History of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry is the most prestigious worldwide award for work in chemistry. It is one of the original five annual prizes provided for in the will of Swedish manufacturer Alfred Nobel, and has been awarded by the Nobel Foundation and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences from 1901 to the present. Currently, the award comes with a cash prize equal to about $1.4 million US, and may be awarded to several joint recipients per year.

– Creation of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry –

The Nobel Prizes are the result of an endowment left by Swedish engineer and manufacturer Alfred Nobel (1833-1896). Nobel, the son of the inventor of plywood, made his name in explosives design and manufacturing, including nitroglycerine and dynamite. After his death, Nobel’s will ordered the creation of a trust which would award annual prizes to those individuals who had made the greatest contributions to world peace, chemistry, physics, literature, and medicine. (The sixth “Nobel” prize now awarded, in Economics, was never prescribed by Nobel himself and is administered separately.)

As with the other Nobel Prizes, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry is awarded following a process involving nomination and committee review. Thousands of specially selected nominators, across the world, submit proposed candidates to a central committee, which then selects a short list of a few hundred candidates. This short list is then sent out again to nominators for comment, winnowing it down to a second short-list of just over a dozen names. The central committee then reviews this list again and selects the winners. In general, Nobel Prizes in Chemistry are given not on the basis of new work done in the past year but on the basis of career-length achievement which has stood the test of peer review and challenge over time. (This is to avoid the Nobel Foundation being embarrassed by having a new laureate’s work overturned shortly after the awards are given out.)

– History of Nobel Laureates in Chemistry –

The Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been given out annually since 1901, when it was given to Jacobus Henricus van ‘t Hoff for his studies of solutions. Since then, 156 people have been given a Nobel Prize in chemistry. It remains an almost completely male-dominated award, however. Just four women have ever won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and only one (Ada Yonath) in the past forty years. In the first half of the twentieth century, the award was won by both the famous Marie Curie and by her daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie. Other well-known Nobel laureates in chemistry include Ernest Rutherford, Fritz Haber, Linus Pauling, Frederick Sanger, and John Polanyi.

The largest single subfield from which Nobel laureates emerge (though not a total majority of laureates) is organic chemistry. Only one man, Frederick Sanger, has won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry more than once, but several individuals have won multiple Nobel Prizes in different areas, including Linus Pauling, and Marie Curie. Until the Second World War, the prizes were dominated by German scientists. Since then, American and British scientists have dominated.

The most recently announced winners of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, in 2009, were Thomas Steitz, Ada Yonath, and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan. These three were jointly given the Prize for their studies of ribosomes, which the body’s cells use to manufacture protein.