Nobel Prizes honor a record 5 women in 2009


STOCKHOLM (AP) — A record five women were among the 13 people awarded Nobel Prizes on Thursday, including a writer who depicted life behind the Iron Curtain and two American researchers who showed how chromosomes protect themselves from degrading.

Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf presented the 10 million kronor ($1.4 million) prizes in chemistry, physics, medicine, literature and economics at a glitzy ceremony at Stockholm concert hall. Hours earlier, President Barack Obama received the peace prize in Oslo.

The Stockholm ceremony was topped off by a lavish banquet in the capital’s city hall — where laureates were served a three-course gala dinner whose menu is a carefully guarded secret.

The prizes were created in Alfred Nobel’s 1895 will, which stipulated that they be granted to those who “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” They were first awarded in 1901.

Only 40 women have won the prestigious awards, including Marie Curie who was given the 1903 physics prize and the chemistry prize eight years later. In all, 802 individuals and 20 organizations have received Nobel Prizes over the years.

Romanian-born author Herta Mueller accepted the Nobel literature award for her critical depiction of life behind the Iron Curtain — work drawn largely from her personal experiences. Mueller’s mother spent five years in a communist gulag, and the writer herself was tormented by the Securitate secret police because she refused to become their informant.

At the prize ceremony, Professor Anders Olsson of the Swedish Academy praised Mueller for her “great courage in uncompromisingly repudiating provincial repression and political terror.”

“It is for the artistic value in that opposition that you merit this prize,” he said. “Even though you have said that silence and suppression taught you to write, you have given us words that grip us deeply and directly.”

Elinor Ostrom, 76, made history by being the first woman to receive the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, sharing it with fellow American Oliver Williamson for their work in economic governance. That prize is not one of the original Nobels, but was created in 1968 in Nobel’s memory by the Swedish central bank.

Professor Tore Ellingsen, member of the Economics Prize Committee, said Ostrom and Williamson’s analysis of economic governance would help all scientists make better use of their discoveries.

“Modern tools allowed us to fish more efficiently, but we used them to empty the seas. The invention of dynamite facilitated mining and building, but also allowed more devastating warfare,” he said. “Good institutions are required for sustainable fishers as well as for lasting peace.”

Americans Elizabeth H. Blackburn, 61, and Carol W. Greider, 48, shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with countryman Jack W. Szostak for their work in solving the mystery of how chromosomes protect themselves from degrading when cells divide.

Professor Rune Toftgard, a member of the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute, said the trio’s work has raised hopes that new therapies can be developed to fight cancer. “You have solved a long-standing and fundamental problem in biology,” he said.

The chemistry award was shared by 70-year-old Ada Yonath of Israel and Americans Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz for their atom-by-atom description of ribosomes, the protein-making machinery within cells. Their research is being used to develop new antibiotics.

Professor Mans Ehrenberg of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the chemistry winners’ work with the ribosome is “a tale of the existential basis of our civilizations.”

“This essential knowledge is already used in the development of novel antibiotic drugs in the ongoing medical struggle against the ever emerging drug resistance among bacterial pathogens,” he said.

American George E. Smith shared the physics award with countryman Willard S. Boyle for inventing a sensor used in digital cameras. Also taking the prize was Charles K. Kao, also from the U.S., for discovering how to transmit light signals long distances through hair-thin glass fibers. The Chairman of the Nobel Committee for Physics, Joseph Nordgren pointed out how their work has affected all of our daily lives.

“Today we take it for granted that at any time, we can phone someone on the other side of the globe and have a conversation while enjoying the same sound quality as if we were talking to someone in the same room,” he said. “Likewise, we take it for granted that we can view photos and video reports of events on other continents at the same instant as they unfold.”

The prizes also include a diploma and a gold medal. They are always handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death in 1896. The Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite died in San Remo, a link that the Italian city marks by sending flowers to decorate the ceremony in Stockholm.