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Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries

Since 1901 more than 500 men have won a Nobel Prize in the sciences. Only 15 of them—about 3 percent—have been women. Why?

In Nobel Prize Women in Science, McGrayne explores the reasons for this astonishing disparity by examining the lives and achievements of 15 women scientists who either won a Nobel Prize or played a crucial role in a Nobel-winning body of work. The book reveals the relentless discrimination these women faced both as students and as researchers, and the passionate love of science that ultimately allowed them to prevail.

Maria Goeppert Mayer, for example, worked for 30 years without pay as a “volunteer” faculty member at three major American universities before winning a Nobel in physics. Gerty Cori was a research associate at one-fifth her husband’s pay until the year she shared a Nobel for explaining carbohydrate metabolism. And Barbara McClintock, the legendary corn geneticist, was a few years from membership in the National Academy of Sciences when her boss threatened, “If you ever marry, you’ll be fired.”

McGrayne interviewed all the featured women who were alive at the time and more than 250 of their close associates. The 15 are: Marie Curie, Lise Meitner, Emmy Noether, Gerty Radnitz Cori, Irene Joliot-Curie, Barbara McClintock, Maria Goeppert Mayer, Rita Levi-Montalcini, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, Chien-Shiung Wu, Gertrude Elion, Rosalind Franklin, Rosalyn Yalow, and Christiane Nuesslein-Volhard.

The women are not portrayed as saints. But they struggled against gender discrimination even as they raised children, or became a political or religious leader, climbed mountains or vacationed bicycling, or relaxed as musicians, gardeners, and gourmet cooks. Most of all, they were strong, joyful women in love with discovery.

Praise from Reviewers


“The book to brandish when some wag asks, ‘So where are your great women scientists?’”
—Ms. Magazine

“Recommended reading.”
—Scientific American

“There is much to be learned from McGrayne’s biographies, and they are a pleasure to read.”
—Physics Today

“Spellbinding, compelling.”—The Science Teacher

“Contains much new material on their lives. These women are not portrayed as saints. The author is a skilled interpreter of science for the general public. … Best of all, a book to read for enjoyment.”
—American Journal of Physics

“Editor’s Choice."
—AAAS Science Books and Films

“What’s gratifying is that McGrayne neither preaches nor screeches but allows the facts – documented in interviews with and in records of the women – to speak for themselves.”
—Kirkus Review

“Written in accessible language, free of esoteric jargon, McGrayne’s narrative captures the excitement involved in the pursuit of ground-breaking research and the passionate dedication that leads to discovery.

“This work is anything but superficial. It doesn’t gloss over any warts. The author is a good story-teller, and she clearly went to great pains to delve deeply into these 14 lives.”
—Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN)

“All of us interested in science will find these short biographies fascinating… They are all fun to read about.”
—The Physics Teacher