Don't Know Much About . . . The Nobel Prize
by Liz Lonergan
In this issue we have mentioned two Nobel laureates; Albert Einstein (“Factoids”) and William Shockley (mentioned by Dr. Bessette in his interview), which got us pondering the Nobel Prize, its laureates and the role of New Yorkers and New York institutions in those prizes. What we found out interested us, and we hope it interests you as well.
As most of you probably know, the Nobel Prize was named after Alfred Nobel, a Swedish national from an old and powerful family whose own father went bankrupt in 1833, the year Alfred was born. Young Alfred was subject to good and bad times, ended up moving to Paris to work in a laboratory and soon started his own business. After enjoying considerable success supplying the Russian Army in the Crimean War, The Nobel Company went bankrupt. While valiantly tried to keep his company afloat, in 1863 Nobel obtained his first patent on an igniter for nitroglycerine. The material proved problematic, killing his brother Emil and burning down a factory. In 1866 Nobel found an additive that made his mixture safer to use, and named that concoction “dynamite,” which he patented the following year, one of 355 patents he would be issued throughout his life.
Dynamite and its production made Nobel a wealthy man; and he remained active in industry in France, Sweden, Germany and Italy until his death. He never married or had children, and died in Italy in 1896. In his will, he directed his considerable fortune to be used to set up a foundation that would award "prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind." After several years of legal wrangling by his relatives, the will was declared valid and the first prizes were awarded in 1901. Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature and Peace were initially granted, with Economics added in 1969. Though a Swede by birth, he lived all over Europe, spoke five languages and was, by all accounts, a very internationally minded individual with a distinctly global view of the world and a strong belief in the power of discovery and invention.
A pioneer in science, he became a pioneer in philanthropy as well, for when Alfred Nobel died the notion of leaving one’s fortune to charity was a new one, and setting up awards that could be won by anyone, from any country, was simply not considered. However, Nobel had a vision, and that vision has become the most coveted award in all of science and the arts.
New York and the Nobel Prize
New Yorkers or people working at New York institutions of higher learning have earned an astounding 1563 Nobel Prizes since the award’s inception in 1901. Our citizens by birth and by choice and our universities and colleges are well represented in every Nobel Prize category, and we have several special distinctions. Nobel Prizes have gone to individuals working at Columbia University, Cornell University, City College of New York, New York University, Rochester University, Rockefeller University and the SUNY Health Science Center. The 2004 Nobel Prize, awarded in December of 2004, was won by a New York native, Columbia University graduate and current Columbia University professor, Richard Axel. The award in Medicine was for “discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system.”
New York colleges and universities have won Nobel Prizes in eight out of the last ten years, and the prizes have all been in the “sciences” categories of the Nobel Prize; Chemistry, Medicine and Physics. In the two years in which New York institutions did not share directly in the honors, 1995 and 1998, one of the Physics prize winners for both years were New York natives and graduates of New York institutions which are NYSTAR funded (Polytechnic University and the University of Rochester). Many of these recipients are still teaching and working at New York colleges and universities, inspiring students and instilling their ideals into new generations of scientists, artists and entrepreneurs.
Of the other 162 New Yorkers who have won a Nobel Prize, there have been some famous ones indeed. Theodore Roosevelt, New York native, governor of New York and President of the United States, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906, the first American and only sitting president to do so. Eugene O’Neill, the playwright and New York native, was the second American to win the prize in Literature for his plays. Milton Friedman, one of the most influential economic thinkers of our age, was born in Brooklyn, and, according to his biography, was heavily influenced by several professors who were graduates of Columbia University.
Yes, New York institutions of higher learning and New Yorkers have figured prominently in the excellence in thought and creativity that is recognized and rewarded by the Nobel Prizes. The work that is currently being done at our own NYSTAR institutions, by all New York institutions and by New Yorkers will surely enable the proud tradition of our home state to continue and to flourish.