I have to admit that the Nobel Prize for literature causes me quite some trouble. You know, if someone receives a price for physics or chemistry you typically can tell an immediate effect of their work.

Normally, this is not the case for literature although I would never say that literature has no effect. Moreover, I simply do not understand why certain writers belong to the so called world literature, while others are not mentioned.

While I cannot choose if 2 plus 2 equals 4 or rather something else I can have a certain taste concerning authors and texts.

The Nobel Prize

However, the first woman who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909 is the Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf. Maybe you don’t know her name. But I guess you know her most famous story “The wonderful adventures of Nils” which was also published in 1906. I think it had a revival as an anime that appeared in 1980.

Apparently the members of the committee had a heated fight about awarding her the prize or not. Well, we know the result. They awarded her this prize “in appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterize her writings”. More than 100 years later it is almost impossible to interpret the meaning of these words.

Life and Work

It seems many things about Selma Lagerlöf were unusual. She was born in 1858. From early childhood she had been a passionate reader with a particular interest in legends but she showed little interest in household work which was considered a problem in her time. Against her father’s will she visited the college for girls in Stockholm and later became a school teacher. During her time as school teacher she published her epic novel “The Saga of Gösta Berling” in 1891 which in 1924 had been made into a film with immortal Greta Garbo.

The novel became quite successful, Selma quit her job as a school teacher and did something that was certainly unusual in her time: she travelled the world which of course brought her more inspiration for her writing.

With the money she received for the Nobel Prize she could rebuy her family’s manor (for economic reasons they had to sell it some years earlier) where she lived until her death.

Social and Political Engagement

Selma Lagerlöf engaged on issues for women’s rights and as from 1933 she was also a member of a committee that supported Jewish refugees.

In order to support the Finns during the so called winter war (a war between Russia and Finland between 1939 and 1940) she sold her golden Nobel Prize medal.

The poetess died in 1940 in her manor “Mårbacka” which today is a museum.



Irène Joliot-Curie already accompanied her mother Marie to the award ceremony in Stockholm when the latter received her second Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911. Irène was 14 years old at that time and had lost her father Pierre Curie already more than 5 years ago.

At this time she probably did not even guess that 24 years later, in 1935, she should travel to Stockholm again to receive her own Nobel Prize for her achievements in Chemistry.

Student and Assistant

But let’s catch up with the time in between first.

Irène was born the first daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie In 1897. She stepped in her parents’ foot prints at a very early age. When her mother Marie Curie organised and run these mobile x-ray service during WWI we already discussed, 17 year old Irène assisted her and soon led the x-ray station in the military hospital in Amiens, France. One would think that was a fulltime job already. Not for Irène. She studied mathematics and physics at the University at the same time. Her doctorate was accepted in 1925.

After WWI she worked as an assistant at her mother’s Radon Institute where she met Fréderic Joliot whom she married in 1926.

Teamwork and Politics

Just like the Curies the Joliots made a great team, collaborated successfully and therefore both were awarded the Nobel Prize.

Both of them were much into political activities. In 1934 they both took part in a committee of intellectuals that engaged against fascism and two years later Irène worked as the undersecretary of states for science and research. This made her one of three women who were the first group of females to be members of the cabinet. Remember, French women had no voting right at that time. Irène Joliot only remained a few month in this position as she only wanted to make a statement in favour of the feminist movement.

In 1940, when the Nazis occupied Paris, Irène and Frédéric Joliot left Paris but soon returned. Frédéric smuggled his research results concerning nuclear fission to London and in 1941 became the president of the Résistance. The couple engaged politically for the rest of their lives.

Irene’s work harmed her health. Because she suffered from tuberculosis she and her two children travelled to Switzerland to cure her illness. In 1956 she died from leukaemia and it is assumed that this was a result of her dealing with large quantities of polonium and of her work in the x-ray service. The government ordered a state funeral for her.



The woman who worked for an era of peace died 8 days before WWI broke out.

A Stubborn Girl

Bertha von Sutttner was born countess of Kinsky, a very wealthy and renowned family. However, the clan would not let her participate at their fame and fortune. The reason is that her mother was not blue-blooded and that her father died before Bertha’s birth.

Bertha’s mother made sure her daughter received a good education, became familiarised with the etiquette, studied languages, read free-spirited books. But her mother was also a gambler and lost her late husband’s fortune in casinos all over Europe.

Since Bertha refused an arranged marriage she was looking for a job. She took up her work with a wealthy family as a governess and fell in love with their son Arthur Gundaccar von Suttner. But Arthur’s family was not delighted about their son’s wedding plans with a penniless governess. Bertha was dismissed and therefore looking for another job and some months later – in 1876 – she was hired as a secretary with language skills in Paris. Her new employer was Alfred Nobel.

