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The pioneering women who changed biology

Last week, we dived into the story of an influential woman in biology, Elizabeth Blackburn, and her contribution to the science of telomeres. Before and after her, countless women have also made an impact on biology, and in particular there are a few that were honoured with a prize beyond all, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. This article aims to introduce you, the readers, to the magnificent women that have been awarded this honour back in the 20th century, in hopes of inspiring you, the readers, to one day make a significant breakthrough in the field.

Gerty Cori was born in Prague on August 15th, 1896 and received the Doctorate in Medicine in 1920 from the Medical School of the German University of Prague. As some of our readers may be familiar with, the Cori Cycle that describes the cycle by which lactate is reconverted back into glucose in the liver, was rightly named after Gerty Cori and her husband’s pioneering discovery. However, that was only a part of what won her the Nobel prize. It was at Washington University in St. Louis, where the couple continued their studies into the breakdown of glycogen, and eventually identified the enzyme that initiated this decomposition, which they named glycogen phosphorylase. In addition, they also crystallised the enzyme from muscle and investigated its chemical properties. Finally in 1947, Gerty Cori became the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen”.

Gerty and her husband cum research partner, Carl Cori in their laboratory at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, 1947. Image taken from American Chemical Society.

Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, born in Bronx, NY in 1921 began her interest in chemistry at Walton High School, but changed her majors to physics after two professors managed to pique her interest in the field. With her expertise in physical sciences, she worked together with physician Solomon Berson, where they discovered new ways to use radioactive isotopes to measure blood, study iodine metabolism, and diagnose thyroid disease. Having a diabetic husband, Yalow was especially interested in diabetes, and eventually used radioisotopes to detect insulin antibodies at low concentrations. Upon discovering that globulins (serum proteins) bound radioactive insulin in the blood of insulin-treated diabetics, they concluded that insulin injections immunised patients so that they develop insulin-binding antibodies, which keeps the insulin molecules in the bloodstream. This was the first evidence that very small proteins could stimulate an immunologic response, and demonstrated how remarkably sensitive the radioisotopic technique is in measuring incredibly low concentrations of substances. In 1959, Yalow and Berson published their proof of studying the primary reaction of antigen with antibody using the radioisotopic method, which they labelled radioimmunoassay (RIA). Before this revolutionary breakthrough, scientists could only analyse reactions between antigens and antibodies and those that produced visible precipitation or other evidence, such as the clumping of red blood cells. For the first time, doctors could diagnose conditions caused by minute changes in hormones and treat conditions with hormones. In fact, the technique was so sensitive that it could detect a teaspoon of sugar in a body of water 100 km long. In 1977, she became the second woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Dr. Rosalyn Yalow at her Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital, Oct. 13, 1977, after learning she had won the Nobel Prize. Image taken from American Chemical Society.

Our third feature discovered something that may sound funny, but possess a large implication for the field of evolutionary biology, jumping genes. Barbara McClintock was born in 1902 in Hartford, Connecticut. During her graduate career, she would occupy her entire professional life studying the chromosomes of corn. In 1931, she and a colleague published a paper that established that chromosomes formed the basis of genetics.  In the 1940s, by observing and experimenting with variations in the coloration of kernels of corn, she discovered that genetic information is not stationary. By tracing pigmentation changes in corn and using a microscope to examine that plant’s large chromosomes, she isolated two genes that she called “controlling elements.” These genes controlled the genes that were actually responsible for pigmentation. McClintock found that the controlling elements could move along the chromosome to a different site, and that these changes affected the behaviour of neighbouring genes. She suggested that these transposable elements were responsible for new mutations in pigmentation or other characteristics. McClintock’s work was ahead of its time and was for many years considered too radical—or was simply ignored—by her fellow scientists. Deeply disappointed with her colleagues, she stopped publishing the results of her work and ceased giving lectures, though she continued doing research. Not until the late 1960s and ’70s, after biologists had determined that the genetic material was DNA, did members of the scientific community begin to verify her early findings. When recognition finally came, McClintock was inundated with awards and honours, most notably the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of those mobile genetic elements. Till today, she is the only woman who is the sole awardee of this award.

