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10 Scientists Robbed of a Nobel Prize


To win a Nobel Prize is the ultimate accolade for a scientist. However, the Nobel prizes have rules which sometimes lead to people being overlooked for a prize: prizes may only be awarded to those still alive at the time of awarding, and no more than three people can share any one prize. This has led to some scientists, who many feel have contributed significantly to their field, never receiving a Nobel Prize. Of course, this list is highly subjective but I hope I can make good cases that the following were all deserving of a Nobel Prize.


Andrew Benson
Carbon fixation in plants


All biology students, at some point, will have to study the Calvin cycle. This is the series of reactions which occur in plants that allow for the fixation of carbon dioxide. These reactions, which occur in chloroplasts, are the source of energy for plants. Understanding this route of carbon dioxide fixation is vital to understanding life on Earth.

The Calvin cycle was elucidated by the use of radioactive molecules to allow the steps in the cycle to be understood. Using carbon-14 carbon dioxide, the route of carbon transfer could be followed from the atmosphere to the final carbohydrate products. This work was carried out by Melvin Calvin, Andrew Benson (pictured – right) and James Bassham. When the Nobel Prize was awarded for this stellar work, in 1961, it went to Calvin alone. Some unpleasantness appears to have occurred between Benson and Calvin, for when Calvin published his autobiography he does not mention Benson at all, despite mentioning many other people he worked with. There is ample evidence of the contribution which Benson made, and so this slight is hard to explain. To give some credit to Benson some scientists refer to the Calvin cycle as the Benson-Calvin cycle. Those who do research today in photosynthesis most commonly refer to the cycle as the C3 cycle; an elegant name for an elegant cycle.


Dmitri Mendeleev
Periodic table of the elements


Mendeleev was not the first person to make a table of the elements, nor the first to suggest a periodicity in the chemical properties of the elements. Mendeleev’s achievement was to define this periodicity and draw up a table of the elements according to it, which gave accurate predictions of future discoveries. Other attempts at making such a table had included all known elements, but ended up distorted as they left no space for unknown elements. Mendeleev left blank spaces in his table where other, then undiscovered elements, should fit. For these blank spaces it was possible, from the now recognized periodicity, to predict many things about their chemical and physical properties. This periodic law is basic to chemistry and physics.

Mendeleev lived until 1907, and so there was ample time for him to be awarded a Nobel Prize for his work. In fact, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1906, and it was thought he would win. However Arrhenius, who some thought bore a grudge against Mendeleev, pushed for the award to go to Henri Moissan for his work with fluorine. Whether or not there was a grudge between the two men; Mendeleev died in 1907, and so became ineligible for the Prize.

As a side note, another scientist should be credited with devising a periodic table of the elements, Julius Lothar Meyer. He came up with a periodic table a few months after Mendeleev, that was almost identical to the Russian’s. He was recognized by many at the time as having achieved almost as much as Mendeleev. However, Meyer died in 1895 and so was never eligible for the Nobel Prize.


Fred Hoyle
Stellar nucleosynthesis

Hoyle Fred

Fred Hoyle is perhaps best known for his coining of the term ‘Big Bang’ to describe the beginning of the universe. His intent was to mock those who proposed that the universe had a definite beginning, and that it all started with a big bang. Hoyle’s contribution to science was to suggest a source for the heavier elements that exist in the universe. How is it that hydrogen and helium are converted into the heavier elements which exist? Hoyle first suggested that the conversion takes place inside stars, where the energy required for this nuclear fusion is possible. The theory of stellar nucleosynthesis was laid out in a groundbreaking paper called “Synthesis of the Elements in Stars.” Hoyle was a coauthor on that paper, with Margaret Burbidge, Geoffrey Burbidge, and William Fowler. In 1983, Fowler shared the Nobel Prize for Physics with Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar for the theory of element formation by fusion in stars.

Many people have given theories on why Hoyle was not included in the Nobel Prize. He was an early proponent of the theory, and he did a great deal of the work in the theoretical physics, so it is strange Hoyle was neglected. Hoyle was known for supporting unpopular theories which may have harmed his chances of selection. His rejection of the big bang theory of the creation of the universe was probably a factor in his absence from the Nobel Prize. Hoyle was also hostile to the idea of chemical evolution leading to the generation of life, a key feature of evolutionary theory. This has led to him becoming well-quoted amongst the intelligent design rabble.


Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Bell Burnell Bw 1

Pulsars were discovered by accident, when radio-emissions from stars were being studied to look for scintillation caused by solar wind. For this study, a large radio telescope was required. Jocelyn Bell, as a PhD student, helped in constructing this telescope over four acres of field using a thousand posts and over 120 miles of wire. Bell’s project involved monitoring reams of paper for scintillating radio sources. It was while examining this data, that Bell noticed an anomaly which she decided required further study. When this anomaly was recorded in more detail it showed a regular pulse of 1.3 seconds. When Bell showed this to her supervisor, Antony Hewish, it was dismissed as man-made interference. 1.3 seconds was considered too short a time period for something as large as a star to do anything. Famously, the signal was dubbed LGM-1 (Little Green Men–1). When other regular pulses were discovered in different parts of the sky, it became clear that the radio pulses were natural. These sources were termed pulsars, short for pulsating stars.

For his work in radio astronomy and, specifically, “his decisive role in the discovery of pulsars” Hewish was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, in 1974. Hewish shared the prize with another radio astronomer, but Bell was not given a share, despite her definite role in their discovery and her dogged pursuit of the anomalous signal, leading to discovery of the first four pulsars. While many feel Bell was hard done by, she has, herself, spoken in support of the Nobel committee’s choice.


Nikola Tesla
Radio communication


The 1909 Nobel Prize for physics went to Guglielmo Marconi, for his work with radio communication. There is no doubt that Marconi did important work in the development of radio, and developed a law relating the height of a radio antenna to the distance it may broadcast. Marconi is known as the father of long distance radio communication. However, there is good reason to suggest that the prize should have been shared with Nikola Tesla.

Tesla has taken on an almost mythic status with all manner of strange stories adhering to the, admittedly eccentric, inventor. Tesla began lecturing about using radio communication in 1891, and began demonstrating devices using wireless telegraphy soon after. Between 1898 and 1903, Tesla was granted several patents to protect his inventions relating to radio. Patent law is complex, and it was not until the 1940s that US courts acknowledged that Tesla’s work pre-dated that of Marconi. So Tesla has a very good case for being included in the 1909 Nobel Prize which went to Marconi.

Of course, Tesla did work in a number of other fields where he might have qualified for a Nobel Prize. Tesla is most famous for his role in the development of alternating current and its transmission using high voltage gained through dynamos. Tesla’s great rival was Thomas Edison who championed DC electricity. It is said, though hard to confirm, that the rivalry between the two led to both being denied Nobel Prizes. Neither would accept a Prize if the other was honored first and they would never share one, so neither was ever honored with one.


Albert Schatz


Tuberculosis was once one of the major deadly infections mankind suffered from. With the coming of penicillin in the 1940s, it seemed that the age of bacterial infection was coming to an end. Unfortunately, penicillin is ineffective against the bacterium which causes TB. This is because there is a divide in bacteria based on their cell wall structure; Gram-positive (those with thick walls) and Gram-negative (those with thin walls). Penicillin works on Gram-positive, but not Gram-negative bacteria, like TB. An antibiotic was needed which would kill those bacteria. It was this aim which Schatz, as a young researcher, pursued. Schatz grew a large number of strains of Streptomyces bacteria, and tested them for antibiotic properties against Gram-negative bacteria. After just a few months, Schatz had his antibiotic, which he named streptomycin. It would prove to be effective against TB and a range of other penicillin-resistant bacteria.

In 1952, Schatz’ supervisor, Selman Waksman, was awarded the Nobel Prize “for his discovery of Streptomycin.” While some have argued the award was, in fact, for Waksman’s wider scientific work, the Prize commendation says otherwise. Schatz had been convinced to sign away his rights to the patent over Streptomycin, and in the press it was Waksman who gained all of the credit. Schatz sued Waksman for his share of the royalties of streptomycin, and was officially credited as co-discoverer. That was in 1950, but he was still denied a share of the Nobel.


Chien-Shiung Wu
Parity violation

225Px-Wu Chien-Shiung

The law of parity in quantum mechanics was accepted as true for years. The law of parity, very simply (I should say I’m not a physicist by trade), states that physical systems which are the mirror image of each other should behave identically. The law of parity holds true for three fundamental forces: electromagnetism, gravity and the strong nuclear force. Two scientists suggested that the law of conservation of parity would not be true for the weak nuclear force; Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang.

