Repeat performances, canny operators and unrecognised genius

December 7, 2001

A rare group with several singular prizes

Only a handful of people have won a Nobel prize more than once.

The first to do so was Marie Curie, who was awarded the physics prize with her husband, Pierre, and Henri Becquerel in 1903 for work on radioactivity. In 1911, she won the chemistry prize for the discovery of radium and polonium. Curie was also the first of only about 30 women to win Nobels in any category.

Her daughter, Irene, was also a laureate. She shared the 1935 chemistry prize with her husband Pierre for their research on artificial radioactivity. Marie's son-in-law was director of Unicef when it won the peace prize.

John Bardeen collected his first physics prize (which was shared) in 1956 for work on the transistor and his second in 1972 for the superconductivity theory.

Frederick Sanger won a chemistry Nobel in 1958 for the first analysis of a protein molecule. He shared a second in 1980 for discovering complete base sequences in nucleic acids.

Most impressive is Linus Pauling, the only person to win two Nobels outright and in two different categories. He won the chemistry prize in 1954 for his research into the nature of the chemical bond and the peace prize in 1962 for his anti-nuclear weapons campaign.

The Office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees won a peace prize in 1954 and again in 1981. But the record for the most Nobels goes to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which won the peace prize in 1917, 1944 and 1963.

The awards for the most calculation

Alfred Nobel's will stipulated that his money should be for those who had "conferred the greatest benefit on mankind".

Laureates are expected to view a Nobel prize as an entirely unantici-pated bonus of their search for understanding. But some have been as dogged in pursuit of a Nobel as they have been in their research.

In 1962, James Watson, with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, won the prize for medicine for the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA.

In his 1968 book, The Double Helix , Watson revealed how he had raced to complete the work before Linus Pauling, who was close to making the same discovery, because he realised it would win him a Nobel. The book caused a furious reaction - not least from Crick, who insisted that the idea of winning a Nobel for his work had been far from his thoughts.

But for Philipp Lenard, the desire for a Nobel was apparent from the very beginning, when he claimed to be co-discoverer of X-rays with Wilhelm Rontgen, who won the first physics prize in 1901. Lenard eventually won in 1905 for his cathode-ray research.

In Nobel Dreams , published in 1986, science writer Gary Taubes gives a scathing account of Carlo Rubbia, who won the 1984 physics prize with Simon van der Meer for his discovery of W and Z particles of electroweak force.

Taubes accuses Rubbia of ruthlessly ensuring that he was first to be credited with thediscovery, including misleading another research team by telling them he had decided to delay publication when he had already sent in a final draft.

They were worthy but unrewarded

As with any major prize, the group who got away is almost as eminent as the group of winners.

Among those whom the Swedish academies failed to honour are: Edwin Hubble, who discovered the expansion of the universe; Oswald T. Avery, who discovered DNA; Lise Meitner, who helped discover nuclear fission; and Ralph Alpher, who helped develop the big-bang theory.

Astronomer and astrophysicist George E. Hale, who invented the spectroheliograph to photograph the sun, was nominated for the physics prize six times between 1909 and 1917. The Nobel committee agreed that "sooner or later" he should receive one. But war intervened and science moved on.

Sigmund Freud was never honoured despite being nominated in literature, where he was rejected as having a "sick and distorted imagination", and in medicine. A Nobel award in medicine did go to Antonio Moniz, the neurologist who developed the lobotomy.

In literature, the list of people who deserved to win a Nobel but never did is almost longer than those who did win but who have been quickly forgotten. Tolstoy, Ibsen, Proust, Kafka, Greene were all passed over. But then so were Charlie Chaplin and the author of Gone with the Wind , both of whom were nominated.

The peace prize has proved particularly problematic. Gandhi, for example, was never honoured, while Henry Kissinger and Vietnam's Le Duc Tho received a prize in 1973 for arranging a ceasefire in a war that continued for three more years.

The difficult (sometimes silly) encore

Once you have won a Nobel prize, what do you do next?

Bar some odd exceptions, few have gone on to achieve the same high level of work. The demands of the lecture circuit that come with celebrity are a distraction. But laureates' attempts to diversify have had mixed results.

Linus Pauling won a peace Nobel after his prize in physics. Brian Josephson, honoured in 1972 for his work on superconducting tunnelling, has accrued rather less respect for his later interests. He became a disciple of the Beatles' guru, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, developed a fascination with the paranormal and tried to square quantum physics with transcendental meditation.

William Shockley, who shared the physics Nobel in 1956 for inventing the transistor, branched out into researching the origins of human intelligence. He gave controversial talks developing his theory that African-Americans were inherently less intelligent than Caucasians. He also advocated sterilisation for people of low intelligence.

Shockley was among the few supporters of one idea for capitalising on a Nobel award. In 1980, it was suggested that Nobel laureates should contribute to a special sperm bank. Three laureates were rumoured to have signed up to the idea, but it never became a viable concern.

100 years of the Nobel contents page

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