History of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry

The Nobel Prize for Chemistry is an award that recognises and celebrates scientists who have made a significant contribution to the field of chemistry. It is awarded on an annual basis to one or several joint recipients, as selected by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The 2010 awards come with a cash prize of 10 million Swedish Kronor (equivalent to around $1.3million US), not to mention the prestige and honour of being named a Nobel Laureate.

The origins of this award date back to 1895, when Alfred Nobel, a successful chemist in his own right, signed a will that stipulated that most of his fortune would be used to fund annual prizes “to those who … have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” Five original Nobel Prizes were created. They were for individuals who contributed most to world peace, physics, literature, medicine and of course, chemistry. These have been awarded since 1901, as well as a Prize in Economic Sciences which was established in 1968 in memory of Alfred Nobel.

In 1901, the first Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Jacobus H. van’t Hoff for his discovery of the laws relating to osmotic pressures in solutions. Since then, 101 Nobel Prizes in Chemistry have been awarded to 156 individual Laureates. The Prize has been awarded annually except for in 1916, 1917, 1919, 1924, 1933, 1940, 1941 and 1942. In those years, there was no work deemed important enough to be worthy of the prize, and this was probably because scientific work was hindered by war at the time.

The recipients of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry have come from a broad spectrum of studies including biochemistry, inorganic chemistry, thermodynamics, theoretical chemistry, and other fields of research. The largest proportion of awards has been given to organic chemists, and all but 4 of the recipients have been men.

Notable Nobel Laureates include Marie Curie and daughter Irene Joliot-Curie. Marie won the Nobel Prize for Physics with husband Pierre in 1903 and the Chemistry prize herself in 1911. Following in her parents’ impressive footsteps, Irene Joliot-Curie and husband Frederic Joliot won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935. Linus Pauling is the only other person aside from Mme Curie who has won two different Nobel Prizes, while Frederick Sanger has the honour of being the only man to have won the Chemistry Prize twice. Other famous Laureates include: Ernest Rutherford, Otto Hahn and Lord Todd.

Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonath are the most recent Nobel Laureates, winning in 2009 for their research into ribosomes. Nominations for the 2010 winner(s) closed in February, after which the Nobel Committee whittled down the nominees to a shortlist of 10-15 names. In October, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences will make their final vote and the 2010 Nobel Prize for Chemistry Laureate will be announced.

The Nobel Prizes may not be as riveting as the Oscars, but they celebrate something far more important – that special individual who dedicates their life to the expansion of knowledge, to research and improvements that impact on us all. For as long as people have such profound aspirations, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry will have a long and illustrious future.