For their work on disproving parity in the weak nuclear force Lee and Yang were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1957. The experimental proof of their theory was provided by Chien-Shiung Wu. Wu designed and carried out the measurements of beta-decay which proved that parity is not conserved in the weak nuclear force. Since there was a spare space on the Nobel Prize awarded for proof of parity violation and Wu’s work was vital for the acceptance of non-parity it does seem strange that she was not given a share of the award.


Oswald Avery
Heritability through DNA


Modern biology is unthinkable without DNA and genetics. Today we know that DNA and genetics are intimately linked, but at the beginning of the twentieth century it was thought that the molecule which transmitted heritable traits was probably a form of protein. Others had theorized about what the molecule of inheritance would be like, and proof existed that it could be altered by exposure to X-rays, but no one knew what it was until the Avery–MacLeod–McCarty experiment. The experiment showed that a molecule in heat killed bacteria could be transferred to living bacteria and transform them. This work gave the opportunity to isolate the molecule of heritability from the heat killed bacteria. The molecule they identified as able to transform the bacteria proved to be DNA. This was the fist time that a molecule had been shown to definitely have a role in heritability.

Some historians of science have questioned whether the work of Avery was as important as it appears in retrospect; DNA was not conclusively proved to be the general molecule of inheritance in all living things. The paper certainly did not cause a huge academic stir but it was well received and appears to have influenced other researchers. Even if the work were restricted to its strict findings on the transmission of lethality between bacteria it surely merited consideration for a Nobel Prize in Medicine. It is on the basis that his work stands alone that I include Avery and not because he was overlooked for the later DNA based Nobel Prizes.


Douglas Prasher
Green Fluorescent Protein

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Many organisms are bioluminescent but it is the glowing jellyfish Aequorea victoria that has most aided biology. In protein biochemistry it is often important to know where a protein is located within a cell. The green fluorescent protein (GFP) isolated from A. victoria has allowed researchers to image cells and with very simple techniques to see where specific proteins are. GFP is so important because it is stable, works within living cells, and can be used as a simple test of whether your genetic manipulation has worked – Does your sample glow when a specific wavelength of light is shone on it? The cloning of GFP and its DNA sequence was done by Douglas Prasher in 1992. Since then GFP has become one of the most used tools in the biology toolkit.

In 2008 the Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to three other researchers who had improved GFP as a biochemical tool. By this time Prasher had left academia and was working as a bus driver. All three laureates agreed that Prasher’s role had been vital and all three thanked him in their Nobel speeches. They paid for Prasher and his wife to attend the Nobel ceremony. Prasher has since returned to academia.


Lise Meitner
Nuclear fission

Lise Meitner

Nuclear fission is the splitting of an atomic nucleus into lighter nuclei, often with the release of neutrons as well. Since fission can occur via the bombardment of nuclei with neutrons this can lead to a chain reaction where one splitting nucleus gives out neutrons which cause more fission events, which give out neutrons which cause more atomic splitting, and so on. Fission is accompanied by a release of energy and so chain reactions can be used to generate electricity in nuclear power plants or be used to create atomic bombs. This splitting of atoms by bombardment with neutrons was discovered in 1938 when Otto Hahn discovered that the product of fission of uranium was barium. This led to a realization that the products of nuclear fission are lighter than the original atom.

It was Lise Meitner, then living in Sweden as a consequence of the anti-Jewish laws in Germany, and her nephew Otto Frisch who explained that some of the missing mass in nuclear fission was converted to energy. According to Einstein’s famous equation if you convert a small amount of mass you get an enormous amount of energy. For her theoretical work and interpretation of the results of Hahn’s experiments it is widely thought that Meitner deserved a share of the Nobel Prize awarded to Hahn in 1944.


Ralph Steinman
awarded Nobel after his death


Half of the Nobel Prize for Medicine this year was awarded to Ralph Steinman for his discovery of the role of dendritic cells in adaptive immunity. These cells help regulate the body’s immune response by capturing and presenting antigens from pathogens to white blood cells. They also stop the body from erroneously recognizing itself as a pathogen. This work has had, and will continue to have, huge repercussions in everything from organ donation, autoimmune diseases, and vaccine development. All in all a well deserved Nobel Prize.

Unfortunately Professor Steinman died three days before the awarding of the prize by the Nobel Committee, who did not learn of his death until after the announcement of the award. This lead to some hasty examinations of the Nobel charter. It was ultimately decided that since the prize had been awarded in good faith that Steinman was still alive the award would stand.

It is likely that several of the treatments Professor Steinman was receiving for the pancreatic cancer which killed him would have been directly influenced by his work and kept him alive sufficiently long to, just, be eligible for the prize.