Guest Post: The Nobel’s Might-Have-Beens

Our contributor and illustrator Yoo Jung Kim is already back with more!

Last week, James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, auctioned his Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for $4.7 million, only days before the 2014 Nobel Ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden. In an interview with the Financial Times, Watson said in an that one of the reasons for selling his award was because he was being shunned by the scientific community as a “non-person”–ostensibly for Watson’s racist and sexist remarks. His high-profile stunt revived a host of charges that had been leveled against him for years, the chief of which was failing to credit Rosalind Franklin–a chemist who had been studying X-ray diffraction images that eventually allowed Watson and Francis Crick to be the first to unlock the structure of the DNA.

Rosalind Franklin passed away in 1958 of ovarian cancer–thereby precluding her from sharing the 1962 Nobel Prize. Even Watson wrote in DNA: The Secret of Life, that had Franklin been alive, the committee would have ideally given Franklin and her collaborator Maurice Wilkins, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with Watson and Crick’s original award for Physiology or Medicine [1].

Here are some of other scientists who history is convinced was snubbed of the Nobel:

  • Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was an American engineer famous for his numerous idiosyncrasies and inventions, such as his contribution to the development of the Alternating Current (A.C.). History also remembers Tesla for his famous feud with Thomas Edison, who also never received a Nobel Prize. Interestingly, in 1915, the Literary Digest and The Electrical World of New York reported that the Nobel Prize in Physics would be shared by Tesla and Edison. Later, however, a Reuter’s dispatch from Sweden noted that the year’s Nobel Prize would actually be awarded to William Henry Bragg and his son [2]. Although no official explanation has ever been given for this mix-up, historians have suggested that Tesla and Edison’s animosity toward each other may have cost both men the Nobel Prize in Physics, as the two had each refused share the award or to accept the award if the other had won it before he had [3].
  • Dmitri Ivanovitch Mendeleev (1834-1907) was a Russian chemist who is to credit for the periodic table of elements that looms over students in science classrooms. In 1906, Mendeleev had been recommended by the Nobel Committee for Chemistry and the Chemistry Section of the Swedish Academy, with the expectation that the greater Swedish Academy would approve. However, the nomination was thwarted by Svante Arrhenius. Arrhenius was not an official part of the decision-making process, but he had nursed a grudge against Mendeleev, who had–incorrectly–criticized Arrhenius’s ionic dissociation theory. Arrhenius used his influence to prevent Mendeleev from receiving the Nobel, which instead went to the French chemist Henri Moissan for isolating the pure form of Fluorine. In 1907, committee members made another attempt to give Mendeleev the award, only to be thwarted again by Arrhenius. Unfortunately, Mendeleev died in 1907, thereby disqualifying him from future considerations for the Nobel Prize.
  • Lise Meitner (1878-1968) was an Austrian Jewish physicist who was the first to discover nuclear fission with Otto Hahn, a German chemist. The two had worked together in Berlin as part of a European scientific race to see whether it was possible to create an element heavier than uranium. By the 1930s, due to the rise of Nazi Germany, Meitner was forced to resign from her post and later fled Germany, eventually taking a research position in Stockholm. Meitner continued to correspond with Hahn, and in 1939, Hahn published the result of their collaboration without crediting Meitner a co-author, a decision she understood to be a result of the rampant anti-semitism of Nazi Germany. By the end of the war, Hahn had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1944. However, later in his career, Hahn began to discount the importance of Meitner’s contributions, stating that his experiments had not been guided by her findings [5]. Historians have also suggested that Meitner’s contributions were minimized and overlooked during the nomination process because of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry’s “haste” and “disciplinary bias” [6].

Do you have a favorite scientist missing from the Nobel (or from our missed Nobel) list?



[1] Beckwith, Jon. “Double Take on the Double Helix.” (2003): 354-358.

[2] “Controversy about This Year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine.” Tesla Memorial Society of New York. January 1, 2003. Accessed December 9, 2014.

[3] Stewart, Daniel Blair. Tesla: the modern sorcerer. Frog Books, 1999.

[4] Friedman, Robert Marc. The politics of excellence. Times Books, 2001.

[5] Sime, Ruth. “The Woman Behind the Bomb.” The Washington Post, March 17, 1996. Accessed December 8, 2014.

[6] Crawford, Elisabeth, Ruth Lewin Sime, and Mark Walker. “A Nobel tale of postwar injustice.” Physics Today 50, no. 9 (2008): 26-32.


Illustration by Yoo Jung Kim

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

I am a Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I earned a bachelors degree in biophysics from Penn State then moved to California and earned a Ph.D. from CalTech (working for a time at UCSF and the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic). I was a Muscular Dystrophy Association post-doctoral fellow at University College London and the Rockefeller University before moving to Boulder. My research has involved a number of topics, including neurotransmitter receptor structure, cytoskeletal organization and ciliary function, neural crest formation, and signaling systems in the context of the clawed frog Xenopus laevis as well as biology education research, leading to the development of the Biological Concepts Instrument (BCI), a suite of virtuallaboratory activities, and biofundamentals, a re-designed introductory molecular biology course. I have a close collaboration with Melanie Cooper (@Michigan State) that has resulted in transformed (and demonstrably effective and engaging) course materials in general and organic chemistry known as CLUE: Chemistry, Life, the Universe & Everything. I was in the first class of Pew Biomedical Scholars and am a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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