Some researchers on Twitter took issue with the current criteria for awarding the Nobel. Each prize cannot be shared by more than three people. Also, laureates are not nominated posthumously and nomination lists are kept confidential for 50 years.


  • Vera Rubin, Lise Meitner and Jocelyn Bell Burnell were all cited as worthy potential recipients in previous years.
  • Rubin's death in 2016 meant that her work on dark matter, believed to occupy most of the mass in the universe, is now ineligible for recognition.
  • Meitner's long-term collaborator Otto Hahn was awarded the chemistry prize for nuclear fission in 1944, which she did not share. However, she was nominated in previous and subsequent years.
  • Physicists Burnell and Chien-Shiung Wu, saw their colleagues win for research they had worked on, but were not included.
  • Given the lifelong prestige of becoming a Nobel laureate, the prize is a significant boost to any researcher's career. The acclaim can legitimise a life's work, and yield international notoriety in a field where funding is highly competitive.

Pic Credit: credit: DNA INDIA

Also Read: Forbes 100 Richest Indians: Where are the women?

Reshma Ganeshbabu is an intern with SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed in this column are author’s own.


#gender biases and stereotypes #women noble laureates #Nobel Prize 2017