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Nearly 900 People Have Won Nobel Prizes. Only 48 Were Women.

We crunched the numbers on 115 years’ worth of past prize winners, and the data revealed some striking trends.

What is the Nobel Prize? What is the Nobel Prize? How are the winners chosen? Learn how Nobel Laureates are selected and the fascinating history behind one of the world's most prestigious awards.

Since the first awards in 1901, fewer than 900 individuals have received Nobel Prizes. As the latest laureates join the hallowed host this week, National Geographic wanted to get to know them all better. (Find out more about the secrective process behind the Nobel Prizes.)

Using the Nobel Foundation's detailed datasets from 1901 to 2016, we break down the winners of the world's best-known awards.

The United States leads the world in Nobels—thanks to immigrants.

Home to hundreds of individual Nobel laureates, the United States has amassed the largest number of total prizes in any country. But a sizable percentage of U.S.-affiliated science laureates are immigrants who came to the U.S. during their childhoods or early careers.

U.S. is a Nobel Prize leader

Nobel Prizes granted since the first year

of the awards

Physics

U.S.

35%

47%

Total 222

Born abroad

Medicine

U.S.

63%

51%

219

Chemistry

U.S.

32%

194

41%

Literature

U.S.

6%

111

Peace

U.S.

19%

102

Economics

U.S.

29%

78%

83

A significant fraction of winners in the sciences and affiliated with an American university were born outside the U.S.

 

Nobel-winning organizations are not included.

 

U.S. is a Nobel Prize leader

Nobel Prizes granted since the first year of the awards

Physics

Medicine

Chemistry

Literature

Peace

Economics

Total 222

219

194

111

102

83

U.S.

U.S.

U.S.

U.S.

U.S.

U.S.

47%

51%

41%

6%

19%

78%

35%

 

63%

32%

29%

Born abroad

A significant fraction of winners in the sciences and affiliated with an American university were born outside the U.S.

 

Nobel-winning organizations are not included.

 

U.S. is a Nobel Prize leader

Nobel Prizes granted since the first year of the awards

Physics

Medicine

Chemistry

Literature

Peace

Economics

Total 222

219

194

111

102

83

U.S.

U.S.

U.S.

U.S.

U.S.

U.S.

47%

51%

41%

6%

19%

78%

35%

 

63%

32%

29%

Born abroad

A significant fraction of winners in the sciences and affiliated with an American university were born outside the U.S.

 

Nobel-winning organizations are not included.

 

More than 30 percent of all U.S.-based winners of the Nobel Prize in chemistry were born outside of the U.S—a club that German-born Joachim Frank, a professor at Columbia University, now joins as a co-recipient of the 2017 award. MIT physicist Rainer Weiss, co-winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics, was also born in Germany, joining the 35 percent of U.S. physics laureates who were born abroad.

Evidence suggests that the globetrotting lifestyle itself spurs innovation. A study in Nature published October 4 suggests that scientists who moved around internationally are cited more widely than academics who stayed in the country where they published their first paper.

On average, today's science Nobel laureates are getting older.

Of this year's laureates in medicine, physics, and chemistry, all but one are above the age of 70. That's reflective of a graying trend among laureates. Over the last century, the average ages at the time of recognition have creeped ever upward.

Nobel recognition now comes later in life

Laureates’ ages at time of winning Nobel Prize, by category

Increasing

Decreasing

Trend

Chemistry

 

Economics

 

Literature

 

Average age:

58

Average age:

67

Average age:

65

Age

100

80

60

40

20

0

1901

2016

1969*

2016

1901

2016

Medicine

 

Peace

 

Physics

 

Average age:

58

Average age:

61

Average age:

56

Age

100

80

60

40

20

0

1901

2016

1901

2016

1901

2016

Nobel-winning organizations, all of which won the Nobel Peace Prize, are not included.

*The prize in economics, first awarded in 1969, was established in memory of Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Prizes.

Nobel recognition now comes later in life

Laureates’ ages at time of winning Nobel Prize, by category

Increasing

Decreasing

Trend

Chemistry

 

Economics

 

Literature

 

Medicine

 

Peace

 

Physics

 

Average age:

58

Average age:

67

Average age:

65

Average age:

58

Average age:

61

Average age:

56

Age

100

80

60

40

20

0

1901

2016

1969*

2016

1901

2016

1901

2016

1901

2016

1901

2016

Nobel-winning organizations, all of which won the Nobel Peace Prize, are not included.

*The prize in economics, first awarded in 1969, was established in memory of Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Prizes.

Nobel recognition now comes later in life

Laureates’ ages at time of winning Nobel Prize, by category

Increasing

Decreasing

Trend

Chemistry

 

Economics

 

Literature

 

Medicine

 

Peace

 

Physics

 

Age

Average age: 58

Average age: 67

Average age: 65

Average age: 58

Average age: 61

Average age: 56

100

80

60

40

20

0

1901

2016

1969*

2016

1901

2016

1901

2016

1901

2016

1901

2016

Nobel-winning organizations, all of which won the Nobel Peace Prize, are not included.

*The prize in economics, first awarded in 1969, was established in memory of Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Prizes.

In a 2016 interview with the BBC, Nobel Museum senior curator Gustav Källstrand noted that academic fields have changed dramatically in the last century. About a hundred years ago, there were only about a thousand physicists. Now, there are hundreds of thousands—perhaps even a million—worldwide, making the “breakthrough backlog” that much larger with each passing year.

