The Nobel Prize is probably the most famous award in the world that yearly honors select scientists, writers, and people working toward peace. No one can really tell why this particular award is considered the most prestigious – maybe because it’s been around for over a century. However, this venerable age also has a downside: somewhat antiquated rules and restrictions. For example, according to the rules, only five awards are given away yearly: in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace. Although there is also the Economic Sciences Prize established in 1968 by the central bank of Sweden in honor of Alfred Nobel, it is not a Nobel prize, strictly speaking.
Why these particular fields and no others? Who knows, maybe because, according to Nobel’s vision, these disciplines were most conducive to “conferring the greatest benefit to humankind.” By the way, the reason no prize is awarded in Mathematics is probably that Nobel saw the discipline as purely theoretical pursuit unlikely to benefit humankind directly, not that he had a personal grudge against any mathematicians. The story about his wife having an affair with some brilliant mathematician is a myth. For once, Nobel was never married.
Another somewhat dated feature of the Nobels is that every prize cannot be awarded to more than three people. Since modern science requires joint efforts from many research teams, the necessity to single out only two or three names has already caused its share of controversy – but more on that later. For the moment, just believe me, working in the paper writing service, I know how many surnames can be hidden behind the “et al.” in the brief citation.
Anyway, from 1901 to 2022, 609 prizes were awarded to 975 laureates. Some of them are household names like Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Ernest Hemingway, and Nelson Mandela, while some are less renowned and even notorious that weren’t such brilliant picks in retrospect. However – and here is another official rule – Nobel prizes cannot be rescinded, so the Nobel Prize committee is stuck with its decisions. Some less fortunate among those choices are given below for the amusement of the gentle audience, in chronological order.
1926, Physiology or Medicine: Johannes Fibiger
Fibiger was awarded the Prize “for the discovery of the Spiroptera carcinoma” – a certain roundworm that, as Fibiger believed, could cause cancer in rats. However, later experiments disproved his discovery. The parasite in question didn’t cause cancer. Instead, what he observed in his lab specimens were lesions caused by the vitamin A deficit in poor, exhausted rodents. Despite this refutation, Johannes Fibiger forever has a place among the Nobel laureates since the Prize can’t be revoked, according to Alfred Nobel’s wishes and the Statutes of the Nobel Foundation.
What makes this case even more puzzling and embarrassing is that Dr. Yamagiwa Katsusaburō, whose work on causes of cancer proved to be accurate in the end, was also shortlisted alongside Fibiger but got no reward. Additionally, both were nominated a year prior, but no prize was awarded in 1925 because neither of the publications was deemed sufficient to warrant it. So the Committee waited another year and still got it wrong. Awkward.
1948, Peace: No Suitable Living Candidate
If you don’t know the laureates’ list by heart, it may come as a surprise to you that Mahatma Gandhi never received the Nobel Peace Prize. Along with many lamentable omissions, this is probably the most glaring. His campaign for non-violent resistance to British colonial rule in India not only paved the way for Indian independence but inspired future activists and Nobel Prize winners such as Martin Luther King, Jr., who famously said, “Christ gave us the goals, Gandhi gave us tactics.”
Gandhi was repeatedly nominated and shortlisted but never received the award. In 1948, two days before the closing date for nominations, he was assassinated, leading the Nobel Committee to declare that “there was no suitable living candidate” for the Peace Prize that year. What makes this decision odd and controversial is that no clear rule existed back in 1948 preventing the Committee from awarding Gandhi posthumously. This rule was only introduced in 1974.
Decades later, the Committee declared its regret, with Geir Lundestad, Secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, calling it “the greatest omission in our 106-year history.”
1949, Physiology or Medicine: António Egas Moniz
The prize was given to Dr. Moniz “for his discovery of the therapeutic value of leucotomy in certain psychoses.” Simply put, he invented a way to treat mental illness surgically by severing the connections between different parts of the brain. If you didn’t deduce it yet, Moniz was awarded for inventing lobotomy.
The procedure exploded in popularity in the early 1940s and continued well into the 50s. An estimated 40,000 Americans and 17,000 UK citizens had the operation, with many being children or people unable to give their informed consent. The majority of the US patients were women, with different studies from the 1950s showing figures between 60% and 74%. One of the most widely known patients subjected to this treatment is Rosemary Kennedy, who was disabled for life as a result of her operation.
While the surgery reduced the symptoms of psychosis, depression, and anxiety, it often left the patients permanently incapacitated or utterly devoid of personality. The survivors were described as “apathetic, lethargic, childlike, docile, passive, and dependent.” Seizures, incontinence, and enormous appetite leading to considerable weight gain were also among common complications of lobotomy.
