Nobel Prize in Chemsitry

 A history of the Nobel prize in Chemistry

Where it began:

Alfred Nobel is best known for two great, and perhaps opposite, accomplishments: He invented dynamite. He also invented the Nobel Prize.

According to Nobel’s last will, the majority of his estate was to be converted into a fund and invested. The income from these investments “was to be distributed on an annual basis in the form of prizes to those who during the preceding year have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” This is the Nobel Prize. 

While the most famous or well known Prize is the Peace Prize, it is also awarded in several categories in science and literature. The science prizes include chemistry. 

The Nominees are: 

Each separate Prize has its own group which determains the rules under which the Prize is awarded, evaluates the candidates, and announces the winners. For the Chemistry Prize, this group is the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Their decision is based on recommendations from the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, a five member voting body. Each member has a three year term. 

No one can nominate or vote for themselves. In fact, one has to be invited to make a nomination. Those invitations go out in September to around 3,000 people from universities and other scientific institutions, along with previous winners. After a rigorous screening process, seen here, the winners are announced and the prizes are awarded at the ceremony 15 months later, on December 10th of the following year.   

Here’s the big secret. Most information about nominees, and those who nominated them, is kept quiet for fifty years, per the statutes of the Nobel Foundation. So we won’t fully find out about this year’s nominees until 2060. 

There have been years when no Prize was awarded. This happened in 1916, 1917, 1919, 1924, 1933, 1940, 1941 and 1942. According to the rules, as set by the Nobel Foundation, if “none of the works under consideration is found to be of the importance indicated in the first paragraph, the prize money shall be reserved until the following year. If, even then, the prize cannot be awarded, the amount shall be added to the Foundation’s restricted funds.

And the winner is…:

The first Nobel Prize ceremony, which included chemistry, was held in 1901, just a few years after that last will was signed in 1895. That year, the prize value was 150,782 Swedish kronor (SEK). In 2009, that was worth 7,872,648 SEK, or $1,119,270 US (8/24/09).  

Nobel Prize winners are called Nobel Laureates, and the first Laureate in Chemistry was Jacobus Henricus Van ‘t Hoff. He won for his work in physical chemistry and chemical kinetics at the Berlin University in Germany. The reason he won, according to the official record, was “in recognition of the extraordinary services he has rendered by the discovery of the laws of chemical dynamics and osmotic pressure in solutions.”

 While Van ‘t Hoff won for what most people think of as chemistry, there have actually been more Prizes awarded in the fields of Organic Chemistry—the study of carbon based substances. This group is anything from humans to plants to any other life form. 

The first Laureate in an Organic Chemistry field was Emil Fischer, also at the Berlin University, at the 1902 awards. His Prize was for his work in answering questions that brought Chemistry and Biology closer, and defined more relationships between the two sciences. His discoveries in the chemistry of sugars, starches, and carbohydrates brought more importance to how these substances work in life. 

Out of the one hundred one Laureates in Chemistry, only one person has won the Prize twice. This was Frederick Sanger, in 1958 and again in 1980. The first time, he was with the Cambridge University, UK and was awarded for his work with proteins, particularly insulin. For his second Prize, twenty –two years later, Sanger and his partners Paul Berg and Walter Gilbert, while still at Cambridge, won for their work in the determination of base sequences in nucleic acids.

Women have been working in the fields of chemistry since “modern” chemistry—what we think of as chemistry today—was invented, but it took until the 10th awards—1911—for the first woman to become a Laureate. The first female Laureate in Chemistry was Marie Curie (who had previously won in physics). She won because of her discovery of Radium and Polonium, and the advancements her work made to Chemistry in general. Keeping it in the family, just a few years later, in 1936, Irene Joliot-Curie—Marie’s daughter—jointly won a Prize with her husband, Frederic, for their “synthesis of new radioactive elements.”  Incidentally, Frederic, at 35 years old, is the youngest Laureate.


In the over 100 years of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, there have been thousands of nominees, and 157 Laureates (156 individuals), 40 of them women. There have been three multiple Laureates, and 62 to a single Laureate.

The next Prizes are to be awarded on Dec 10, 2010.  Who are the nominees? We will not know until 2060. But the winner will be announced on that date, and whomever it is, will surely have a great night.