Women in Healthcare: Nobel Prize Winners in Medicine and Physiology

“The art is long, life is short, opportunity fleeting, experiment dangerous, judgment difficult.”
― Hippocrates

Hippocrates’ words perfectly describe the medical profession even more than two thousand years later. It is as if the Father of Modern Medicine had foreseen the long and arduous journey undertaken by all the medical professionals that came after him. Medicine is perhaps one of the most critical professions out there. After all, doctors and medical professionals deal with life-and-death situations. In many cultures, they are even considered to be gods. Nevertheless, they have never had it easy. All good doctors have had to deal with skepticism, threats, and judgments at one point or another. Even today, people have to go through a lot of red tape and bureaucracy to introduce any innovation in the field.

Medical professionals deserve all the accolades in the world. The Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine is one of the most prestigious awards in the field. Women, like in every other field, have made their mark in medicine. Since its inception in 1901, there have been twelve women who have been the proud recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

Let us take a moment and honor them and their great contributions.

Getty Theresa Cori

Year: 1947

Getty Theresa Cori was the first woman ever to receive The Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. The mother of one received the award for the discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen. She shared the accolade with her husband, Carl Ferdinand Cori, and research partner, Bernardo Houssay.

Factoid: Getty was a researcher at the School of Medicine while her husband was the president. She only received 10% of her husband’s salary as her remuneration.

Rosalyn Sussman Yalow

Year: 1977

Thirty years after Cori received The Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, Rosalyn Sussman Yalow became the second woman to receive the prestigious award. She was honored with the prize for her discoveries of the peptide hormones that led to the development of radioimmunoassay. She shared the award with two research partners. Sadly, her research partner, Dr. Solomon Berson, passed away before he could share the Nobel Prize with him.

Factoid: Yalow was the only woman out of all 400 employees of the University of Illinois when she was invited to teach physics there in the 1940s. 

Barbara McClintock

Year: 1983  

Barbara was the only woman to receive The Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine alone without sharing it with anyone. She was bestowed with the award in 1983 for her discovery of mobile genetic elements. McClintock dedicated her entire life to the study of genetics. She never married or had children.

Rita Levi-Montalcini

Year: 1986

Rita Levi-Montalcini was awarded The Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine along with her research partner, Stanley Cohen, for their discovery of the Nerve Growth Factor. Their discovery led to a better understanding of diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer.

Factoid: Rita Levi-Montalcini is the longest-surviving Nobel Laureate. She passed away at the age of 103 in 2012.

Gertrude B. Elion

Year: 1988

Gertrude B. Elin won the Nobel Prize in 1988, along with James W. Black and George H. Hitchings, for the discovery of the principles of drug treatment. After graduating from Hunter College at the age of 19, she worked as an unpaid assistant at a chemist’s laboratory before enrolling for her master’s degree in chemistry at New York University. She was the only woman in her class. She went on to create many new drugs including Acyclovir, the first successful antiviral drug.

Factoid: Elion’s name is on the patent of 45 drugs.

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard

Year: 1995

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard was the only woman to receive The Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in the 1990s. Along with Edward B. Lewis and Eric F. Wieschaus, Nüsslein-Volhard received the prestigious award for their discoveries dealing with the genetic control of early embryonic development.

Factoid: Though she herself never became a mother, she established the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation in 2004 with the aim of supporting woman scientists so that they can carry on with their research during motherhood.

Linda B. Buck

Year: 2004

Linda B. Buck won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2004 for discoveries related to odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system. Her research partner was Richard Axel.

Francoise Barré-Sinoussi

Year: 2008

In the year 2008, Frenchwoman, Francoise Bareé-Sinoussi won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, along with Herald zur Hausen and Luc Montagneir, for the discovery of the HIV virus.

Factoid: Francoise Barré-Sinoussi received more than ten awards in addition to the Nobel Prize. She was also honored with the title of Doctor Honoris Causa by a number of universities.

Elizabeth H. Blackburn

Year: 2009

Born in Australia, Elizabeth H. Blackburn went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2009. The award was shared by Jack W. Szostak and Carol Greider. They won the Nobel Prize for discovering how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and telomerase.

Factoid: A born lover of nature, Elizabeth H. Blackburn pursued biology after being influenced by the biography of Marie Curie.

Carol W. Greider

Year: 2008

Carol W. Greider received the coveted award at the age of forty-eight. This makes her the youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. As already discussed, she was awarded along with Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Jack W. Szostk for their discoveries regarding chromosomes.

Factoid: Carol W. Greider is dyslexic.

May-Britt Moser

Year: 2014

Hailing from Norway, May-Britt Moser received the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine along with her husband, Edward Moser, and research partner John O’Keefe. They were awarded for their astounding discoveries about the cells constituting the brain’s positioning system.

Factoid: May-Britt and Edward were high school sweethearts who pursued their graduation degrees, master’s degrees, and doctorate degrees together. They have two daughters. May-Britt set great examples by breastfeeding her daughters in public and taking them to scientific seminars. They even accompanied her to the laboratory.

Tu YouYou

Year: 2015

Tu YouYou jointly received the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine with William C. Cambell and Satoshi Omura in 2015. The award was for discoveries of treatments for malaria and infection with roundworm parasites. Tu YouYou is an exemplary woman. She had to leave behind her daughters as she was appointed as the head of the secret research team that was tasked to find a new antimalarial drug. Heartbreakingly, her young daughters did not recognize her when she came to visit them a few years later.

Factoid: She is the first Chinese citizen to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. She is also the first Chinese female citizen to have won the Nobel Prize in any category. Her discovery of the drugs, artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin, went on to save millions of lives.


Despite all our relentless efforts, inequality among genders still persists in the academic world. You would be surprised to know that since 1901, there have been 225 male laureates who have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology. Compared to this, only twelve women have been awarded the same. Nevertheless, our brave ladies have been trudging on. I am confident that the future would see more women holding the coveted prize.

Do comment and let me know which of these ladies of medicine inspires you the most.

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