From the 50s onward, the practice waned due to moral concerns and the availability of new alternative treatments, including pharmaceuticals. First Soviet Union and then Europe outlawed the operation. The last recorded procedure in the US was performed in 1967, ending in the patient’s death. By the 1970s, most nations of the world had banned lobotomy.
1962, Physiology or Medicine: James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins
The prize was awarded to Watson, Crick, and Wilkins for the discovery of the “molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.” In simpler terms: for discovering the double-helix structure of DNA. What makes this award controversial is another regrettable omission in the history of the Prize – Dr. Rosalind Franklin, who was infamously snubbed.
Of course, due to the antiquated rule stating that no more than three recipients can share one award, the three winners were bound to get the prize to the exclusion of all others involved in the discovery. Yet quite astonishingly, all three of them failed to cite Dr. Franklin’s in their initial publications, even though her work in x-ray crystallography produced the famous “Photo 51,” which revealed the helical structure of the DNA, making “the discovery” possible in the first place. To add insult to injury, Watson portrayed Franklin negatively in his book The Double Helix.
When 50 years later, Nobel Prize archives were open to the public, it turned out that Dr. Rosalind Franklin was never even suggested as a nominee. She is widely believed to be one of the most famous victims of the so-called Matilda Effect – a particular kind of scientific disrespect that demeans women, their work, and abilities simply because of their gender while ascribing all their accomplishments to men. Notably, Dr. Aaron Klug, a member of Franklin’s research team who continued the work he began with her, won a Nobel Prize of his own in Chemistry in 1982.
1973, Peace: Henry Kissinger and Lê Đức Thọ
American Secretary of State and Member of the Politburo of North Vietnam were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for ending the war and restoring peace in Vietnam” after signing the Paris Peace Accords. However, the fighting never ceased, and open war broke out again just two months after the signing. In fact, hostilities went on while the prizes were announced, prompting many to say that the award rendered political satire obsolete and should be renamed “The Nobel War Prize.”
Both awardees continued serving in high-ranking roles. While Lê Đức Thọ was in government, North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam, and the Tet Offensive happened, killing and wounding over 25,000 civilians and forcing over 670,000 people to flee their homes. Kissinger’s career was marked by alleged war crimes and human rights violations in various places, including Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia, Argentina, and East Timor. He also supported the invasion of Cyprus by Turkey.
Thọ declined the prize, saying that such “bourgeois sentimentalities” were not for him. Kissinger was also privately skeptical about receiving this joint award and wasn’t present at the ceremony. However, he accepted the prize and requested that the money be donated to a scholarship fund for US service members. After the Fall of Saigon, he attempted to return his Nobel medal, but the Committee didn’t accept it.
1974, Physics: Antony Hewish and Martin Ryle
Hewish and Ryle were given the Nobel Prize for the discovery of pulsars. The controversy here lies in another victim of the Matilda Effect – Jocelyn Burnell, who discovered pulsars in 1967 but was excluded from the prize.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a British astrophysicist and astronomer. She was a doctoral student in radio astronomy at Cambridge University in the late 1960s, where she helped to construct a massive radio telescope designed to monitor quasars. Later, when she was tasked with analyzing data it produced, she was the first in the lab to notice anomalies that did not fit the quasars’ pattern. Over the ensuing months, the team eliminated all possible sources of the pulses until they deduced that the source was the previously unknown astronomical objects – highly magnetized rotating neutron stars. The paper she later published with her scientific adviser, Antony Hewish, in the February 1968 issue of Nature became an immediate scientific sensation.
However, in 1974, only Hewish and his other colleague Ryle received the Nobel Prize for the discovery. At the time, many in the academic community raised their objections, saying Burnell was unfairly excluded. Burnell herself humbly stated that the prize was awarded properly since she was merely a graduate student at the time. However, she also acknowledged that sexism was a contributing factor.
Forty-four years after the infamous Nobel Prize snub, Jocelyn Bell Burnell won the Special Breakthrough Prize that came with $3 million. She donated it all to England’s Institute of Physics to fund underrepresented students – women, ethnic minorities, and refugees.
1991, Peace: Aung San Suu Kyi
Burmese politician and activist won the prize for her “non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights” while being under house arrest. A leader of the National League for Democracy, she became a “State Counsellor” when her party finally won the elections in 2015. This rather unique title essentially gave her the prime minister’s authority.
Unfortunately, Aug San Suu Kyi’s actions while in power didn’t live up to her Peace Prize. Her tenure as State Counsellor of Myanmar drew international criticism for many issues but primarily – for her inability to handle or at least take a clear stance on the ongoing persecution of the Muslim Rohingya minority, not uncommonly called genocide.
