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Gender Inequality and the Nobel Prize in Medicine

In 117 years of the Nobel Prize in Medicine & Physiology, only 12 women have been Nobel laureates.

To be sure, some of this in the early years could be attributed to the paucity of women at work in the sciences. However that is not the entire explanation.

The first female laureate was Gerty Cori, in 1947, when she was co-winner with her husband Carl Cori.

Dr. Gerty Cori faced gender discrimination at every pivotal moment in her professional career.

In 1920, the same year they were wed, the Cori’s published their first joint scientific paper. When the political scene in Europe became too oppressive, they sought academic positions in America.

Carl was readily offered a position at New York State Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases in Buffalo, while Gerty did not receive any job offers for 6 months, despite having credentials comparable to her husband.

She finally landed a low-level laboratory job at the Institute and was able to follow Carl to America.

Gerty was soon allowed to conduct x-ray research, which she did by day. At night she would join Carl’s lab to research carbohydrate metabolism.

Gerty was characterized as the more creative and aggressive laboratory expert with demandingly high standards while Carl was more reflective and came up with the theories to test.

The Cori’s published a steady stream of important publications on carbohydrate metabolism, and became internationally recognized for their contributions to the understanding of glucose and energy production.

However, the Institute officially considered Gerty’s presence to be an “unacceptable distraction”, and they threatened to fire Carl.

The couple sought jobs elsewhere, but Carl turned down offers from Cornell and University of Toronto because they would not consider any position for Gerty.

In 1931, when Carl took a research position at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, Gerty was only offered a lowly research assistant job at one-tenth her husband’s salary.

Gerty often slept in a cot next door to the lab to stay close in order to monitor her ongoing experiments. The University warned the couple that Gerty’s involvement could be a detriment to her husband’s career, but the Coris were not deterred.

It wasn’t until 1943 that Gerty was elevated to Associate Professor. When Carl became Chairman of the Department of Biochemistry in 1946, he finally promoted her to full professor, and they jointly won the Nobel Prize the following year.

The next woman Nobel laureate in the field of medicine would not be for 3 decades, when Rosalyn Yalow won in 1977.

There were three women winners in the 1980s, one in the 1990s, and then six so far in the 21st century (through 2020).

Despite increasing enrollment of women in medical school, and greatly increased presence of women in research institutions, women-authored medical research overall remains underfunded compared to male-authored research projects.

For example, one representative study showed that first-time grant awardees that are women received an average of $75,000 less per grant than first-time male grant awardees.

The trend to lower awards to women persists at higher levels, with women still receiving significantly lower funding levels at the level of assistant professor, and at 10 to 20 years of experience. (1)

Another study showed that the NIH amount awarded to women principal investigators was less than men despite having the same median number of articles published and the same median numbers of citations per article – both are indicators of the researcher’s academic importance in their fields. (2)

With women less funded at the research level, it is reasonable to assume that there are fewer opportunities to make breakthrough discoveries, although this has not been studied. It is known there are far fewer nominations of female scientists submitted for consideration of the prize.

But in the end, a committee in Sweden evaluates nominations and makes a determination of the ultimate winners.

It is common to think of the lofty Nobel organization as somehow above gender bias and sexual politics. It is important to recognize that the factors present in the society of the times must come to bear on the deciding committees.

If recent history in other areas is any gauge, we may see the gender bias swinging the other way, which would be just as unfortunate.

For more interesting stories on the back stories of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine from 1901 - 1950, read Boneheads To Brainiacs, Heroes and Scoundrels of the First 50 years of the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

The upcoming Volume II of Boneheads and Brainiacs (March 2022) covers the Prizes awarded 1951 - 1975, and includes robust stories of the many women behind the male winners.

Happy reading!

Moira Dolan, MD

©MDolanMD 2021

Women winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology & Medicine, 1901 - 2020:

1947 Gerty Radnitz Cori

1977 Rosalyn Sussman Yalow

1983 Barbara McClintock

1986 Rita Levi-Montalcini

1988 Gertrude Elion

1995 Christiane Nusslein-Volhard

2004 Linda B. Buck

2008 Francoise Barre-Sinoussi

2009 Elizabeth H. Blackburn

2009 Carol W. Greider

2014 May-Britt Moser

2015 Youyou Tu

Medicine prizes: 109

Medicine laureates: 216

Awarded women: 12


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