Barbara McClintock in the lab at Cold Spring Harbor, April 1963. Image taken from

Rita Levi-Montalcini began her scientific career in a somewhat unfavourable condition, as a Jew in Fascist Italy. However, she ultimately ended her career in glory, as the neuroembryologist who co-discovered nerve growth factor. Born in Turin, Italy, in 1909, Rita Levi-Montalcini was raised by an authoritarian father who strongly disapproved of women’s education beyond finishing school. Despite wanting to study medicine, she was woefully undereducated due to her conservative background, but she managed to cram years’ worth of Greek, Latin and mathematics into eight months, and then entered medical school at the University of Turin. She graduated with the highest distinction in medicine and surgery in 1936. After that, she started advanced studies in neurology and psychology, but she was soon kicked out of school, when Mussolini’s newly published 1938 Race Laws forbade any non-Aryan from having a professional or academic career. Shockingly, to continue her career in research she built a laboratory in her bedroom, fashioning scalpels from sewing needles, using an ophthalmologist’s tiny scissors and a watchmaker’s forceps. With these tools, and inspired by an article she read by embryologist Viktor Hamburger, she dissected chick embryos and studied their motor neurons (nerve cells responsible for controlling movement) under a microscope. Along with an assistant, she came up with a theory about embryonic nerve cells, that ran counter the the model described by Viktor Hamburger, which prompted him to invited her over to the Washington University in St. Louis. Soon after Levi-Montalcini arrived at Hamburger’s laboratory, in 1948, they noticed that a particular type of mouse tumour spurred nerve growth when implanted into chick embryos. Levi-Montalcini and Hamburger figured out the cause: a substance in the tumour that they named nerve growth factor (NGF). The tumour caused similar cell growth in a nerve-tissue culture in the lab. She was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly with colleague Stanley Cohen for the discovery of nerve growth factor.

Rita Levi-Montalcini in her laboratory, ca 1959. Image taken from

Up next is Gertrude Elion, born in 1918 in New York. When she was 15, she witnessed the painful death of her grandfather from stomach cancer, which motivated her career path. At age 19, with a degree in chemistry, she she looked for work. She took jobs as a secretary, a chemistry teacher, and an unpaid worker in a lab. Finally, when World War II diminished the ranks of male chemists, Elion got her break. In 1944, Elion found the job of her dreams, assisting George Hitchings at Burroughs Wellcome, the American outpost of a British pharmaceutical firm operated by a charitable trust. Together, they discarded the traditional trial-and-error approach to drug development, but rather in favour of a rational, scientific approach of predicting molecules that could work. Elion’s first major discovery, in 1950, when she was 32, was a purine compound that interfered with the formation of leukaemia cells: 6-mercaptopurine, 6-MP for short. 6-MP was very effective at putting leukaemia patients into remission but was extremely short-living. In 1963, Elion, still searching for ways to make 6-MP’s effects last longer, made another discovery: allopurinol, which reduces the body’s production of uric acid. An excess of uric acid causes gout, which can be fatal for cancer patients. Elion’s final major breakthrough was in the development of the antiviral drug acyclovir, approved in 1977. In 1988, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering important principles of drug treatment.

Gertrude Elion after receiving the Nobel Prize, 1988. Image taken from

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard was born in 1942 in Germany, in the midst of WWII, and had soon cracked the mystery of how the genes in a fertilised egg form an embryo. In 1978, after several successful years of researching the bicaudal gene in Drosophila embryos, Nüsslein-Volhard joined the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg. There she would meet the man who became her partner in research: Eric Wieschaus. Together, they invented a process called saturation mutagenesis, where they produced mutations in adult fly genes in order to observe the impact on offspring. Using this method, as well as a dual microscope that allowed them to examine specimens together, they identified 20,000 genes in the chromosomes of fruit flies. By 1980, when Nüsslein-Volhard was 38, they were able to identify and classify the 15 genes that instruct cells to begin forming a new fly, developing a detailed understanding of how an embryo's shape is determined by genes. This won her the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1995.

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard with zebrafish at the Max-Planck Institute. Image taken from

The point we at MBIOS are trying to present is that passion in a field is a very powerful tool. Most of if not all of these women grew up in an environment that is not so conducive to science, a patriarchal society that does not value women education, the wars going on between countries, the lack of women’s rights, and less developed facilities. Yet, their passion for the field carried them far beyond what they had access to and allowed them to persevere through these conditions and eventually make a name for themselves. We hope that this article sheds light onto these wonderful women, and at the same time show all of the readers how valuable passion truly is.


Article prepared by: Jared Ong Kang Jie, R&D Director of MBIOS 2023/2024

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  1. Nobel Prize awarded women. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2024. Wed. 28 Feb 2024. <>

  2. Gerty Cori – Nobel Lecture. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2024. Wed. 28 Feb 2024. <>

  3. The Nobel Prize | Women Who Changed Science | Gerty Cori. Wed. 28 Feb 2024. <>

  4. Carl and Gerty Cori and Carbohydrate Metabolism. American Chemical Society. Wed. 28 Feb 2024. <> 

  5. Rosalyn Sussman Yalow. American Chemical Society. Wed. 28 Feb 2024. <> 

  6. The Nobel Prize | Women Who Changed Science. Wed. 28 Feb 2024. <> 


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