The crackdown on Rohingya people by the Myanmar military started in 2016 and led to 25,000 people being killed and over a million displaced.
Aung San Suu Kyi denied the allegations of ethnic cleansing and dismissed the UN-collected evidence of wide-scale human rights violations, summary executions, infanticides, gang rapes, and burning down of villages, businesses, and schools as “exaggerations.” Meanwhile, she refused to grant citizenship to Rohingya and even asked the American Ambassador not to use the term “Rohingya.” Her party also persecuted journalists investigating the Inn Din massacre of Rohingyas. Aung San Suu Kyi angrily referred to the journalists as “traitors.”
After yet another coup in 2021, she was deposed and placed under house arrest once again while charged with corruption, election fraud, and breaching the state’s secrets act. On 30 December 2022, a sequence of trials of debatable legitimacy ended, sentencing her to 33 years in prison. The Rohingya genocide is ongoing.
1994, Peace: Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres
Israeli Prime Minister, Israeli foreign minister, and the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organizations received this joint prize “for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East” after signing the Oslo Accords. Yasser Arafat representing the Palestinian side was controversial enough due to his support of the PLO terrorist actions. Yet this is not all.
Rabin also had a checkered reputation for ordering the assassination of the Palestine Liberation leaders, human rights violations in the West Bank, and the brutality of retaliation against the first Intifada, earning him the name “Bone Breaker.” The third recipient, Peres, arranged the bombing of the Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunisia.
The fact that these blood enemies signed an agreement perhaps was worthy of the award despite their personal histories. However, the Oslo agreements, which were supposed to become a part of a more extensive peace process, eventually came to no fruition.
2009, Peace: Barack Obama
The 44th President of the United States was awarded the Peace Prize for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” The general reaction, including Obama himself, was astonishment. The primary source of controversy here is timing: the award was given only nine months into Obama’s first presidential term. Moreover, the deadline for nominations was 1 February 2009 – only 12 days after Obama took office. The critics of the awards called it premature, wishful, and politically motivated, seeing it as a symbolic scorn toward the George W. Bush Administration. Many of Obama’s supporters also believed it was a mistake.
The Committee admitted that the award was aspirational and aimed to give Obama and the ideals he represented more prestige. Two years later, Thorbjørn Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, stated in the interview that, in his opinion, Obama had lived up to the prize. In contrast, Geir Lundestad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, said that, in retrospect, the decision was only partially correct since the committee “thought it would strengthen Obama, and it didn’t have this effect.”
Obama’s award kept raising questions due to his administration’s involvement in wars in Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Yemen, which led to a dubious achievement of Obama spending more time at war than any other US president before him. Another common criticism highlights his engagement in quite a few bombing campaigns and air strikes using drones.
2016, Literature: Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan was awarded “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” This choice was named one of the most radical, as no musician was singled out before. The award elevated the folk and rock icon to the company of Samuel Beckett, T. S. Elliot, and Gabriel García Márquez, prompting widely different responses.
Some writers criticized the Nobel Committee’s decision. For example, Rabih Alameddine, an American novelist, called this Literature award “as silly as Winston Chirchill’s,” while a best-selling author Jodi Picoult sarcastically asked whether this entitles her to a Grammy nomination. Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh called the award “ill-conceived nostalgia […] of senile, gibbering hippies.”
At the same time, many prominent writers defended and celebrated this decision, including Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and Salman Rushdie, who called Dylan “the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition.” Billy Collins, the former United States poet laureate, dubbed the most popular poet in America, argued that Bob Dylan’s dazzling song lyrics deserve to be recognized for their poetic value since his songs are as impressive and meaningful on the page as they are with “the harmonica and the guitar and his very distinctive voice.”
However, regardless of their stance, everyone agrees that this award is a watershed moment in the Prize’s history since it stretches the definition of literature and favors a popular figure over high-brow writers with clear political messages.
This list is just a reminder that laureates are nominated and selected by human beings, prone to bias and imperfect judgment. Societal norms change, and the significance and ramifications of some achievements can only be assessed decades after the decision was made. It all makes recognizing excellence an immensely complex endeavor.
Let’s not forget that despite these cases – some curious, some outrageous – the majority of Nobel laureates are legends in their respective fields. The award is indeed one of the highest possible accolades a scientist, writer, or political activist can aspire to. Despite being one of the oldest awards, Nobel Prize still serves the purpose that its founder envisioned: it does benefit humankind by putting the spotlight on scientists, humanitarians, and peacemakers, and serves as a symbol of inspiration, pushing people forward to pursue innovation and change for the betterment of humanity.