That said, novelists and economists have also grown in ranks, yet they aren't graying at the same rate as the sciences. In addition, the overall trend for the Nobel Peace Prize favors younger laureates. The Peace Prize claims the youngest-ever Nobel recipient: education activist Malala Yousafzai, who was 17 when she co-won the prize in 2014.

Nobel laureates are overwhelmingly male.

Out of the 881 individuals who won Nobel Prizes between 1901 and 2016, only 48 have been women. In some disciplines, the drought has persisted for decades: The last woman to win a Nobel Prize for physics, Maria Goeppert Mayer, was honored in 1964. The gap reflects longtime institutional biases against women within the sciences, a lag exacerbated by the decades-long backlog of Nobel-worthy discoveries.

Female Nobel laureates

While the number of women awarded Nobel Prizes has increased through the years, a significant gender gap still remains. Out of 881 individuals who have won Nobel Prizes between 1901 and 2016, only 48 have been women.

Male

Organization

Female

1901

Marie Curie

Physics, 1903

Chemistry, 1911

Curie is the only woman who has been honored twice, for her studies about radiation.

No Nobel Prizes were awarded between 1940 and 1942.

Irène Joliot-Curie

Chemistry, 1935

Joliot-Curie, daughter of Marie Curie, won for the synthesis of new radioactive elements.

Barbara McClintock

Medicine, 1983

McClintock, the only woman who has won an unshared Nobel Prize in medicine, received it for her discoveries in genetics.

Malala Yousafzai

Peace, 2014

Yousafzai, the youngest laureate ever at age 17, won for defending the right of all children to education.

2016

Female Nobel laureates

While the number of women awarded Nobel Prizes has increased through the years, a significant gender gap still remains. Out of 881 individuals who have won Nobel Prizes between 1901 and 2016, only 48 have been women.

Male

Organization

Female

1901

2016

No Nobel Prizes were awarded between 1940 and 1942.

Marie Curie

Irène Joliot-Curie

Barbara McClintock

Malala Yousafzai

Physics, 1903

Chemistry, 1911

Chemistry, 1935

Medicine, 1983

Peace, 2014

Joliot-Curie, daughter of Marie Curie, won for the synthesis of new radioactive elements.

McClintock, the only woman who has won an unshared Nobel Prize in medicine, received it for her discoveries in genetics.

Yousafzai, the youngest laureate ever at age 17, won for defending the right of all children to education.

Curie is the only woman who has been honored twice, for her studies about radiation.

Female Nobel laureates

Organization

While the number of women awarded Nobel Prizes has increased through the years, a significant gender gap still remains. Out of 881 individuals who have won Nobel Prizes between 1901 and 2016, only 48 have been women.

Male

Female

1901

2016

No Nobel Prizes were awarded between 1940 and 1942.

Marie Curie

Irène Joliot-Curie

Barbara McClintock

Christiane

Nüsslein-Volhard

Malala Yousafzai

Physics, 1903

Chemistry, 1911

Chemistry, 1935

Medicine, 1983

Peace, 2014

Medicine, 1995

Joliot-Curie, daughter of Marie Curie, won for the synthesis of new radioactive elements.

McClintock, the only woman who has won an unshared Nobel Prize in medicine, received it for her discoveries in genetics.

Yousafzai, the youngest laureate ever at age 17, won for defending the right of all children to education.

Curie is the only woman who has been honored twice, for her studies about radiation.

Nüsslein-Volhard was honored for discovering how genes control embryonic development in flies.

Nobel Museum curators told the BBC that they have no evidence of the committee refusing to give an award because a nominee was a woman. They also say that the committee slightly bent prize rules to ensure that Marie Curie shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics. But that may come as small consolation for the supremely qualified female scientists who were never recognized.

For instance, Lise Meitner, one of the co-discoverers of nuclear fission, was nominated for the physics prize 29 times from 1937 to 1965 and the chemistry prize an additional 19 times from 1924 to 1948, according to Nobel Foundation archival records. She never won. And while astronomer Vera Rubin's groundbreaking work revealing the existence of dark matter received wide acclaim, she died on December 25, 2016, with no Nobel to call her own. (Read National Geographic's obituary for Vera Rubin.)

View Images

Lise Meitner, an Austrian physicist who studied nuclear fission, died in 1968. According to the official rules, Nobel Prizes can't be awarded after death.


Increasingly, Nobel laureates represent much larger scientific collaborations.

Nobel Foundation rules say that a Nobel Prize can only be awarded to up to three individuals, reflective of the small-team science that prevailed in the early 20th century. But today, major breakthroughs increasingly come from massive scientific collaborations, and the Nobel Committee has been reticent to award science prizes to broader groups.

The contrast is especially stark in physics, where scientific collaborations can include thousands of researchers—as illustrated by the breakthrough that earned the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics. The prize went to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish for detecting gravitational waves, ripples in space-time predicted by Einstein's general theory of relativity.

While the trio's contributions were huge, they themselves argue that the prize should have recognized the broader LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which includes hundreds of scientists. After all, the study that announced the detection of gravitational waves has 1,011 co-authors, by Popular Science's count. Just 0.3 percent of them were honored by name in Stockholm.

"We live in an era where some huge discoveries are really the result of giant collaborations, with major contributions coming from very large numbers of people," Thorne says in an interview posted on the Nobel Prize's website.

"I hope that in the future," he says, "the Nobel Prize committee finds a way to award the prize to the large collaborations that make this and not just to the people who may have been seminal to the beginning of the project, as we were."