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QUESTION: I am in sixth grade at Sparta Middle School, and my teacher says I could win the Nobel Prize. How many girls have won the Nobel Prize?

ANSWER: Four women have earned the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The best known is Maria Curie, in 1911, for the separation of pure radium. Her daughter won the Chemistry Prize in 1935 for the discovery of artificial radioactivity.

Two women won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Maria Curie in 1903 for the discovery of radioactivity. The other was Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963 for the discoveries of how atoms are put together.

Ten women earned the Nobel Prize in the field of physiology and medicine. Best-known is Rosalyn Yalow (1977) for work in radioisotope tracing and Barbara McClintock (1983) for her efforts in genetics.

Pearl Buck is one of 12 women awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her 1938 Nobel Prize cited her “rich and truly epic description of peasant life in China.” Her best-known book is The Good Earth, which also won the Pulitzer Prize.

The first and only woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences is Elinor Ostrom (2009) “for her analysis of how common property could be managed by groups using it.”

Fifteen women have won the Nobel Peace Prize. The most recognized is Jane Addams (1931), founder of Hull House in Chicago, and Mother Teresa (1979), a native Albanian nun who founded missions in India, starting in Calcutta.

The Nobel Prizes in chemistry, physics, physiology/medicine, literature and economic science are awarded annually in Stockholm by the Royal Swedish Academy of Science. The more famous Nobel Peace Prize is awarded annually in Oslo, Norway, on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death. The King and Queen of Norway attend.

There is one woman that history now recognizes got cheated out of a Nobel Prize. That would be Lise Meitner. Born in Austria in 1878, Meitner worked with Otto Hahn at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, Germany.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Lise Meitner, born of Jewish parents, was protected by her Austrian citizenship. But after the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into the Third Reich in March 1938, her situation became desperate. She made a daring undercover escape to the Netherlands, then traveled to neutral Sweden.

Lise Meitner corresponded with Otto Hahn and the two met in Copenhagen in November 1938. They planned to carry out a new round of experiments on the fission of uranium, but Meitner could not go back to Nazi Germany, so the experiment was done by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann.

It was Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch who correctly interpreted the results of the experiment that detected the element barium after bombarding uranium with neutrons. Now the whole world knew that the uranium atom could be split, with a tremendous release of power and that several neutrons were also released. A chain reaction and the atomic bomb were now possible.

Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1944. Missing from the ceremony was Lise Meitner. In 1964, “Physics Today” magazine concluded that “personal negative opinions led to the exclusion of a deserving scientist” from the Nobel Prize. Element 109, “Meitnerium”, is named in her honor.

Larry Scheckel is a retired Tomah High School physics teacher.


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Tomah Journal editor

Steve Rundio is editor of the Tomah Journal. Contact him at 608-374-7785.

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