Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Nobel Snubs

The Nobel prizes have often been controversial, in part because it can only be awarded to three people in each category, and it is only given to living scientists. However, sometimes a scientist is simply left out. Scientific American has put together a list of 10 scientists who deserved a Nobel prize, but did not receive one. Three of the scientists who were "snubbed" are women:

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943- ) detected the first pulsars as a graduate student working under Antony Hewish at the University of Cambridge. Both she and Hewish were recognized for that work, so it came as a surprise to some in the astronomy community that when the first Nobel prize in physics was awarded to astronomers in 1974, it went to Hewish and his colleague Martin Ryle.

Many prominent astronomers expressed outrage, whereas others argued that she only collected data for Hewish to interpret. Burnell never contested the omission, but most reports indicate she contributed more than just the initial observations.
More info:
Lise Meitner (1878-1968) was an Austrian-born Jew who became only the second woman to earn a doctorate in physics from the University of Vienna. Early in her career she worked with chemist Otto Hahn on radioactive elements. She had continued success in her career, rising to the position of acting director of the Institute for Chemistry in Berlin. Her position became precarious when Adolf Hitler came to power, and evenutally fled Germany, ending up in Stockholm. She continued to correspond with other German scientists, and met with Hahn to plan experiments in nuclear fission. The political situation, however, made it impossible for her to publish jointly with Hahn. Meitner made a number of contributions to nuclear physics in addition to that collaboration: and her nephew Otto Frisch were the first to describe how the nucleus of an atom could be split into smaller parts, and she was the first to realize that nuclear fission could lead to an enormously explosive chain reaction.
Historians say that Hahn initially indicated that he intended to credit Meitner when it was safe to do so but that, in the end, he took sole credit, claiming that the discovery was his alone. Hahn received the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry; Meitner was nominated multiple times in both the physics and chemistry categories, but the award always eluded her. Many Nobel omissions are debatable, but, most physicists today agree that Meitner was robbed, says Phillip Schewe, chief science writer for the American Institute of Physics.
More info:
Last, but not least, is probably the best known non-recipients of a Nobel, Rosalind Franklin. In the early 1950s Franklin was a research associate studying the structure of DNA by X-ray diffraction at King's College London. James Watson and Francis Crick at Cambridge University used some of her data, along that of her colleague Maurice Wilkins, to derive their three-dimensional model of DNA structure that was published in 1953. She wasn't really snubbed for her contribution, because she died in 1958, four years before Watson, Crick and Wilkens were awarded the Nobel in Physiology or Medicine.
In his book, The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy and Prestige, Burton Feldman suggests that, had she been alive, Franklin almost assuredly would have received the prize over Wilkins, whose contribution was deemed nominal by most in the field. In a 2003 interview with Scientific American, Watson suggested she and Wilkins might have shared a separate prize for chemistry, thereby allowing all four of them to receive the award.
More information:

While nominations for the Nobel Prize are made in secret, the Nobel Foundation has released a database of nominations made for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine between 1901 and 1951. A search of the database by gender turns up a list of other women scientists who were nominated by never received an award (if you do a search, note that the database is a bit wonky because there are some men who have been indexed as "female".) A sampling:
  • C├ęcile Vogt (1875-1962) was a French neurologist who studied the structure of the brain. She was nominated along with her husband Oskar Vogt.
  • Gladys H. Dick was a Chicago doctor and bacteriologist, who, along with her husband George F. Dick, worked on the "etiology, prevention and cure of scarlet fever". It has been speculated that they were not awarded the Noble prize because the fact that they obtained a patent for their scarlet fever test was frowned upon by the Nobel selection committee.
    Read their paper: Dick GF and Dick GH "Scarlet Fever" Am J Public Health (NY) 14(12): 1022-1028 (1924).
  • Helen B. Taussic (1898-1986) was a professor of petriatrics at Johns Hopkins Medical School. She and Alfred Blalock developed a pioneering cardiac surgical procedure, the Blalock-Taussig shunt, to treat infants suffering from blue baby syndrome. She received the Presidental Medal of Freedom in 1964 and was the first female president of the American Heart Association.
Hopefully the Nobel Foundation will also share the nomination information for physics and chemistry.

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LeCinQBlog said...

Heya peggy,
This was such an interesting read.
As a physician participating in research, I have always harbored a secret fear that my hardwork might be stolen and I might not be given credit for.
hugs to you