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No Nobel for You: Top 10 Nobel Snubs
As the 2008 laureates are announced,
looks back at some of Nobel history's also-rans
No Nobel for You: Top 10 Nobel Snubs
10.) Josiah Gibbs and Dimitri Mendeleev--missed out on the early Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Both Gibbs (
) and Mendeleev had a profound influence on modern chemistry. Gibbs's work on chemical thermodynamics from the 1870s was well-known, but when it came time to award the first Nobel in chemistry in 1901, the honor instead went to a chemist whose work built on Gibbs's. By 1903, Gibbs was dead and thus ineligible for a Nobel.
Mendeleev came a little closer to becoming a Nobel laureate for his work on the periodic table. He was nominated in both 1905 and 1906, but lost out because one committee member thought his contributions were too old and well-known, according to Feldman. Meanwhile, other chemists, such as Henri Moissan (in 1906), won Nobels for discovering elements just where Mendeleev predicted they'd find them. Like Gibbs, Mendeleev didn't live long enough for his due recognition; he died in 1907.
Portrait by Ilya Repin
9.) Ralph Alpher--missed out on the 1978 and 2006 Nobel Prizes in Physics Alpher started publishing the papers that laid the groundwork for the big bang theory in 1948. At the time, though, the technology wasn't there to confirm his ideas. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of Bell Laboratories performed the radio astronomy experiments in the late 1960s that helped prove Alpher's predictions were correct, but by then Alpher had already moved on to other topics.
Unfortunately, Alpher's contribution to the big bang theory was largely overlooked until recently. Penzias and Wilson, who shared the 1978 Nobel for the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation, claimed they didn't remember reading any of Alpher's papers, according to Nobel historian, Feldman. In 2006 the physics Nobel went to two other researchers who had enlarged on Penzias and Wilson's discovery, further confirming some of Alpher's predictions. Alpher died last year, so his chances of getting a Nobel are gone, but he did receive other awards, including the 2005 National Medal of Science.
American Institute of Physics
8.) Keith Porter--1974 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for innovations in cell biology The same year Jocelyn Bell Burnell missed out on becoming a physics Nobel laureate, Porter was overlooked for the physiology or medicine prize. In 1974 the award was shared by George Palade, Albert Claude and Christian de Duve--Porter's colleagues at The Rockefeller University. All three helped advance the field of cell biology but many researchers felt Porter, who pioneered the use of electron microscopy for biological samples and developed his own microtome for thin sectioning, provided some of the most important contributions.
Porter shared several other awards with Palade and Claude, including Columbia University Medical Center's Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, and later the National Science Foundation's National Medal of Science. Still, many in the field were saddened that he did not snag a Nobel before he died in 1997, remembers Thoru Pederson, cell biology professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Keith R. Porter Endowment for Cell Biology
7.) Victor Ambros, Gary Ruvkun and David Baulcombe--missed out on the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology No one in the biology community denied that Andrew Fire and Craig Mello, the recipients of that year's prize in physiology or medicine, deserved a Nobel for their work on RNAi. Still, many felt the scientists who did the research that helped lead to Fire and Mello's discovery--Ambros (
) and Ruvkun (
) working with worms and Baulcombe (
), plants (subscription required)--deserved a place in Nobel history as well. The problem, of course, is which one of the three would the Nobel committee have chosen?
Nobel committees rarely revisit research areas for which they've already handed out prizes. In 2008, though, Ambros, Ruvkun and Baulcombe started racking up prestigious honors, such as the Franklin Medal and the Lasker Award, suggesting they might still have a shot at sharing their own Nobel some day.
6.) Jocelyn Bell Burnell--frozen out of the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of pulsars As a graduate student under Antony Hewish at the University of Cambridge, Burnell detected the first pulsars. She published her results with Hewish in
in 1968, and, in 1973, she and Hewish shared the prestigious Franklin Institute's Michelson Medal. But when the Nobel committee awarded Hewish and colleague Martin Ryle with the physics prize the next year--the first Nobel won by astronomers, according to the American Institute of Physics--Burnell was not included. Many prominent astronomers expressed outrage, whereas others argued that she only collected data for Hewish to interpret. Burnell never contested the omission, but most reports indicate she contributed more than just the initial observations.
