When Carol Greider and Elizabeth Blackburn got the call, along with Jack Szostak, that they had won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine, they entered a largely unknown group of women whose work in the sciences has been honored.
Rosalind Franklin's work on DNA is now widely acknowledged but it was not recognized by the Nobel Committee in 1962 when it awarded the coveted prize to James Watson and Francis Crick for their work on the double helical structure of DNA. Watson and Crick's work included essential information from Franklin's research, which had been transmitted to them without her knowledge.
Chien-Shiung Wu was a pioneering physicist whose work radically altered modern physical theory and changed the way we look at the structure of the universe. She never got a Nobel Prize, but she was the first woman to win a major award from the National Academy of Sciences.
In chemistry, Gertrude Elion's accomplishments were tremendous. She developed many life-saving drugs, including the first chemotherapy for childhood leukemia, the immunosuppressant that made organ transplant possible, and the first effective anti-viral medication. She was the fifth woman to receive a Nobel Prize in Medicine, despite enormous prejudice against her.
Drs. Greider, Blackburn and Szostak received their Nobel Prize for discovering a key mechanism in the genetic operations of cells, inspiring new research into cancer. Essentially the trio solved the mystery of how chromosomes protect themselves from degrading when cells divide. According to the Nobel citation, they found the solution in the ends of chromosomes in something called telomeres. Blackburn and Greider discovered the enzyme that builds telomeres, called telomerase, and the mechanism by which it adds DNA to the tips of chromosomes to replace genetic material that has eroded. Their work set the stage for further research designed to explore whether cancer cells use telomerase to sustain their uncontrolled growth. This in turn leads to studying whether drugs that block the enzyme can fight the disease.
Ten women have won the prestigious medicine award since the first Nobel Prizes were given out in 1901, but this was the first time two women were honored in the same year. In addition, the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences was awarded to a woman for the first time. Dr. Elinor Ostrom, a research professor at Indiana University, shared the prize with Dr. Oliver Williamson of the University of California at Berkeley. Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize "for her analysis of economic governance, especially the boundaries of the firm," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said. "[She] has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized." In other words, Ostrom proved that communities trump corporations.