To cut a long story short: Bertha could not forget Arthur, went back to Vienna where Arthur von Suttner and Bertha countess of Kinsky married against the family’s wish. As a consequence Arthur was disinherited and the newly-weds moved to Tiflis in Georgia where they should live for the following nine years before finally making up with Arthur’s family and returning to Austria.


In Georgia they witnessed the consequences of the Russo-Turkish war. Arthur worked as a journalist and Bertha started writing novels and political articles in which she concentrated on peace and conflict studies. She used a pseudonym because she was afraid that being a woman nobody would take her writings seriously. She also corresponded with philosophers and writers and maintained the contact with Alfred Nobel until his death in 1896. These people valued her opinion.

In 1889 her pacifist novel “Die Waffen nieder” (Lay down your arms) made her a kind of a figurehead of the peace movement. In the following years she gave speeches in countless cities in German speaking Europe.

The Nobel Prize

Given the encouragement of her fans and friends it seems as if Bertha expected to receive the Nobel Prize already in the first round in 1901. It was awarded to two honourable men.

Apparently Bertha continued living in the expectation of being awarded for the next year. In 1905 Bertha was so furious and convinced that the guys in Sweden would not even dream of giving her the Nobel Prize that she organised a large tour during which she would give more speeches.

Well, she was wrong. In 1905 Bertha von Suttner became a Nobel Laureate. This made her the first women to receive a Nobel Price for peace.



If there is one female superstar in science it might well be Marie Curie. As it seems everything about her career must be attributed “the only”, “the first” or “the best”.

A Superstar

No doubt, Madame Curie née Skłodowska was gifted, intelligent and hard working. She led an extraordinary yet not so easy life. The circumstances under which she studied and worked were very difficult. She risked her health for science because radioactivity was not known then (Maria herself should discover it) and in WWI she put herself in danger again because she developed and ran a mobile x-ray truck.

The Beginning

Maria Salomea Skłodowska was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1867. When she was ten years old her mother and one of her sisters died in the same year. It was also in this year when she started the gymnasium for girls in Poland from where she graduated with a gold medal in 1883.

Because they were women she and her sister Bronislawa could not receive higher degrees in Poland and therefore they wanted to go to Paris. In order to reach this goal they agreed that Bronislava would leave first while Marie stayed in Poland, took a job and supported her sister financially. Hence the woman that should once become Marie Curie accepted the position of a tutor. Four years later she followed her sister who meanwhile was married to Paris and received financial support from her as agreed before.

Only Superlatives

  • In 1891 she was the first woman to pass the admission exams for the faculties of physics and of chemistry at the Sorbonne in Paris.
  • In 1893 she obtained a bachelor in physics; obviously she was the first woman to do so. She accepted a position as an assistant but continued to study.
  • That is why in 1894 she got a bachelor in mathematics, too.
  • In 1903 her doctoral thesis has been accepted. It was Marie Curie who introduced the notion of radioactivity. Her thesis was so spectacular that had been translated into five languages within 12 months.
  • Also in 1903 she, her husband Pierre Curie and Henry Becquerel were awarded the Nobel prize in physics.
  • In 1911 she received her second Nobel Prize. This time in chemistry.

Marie Curie is also the first woman who held a professorship at the Sorbonne and to this day the only woman who received the Nobel Prize twice.

She even obtained it for two different disciplines; an honour she only shares with Linus Pauling who engaged in chemistry and in peace.

Marie and Pierre Curie had two daughters. Eve, the younger one was a writer and a pianist. The older one, Irène became…guess what… a Nobel laureate. I will catch up on her.



This blog is called Leadership & Lipstick. Recently, the lipstick kind of took over. It is time to bring some leadership to the game again.

No, I will not neglect the lipstick although it might not have been that important to these women who have one thing in common: the Nobel Prize.

History of the Nobel Prize

Alfred Bernhard Nobel was born in Stockholm in 1833. He was a bit like the European version of Thomas A. Edison. Nobel registered 355 patents and his most famous invention is the dynamite. Young Nobel studied chemistry and physics but was also very interested in English literature. His many inventions made him a wealthy man.

One year prior to his death in 1896 Nobel issued his last will and testament. Almost his entire fortune should be used to found the Nobel trust with the purpose to support science. He also determined the rules and the subject.

  1. The scientists that should be eligible for the Nobel Prize must be chosen by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
  2. Race must not be taken into account but the most worthy men and women should be elected
  3. Once a year one outstanding personality of the following disciplines has to be considered:
  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Literature
  • Medicine
  • Peace

Nobel intended to further people that bring the most welfare to mankind. The prize money derives from the interest that his fortune brings in.

The Quest

The first award ceremony took place in 1901. We already know that most of Nobel laureates are men. But I am not writing to complain about this.

My quest is to find a female Nobelist for each of the five disciplines. Next week we’ll start with physics.

Stay tuned.