With the announcement of this year’s winner quickly approaching on October 3rd, it is only fitting that we look back on the history of the Nobel Prize and its female winners. Women in science have especially been overlooked in the past, from Rosalind Franklin and her work with DNA to Vera Rubin and her discovery of dark matter. The platform Slate has even created a long list of female physicists who were qualified for a Nobel Prize in physics, emphasizing how it has been over fifty years since the last time the prize was won by a woman.
Maria Goeppert Mayer was the last woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physics, and the second and only other woman winner after Marie Curie. Goeppert Mayer was born in 1906 in Germany to a family of university professors. She would later become the seventh university professor on her father’s side of the family but obtaining an education as a woman was not easy. After seeking the only girls’ school of preparation for the “Abitur” – the university entrance exam – Goeppert Mayer took the exam and enrolled at the University of Gottingen in 1924. By 1930, she received her doctorate in theoretical physics, which was guided and judged by several Nobel Prize winners, including Max Born, James Franck, and Adolf Otto Reinhold Windaus.
Maria Goeppert Mayer married chemist Joseph Mayer shortly afterward, and both moved to the United States. While Goeppert Mayer’s husband received teaching positions at Johns Hopkins University and Columbia University, no university would hire her as a professor of physics. As a woman, she was known as the “wife of a professor” instead of a scientist in her own right. The couple later moved to Chicago, where Goeppert Mayer began the research that would later bring her fame.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Goeppert Mayer developed a mathematical model for nuclear shells. The shell model is still used today and has been used to explain and explore many questions in science such as particle decay processes, the tetraneutron, and the long half-life of carbon-14, among many others.
In 1960, Goeppert Mayer was finally offered the title of full professor at the University of California, San Diego. Three years later, in 1963, she shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Eugene Paul Wigner and J. Hans D. Jensen for their work in the nuclear shell model. She was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1965.
“Become fully educated women and promote the understanding of science in any way you can,” Goeppert Mayer said to high school girls in 1964. “Our country needs your help. My generation has played its part. It is up to you to carry on.”
After her death, Maria Goeppert Mayer’s legacy lived on through various awards, postage stamps, and even a hall named after her at UC San Diego. Among several other awards in her name, the Maria Goeppert Mayer Award is awarded by the American Physical Society to young women physicists at the beginning of their careers, inspiring and helping young women to follow in the path of the last woman to win the Nobel Prize in physics.
However, Goeppert Mayer’s legacy also brings our attention to an important question: why hasn’t there been another female winner since Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963? Though the gender gap in Nobel Prizes is already significant overall, Physics as a category has the least amount of female winners. It’s been over 50 years since a woman last won, and Goeppert Mayer was only the second female winner in the entire history of the prize. As more women receive are educated in STEM and join STEM fields of work, we can hope for – and expect – a future of more female Nobel winners.
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