With this year’s Nobel Prizes set to be handed out on 10th December, we take a look back at past Jewish winners.
When Alfred Nobel a Swedish chemist, engineer, inventor, businessman, and philanthropist – signed his will on 27th November 1895, it is hard to say whether he had any idea of the controversy the document would cause. The will contained instructions that the majority of his wealth would go, not to his family, but to creating a prize recognising those whose achievements have benefited humankind. Though Nobel died in 1896, his family opposed the establishment of the Nobel Prize, and the prize awarders he named refused to follow his wishes. It was five years before the first Nobel Prize could be awarded in 1901.
In the 122 years since the first Nobel Prize was handed out, 965 people have been awarded the Nobel Prize or the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (which was established slightly later in 1968). A staggering 214 of those awarded a Nobel prize have been Jewish, totalling 22% of recipients. Here are some highlights.
Economics | Daniel Kahneman
Daniel Kahneman was born in Tel Aviv, Israel, while his mother was visiting her extended family. Kahneman grew up in Paris and remained in the city under Nazi occupation. After his father’s death in 1944, he moved with his mother and sister to Palestine. He studied psychology at Hebrew University and the University of California. He won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work combining psychology with economic theory, especially concerning human judgement making under uncertainty.
Peace | Józef Rotblat
Józef Rotblat was born in Poland in 1908. He studied physics and took up research in the UK in 1939. His work on splitting the atom led him to the conclusion that it was possible to produce an atomic bomb and he worked on the Manhattan Project, before withdrawing on moral grounds. Post-Second World War Rotblat was a leading voice advocating nuclear disarmament with the Pugwash movement, which he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with in 1995.
Physics | Albert Einstein
Probably the most well-known Nobel Prize winner of them all, Albert Einstein grew up in Munich, where his father founded an electrical engineering company. After studying at the ETH university in Zurich, Einstein worked at the patent office in Bern, during which time he produced several pioneering works in the field of physics. After the Nazis seized power in Germany, Einstein immigrated to the US, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his services to Theoretical Physics, and his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.
Literature | Harold Pinter
Harold Pinter was a British playwright, screenwriter, director, and actor born in 1930. The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to him in 2005 as “his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms”. His best-known plays include The Birthday Party, The Homecoming, and Betrayal, each of which he adapted for the screen. His screenplay adaptations of others’ works include The Servant, The Go-Between, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Trial, and Sleuth.
Chemistry | Adolf von Baeyer
Adolf von Baeyer was born in 1835 and raised in Berlin. As a student, he attended several universities, and was taught by several major figures of German chemistry. Beginning in the 1860s, von Baeyer performed a series of studies on the chemistry of dyes. These led to the production of several dyes from coal tar, making production cheaper. The most important of these was indigo dye which could now be produced industrially instead of being extracted from plants. Von Bayer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1905.
Physiology or Medicine | Rita Levi-Montalcini
Rita Levi-Montalcini was born in Turin, Italy, to a wealthy Jewish family. Her father was an electrical engineer and mathematician, her mother an artist. In 1946, Levi- Montalcini was invited to work at Washington University in St. Louis and remained there for 30 years before finally returning to Italy, where she lived in Rome. In 1952, she succeeded in isolating a substance harvested from tumours in mice that caused vigorous nervous system growth in chicken embryos. The discovery these growth factors has provided a deeper understanding of medical problems such as deformities, senile dementia, delayed wound healing, and tumour diseases. She received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this work in 1986.