These laureates may not be household names, but their contributions helped change the world.
When we think of female Nobel Prize winners, Mother Teresa, Marie Curie and Malala Yousafzai probably come to mind. But there have been 48 female Nobel laureates. They were involved in all sorts of projects, from physics experiments to masterful novels, and they changed how we think about art, animals and the human body.
In honor of Women's History Month, we decided to remember some not-so-familiar female Nobel laureates and the fascinating projects that won them international admiration.
American author Toni Morrison, who died on Aug. 6 at the age of 88, is most famous for writing "Beloved," a novel about a former slave woman who is haunted by a ghost. In 1988, this epic novel exploring slavery's legacy won her the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Nobel Prize in literature.
"I wanted the reader to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book's population just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to any other, without preparation or defense," Morrison wrote.
It's a pretty amazing read and deals with questions like "How does the past invade the present?" using possibly the most intriguing ghost ever. When she came up with the idea, Morrison wrote, "I was happy, free in a way I had never been, ever. It was the oddest sensation. Not ecstasy, not satisfaction, not a surfeit of pleasure or accomplishment. It was a purer delight, a rogue anticipation with certainty. Enter 'Beloved.'"
That video is a scene from a televised adaption of "The Wonderful Adventures of Nils," a children's book written by Selma Lagerof. This Swedish writer won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1909, a dozen years before women could vote in Swedish national elections.
The book is about a selfish boy named Nil who is cruel to the animals on his family's farm. One day, he has a run-in with a tomte, a mischevious creature that's sort of the spirit of the boy's farm (they're actually really fascinating). So the tomte turns the boy into a tomte, giving him the power to talk to animals. Nil and a farm goose join a flock of wild geese, and they have a bunch of adventures around Sweden. In the process, Nil learns to be unselfish.
"If you have learned anything at all from us, Tummetott," a wild goose tells Nil, "you no longer think that the humans should have the whole Earth to themselves."
I know what you're thinking: This would be a killer anime series. And it is!
Ada E. Yonath
Ada Yonath's findings led to new ways of making medicines. (Photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
Israeli scientist Ada E. Yonath was working at Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science in the 1970s when she started mapping the structure of ribosomes, parts of cells that copy genetic code. To examine the structures on an atomic level, she used x-ray crystallography, a method that she pursued even though many scientists doubted it. Her new mapping helped scientists make better antibiotics, and her discovery landed her the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2009.
"People always talk about the implication and applications of a process, but for me, the goal is purely about knowledge," said the Jerusalem-born Yonath. "Knowledge can become practical today, in 20 years, or in 500 years. Ask Newton. He didn't know there would be space research based on his accident with the apple."
The Hull House eventually grew to 13 buildings. (Photo: Screenshot/YouTube)
American public philosopher Jane Addams set out to better the lives of working-class people, immigrants, women and children in a very direct way, and her success was kind of astonishing. She found an old mansion in Chicago, cleaned it up and turned it into a community center. Not your ordinary community center, though: Hull House, as she called it, provided social services, but it also fostered rich debate and research into designing a better society. The environment was meant to encourage democratic cooperation and collective action, rather than individualism. Her work won her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.
"Social advance depends as much upon the process through which it is secured as upon the result itself," she said.
The Hull House included an art room, where anyone from the neighborhood could come in and learn to make art. It became a place for self-expression, where immigrant communities got to know each other. For Addams, art was a way communities could disrupt fixed ideas.
Rigoberta Menchu's first language was Quiche, an indigenous language, but she taught herself other Mayan languages and Spanish. (Photo: Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images)
This indigenous woman from Guatemala won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for devoting her life to promoting indigenous rights in her country. In a dramatic film-like twist, her campaigns got her exiled, and she escaped to Mexico. There, she narrated a book about her life to Venezuelan author and anthropologist Elizabeth Burgos, "Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia" (My name is Rigoberta Menchú and this is how my conscience was born). The book made her an international icon.
"My name is Rigoberta Menchu," reads the book's first page. "I am 23 years old. This is my testimony. I didn’t learn it from a book and I didn’t learn it alone. I’d like to stress that it’s not only my life, it’s also the testimony of my people. ... My story is the story of all poor Guatemalans. My personal experience is the reality of a whole people."