5.) Rosalind Franklin--her work on the structure of DNA never received a Nobel Although James Watson and Francis Crick's theoretical work sped up the process, many, including Crick, felt Franklin, with her X-ray photographs of DNA crystals, would have eventually solved the puzzle on her own. The Nobel committee may never have had the chance to omit her, though. Franklin died in 1958, four years before Watson, Crick and Franklin's colleague, Maurice Wilkins, shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
In his book,
The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy and Prestige
, Burton Feldman suggests that, had she been alive, Franklin almost assuredly would have received the prize over Wilkins, whose contribution was deemed nominal by most in the field. In a 2003 interview with
, Watson suggested she and Wilkins might have shared a separate prize for chemistry, thereby allowing all four of them to receive the award.
National Institutes of Health
4.) Albert Schatz--no 1952 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of streptomycin Until recently, the Nobel Foundation heavily favored senior scientists over their junior colleagues, according to Nobel historians. Schatz was a
23-year-old graduate student when he joined Selman Waksman's laboratory at Rutgers University. Waksman, renowned for his microbial work, had been looking for a naturally occurring antibiotic that could treat tuberculosis. In 1943 Schatz came across streptomycin in a chicken sample he had received from a fellow graduate student, according to microbiologist
Milton Wainwright's analysis of the case. Schatz and Waksman later published their findings and filed a patent for the drug.
That's when the trouble began. Waksman started passing off the discovery as his alone and kept the majority of the royalties from the streptomycin patent for himself, according to Wainwright and other historians. When Schatz found out, he took Waksman to court. The judge agreed that Schatz was a co-discoverer of the drug and awarded him his share of the royalties. Things got uglier when Waksman was the sole recipient of the Nobel in 1952. Schatz and a few supporters appealed to the Nobel committee to acknowledge Schatz's contribution, but Waksman prevailed. Schatz's only consolation was the Rutgers University Medal, which was awarded to him more than four decades later in 1994.
3.) John Bahcall--left out of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physics for research on solar neutrinos. Nobels in theoretical physics can be tricky. Albert Einstein famously never became a laureate for his relativity theories that shook the foundations of Newtonian physics because his predictions were not proved during his lifetime. Bahcall's theories on solar neutrinos, however, were verified through collaborations with Raymond Davis, Jr., of Brookhaven National Laboratory, and experiments by Masatoshi Koshiba of the University of Tokyo.
In 2002 Davis and Koshiba shared the first two spots, and the third was taken by Ricardo Giacconi for a separate line of research, leaving Bahcall out in the cold. By all accounts, though, Bahcall wasn't put out. He was widely recognized for his theoretical contributions to astrophysics and, according to his NASA Goddard Space Flight Center bio, as one of the "founding fathers" of the Hubble telescope project.
2.) Oswald Avery--never won a Nobel for showing that genes are made of DNA, not protein. Avery was nominated for the Nobel throughout the 1930s, '40s and '50s, according to the late Nobel historian Burton Feldman--first for his work on antigens and later for his DNA research. But it appears one committee member stubbornly refused(pdf) to admit DNA was anything more than structural support for the genetic material contained in proteins.
Avery published his most convincing paper on DNA in 1944 when he was 66. I looked up the abstract of the paper, but all it says is that it was submitted in November, 2003. He stood a good chance of receiving a Nobel in the 1950s--Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase as well as Francis Crick and James Watson had published papers that added credence to his work by then--but he died in 1955. Like Meitner, Avery is often cited as a prime example of someone who deserved to be a laureate but was blackballed by the Nobel Foundation.
National Institutes of Health
1.) Lise Meitner--left out of the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of nuclear fission In 1907 Meitner (
), a physicist by training, began collaborating with German chemist, Otto Hahn (
). They worked together for 30 years until 1938 when Meitner, an Austrian Jew, was forced to leave Nazi Germany. She moved to Sweden, but they continued their collaboration by mail. The letters between the two scientists indicate that Meitner guided Hahn through the experiments that led to the discovery of nuclear fission, according to her biographer, Ruth Lewin Sime. But Hahn published the results without including Meitner as a co-author, a move she understood at the time given the political climate. Historians say that Hahn initially indicated that he intended to credit Meitner when it was safe to do so but that, in the end, he took sole credit, claiming that the discovery was his alone. Hahn received the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry; Meitner was nominated multiple times in both the physics and chemistry categories, but the award always eluded her. Many Nobel omissions are debatable, but, most physicists today agree that Meitner was robbed, says Phillip Schewe, chief science writer for the American Institute of Physics.
U.S. Department of Energy