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Women in History
Nobel Prize Winners
by David P. Rosenberg, M.P.A., Reference Services Research Coordinator, Center for Jewish History

I recently researched women with Jewish roots who have won the Nobel Prize. Seven people hold the distinction in a range of topics from medicine to chemistry to literature:

Gerty Cori was the third woman, and the first American woman, to win the prize when she won for her work in physiology in 1947. 

She has an entry Biographia Judaica Bohemiae, which is available in our reference collection.

Rita Levi-Montalcini also won the prize for physiology or medicine; she was awarded the prize in 1986. 

The AJHS library here at the Center holds In praise of imperfection: my life and work by Rita Levi-Montalcini.

The YIVO library here at the Center has a book by Gian Paolo Brizzi: Bologna 1938: silence and remembering : the racial laws and the foreign Jewish students at the University of Bologna.

Levi-Montalcini, an Italian, also had her career drastically affected by Mussolini’s racial laws. She wrote the preface for Brizzi’s work. 

Rosalyn Sussman Yalow was also awarded the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine. She was awarded the prize in 1977. She studied and taught at Mount Sinai Hospital. (AJHS also holds a collection on Mount Sinai Hospital that has a box list online.)

The YIVO library holds the biography Rosalyn Yalow, Nobel laureate: her life and work in medicine: a biographical memoir.

Ada Yonath is the first Israeli woman to win the prize; she won for her work in chemistry in 2009. She has an article in Encyclopaedia Judaica. We have a print copy of this invaluable resource in the reference collection in addition to access to the online version. 

Elfriede Jelinek, Austrian novelist, playwright and activist won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2004. She was raised by her Catholic mother and Jewish father. Her work was surely affected by her Roman Catholic preliminary education, the Vienna Conservatory where she earned a degree in organ, and her further studies at the University of Vienna. 

If you search the catalog, search.cjh.org, there are eight works in the collection that speak about Jelinek’s work or have contributions by her, including Sexualisierte Gewalt : weibliche Erfahrungen in NS-Konzentrationslagern / Helga Amesberger, Katrin Auer, Brigitte Halbmayr; mit einem Essay von Elfriede Jelinek Sexual violence: female experiences in Nazi concentration camps / Helga Amesberger, Katrin Auer, Brigitte Halbmayr, with an essay by Elfriede Jelinek], which is particularly relevant considering her well-known work The Piano Teacher.

Also available is “Ich will kein Theater”: mediale Ueberschreitungen [“I want no drama” About media shortfalls], which is particularly relevant considering her role in the release of Jack Unterweger.

Nadine Gordimer, South African author and political activist, won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1991. Multiple books she penned were banned during Apartheid. 

Noted photojournalist for Newsweek magazine Bernard Gotfryd has a collection at the YIVO archives, RG 1380, that includes a photograph of Nadine Gordimer. 

The LBI library here at the Center also holds a work with contributions by Gordimer: Wege im harten Gras: Erinnerungen an Deutschland, Suedafrika und England [Way in the tough grass: Memories of Germany, South Africa and England].

Within this distinguished group of Nobel Prize winners, the partner collections hold the most material on poet Nelly Sachs, who is pictured above. The first stanza of her poem “O The chimneys” is always particularly poignant to me. Click here for the text and analysis. (The book linked to here, The Holocaust Encyclopedia, is available in hard copy in the reference collection at the Center.)

Searching our catalog, search.cjh.org, for “Nelly Sachs” will reveal over a hundred items including more than ten original works by Sachs. 

Of particular note is the exhibition catalog from an exhibit held by LBI in 1966, which documented the life and work of Nelly Sachs, Nobel Laureate in literature.

There is also an extensive collection of archival material held by the LBI archive that includes photographs of this exhibit. The entire collection, which amounts to a linear foot of material, is available entirely online. For photographs, including those above, click here

Links to the digitized material are available via the finding aid.

For the exhibit documentation, reference Series IV: Leo Baeck Institute Exhibition April 1967, 1966-1967, or click here.

For poems, including translations and handwritten, material see Series III: Writings and Translations by Nelly Sachs, 1921, 1965-1966.

Many Jewish women who have not won the Nobel Prize have still made vast contributions to society. These range from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first female Jewish Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, to mothers and teachers. To learn more about Jewish women in daily life, see the online bibliography, or search our collections by clicking here.

The above image of Nelly Sachs is from the Leo Baeck Institute collections.

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