Nobel Prize Scandals: 10 Winners Whose Prizes are Forever Tarnished

Posted December 9, 2012


The Nobel Prize is one of the most prestigious awards in the world and has recognized some of the world’s best thinkers and leaders for more than 100 years. Yet not every decision the Nobel Committee has made has been popular or even historically and scientifically sound. The committee has been subject to a wide range of accusations of bias, prejudice, and just plain ignorance over its history. And the winners themselves? Many may have made brilliant discoveries while embracing controversial politics and perhaps even major ethical violations. As a result, the Nobel Prize has a long history of scandal that has tarnished the sanctity of many an award. Here are just a few of note to look at, as we learn the names of new award winners on December 10th.

  1. Johannes Fibiger, Physiology or Medicine, 1926:

    Danish doctor Johannes Fibiger won the prestigious prize in 1926 for his research on cancer, but the honor would go down as being one of the most dubious in Nobel history. The prize was awarded to Fibiger after he reported discovering the cause of gastric cancer in rats: parasitic worms carried by common cockroaches. At the time, this was a major breakthrough in research, as doctors were furiously hunting for the causes of abnormal cell growth in humans, and the idea that it was caused by infection was quite popular. Had the discovery been legitimate, Fibiger would have gone down in the annals of history as one of the most important scientists of all time, but unfortunately for him, he hadn’t quite been thorough with his experiments. While Fibiger was a meticulous researcher, he neglected one key part of any scientific experiment: the control group, an oversight that would taint his reputation and his Nobel Prize. As it turns out, the parasites carried by the cockroaches weren’t the cause of cancer in rats (or in humans) and the lesions and tumors he found in the rats carrying them weren’t cancer but simply benign growths caused by vitamin deficiencies, a fact Fibiger would have noted had he had a control group. While Fibiger was discredited in the mid-1930s, it was not until 2004 that the Nobel committee admitted its mistake.

  2. Fritz Haber, Chemistry, 1918:

    Chemist Fritz Haber’s Nobel Prize win wasn’t tainted by the fact that he did poor research or was inaccurate in his conclusions. Quite the opposite, as Haber was a brilliant and meticulous scientist. Haber’s disgrace is far more disturbing, sadly. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on what is now called the Haber process, a method for synthesizing ammonia that made it possible to manufacture more effective fertilizers (though it should be noted that the process also aids in the production of explosives). Today, food production for half the world’s population depends on this method, and Haber’s work has helped to reduce or end famine in places all over the world. Unfortunately, Haber’s research wasn’t all beneficial to society. He is today known as the "father of chemical warfare" because he helped to develop many of the chemical weapons, like chlorine gas, that were used by Germany in World War I, weapons that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. Since then, there have been numerous calls to posthumously strip Haber of his award, though the Nobel committee stands by its decision.

  3. António Egas Moniz, Physiology or Medicine, 1949:

    Sometimes, discoveries honored by the Nobel Committee start off sounding like a good idea, but a few decades later are out of fashion and, in this case, considered downright inhumane. In 1949, the Nobel Committee couldn’t decide which doctor was most deserving of the award, and so it was divided between Walter Rudolf Hess for his work in understanding how the brain controls the internal organs and Portuguese neurologist Antonio Egas Moniz for his development of the prefrontal lobotomy. At the time, this form of psychosurgery was considered to be a revolutionary and effective way of helping those with serious mental illnesses. Just a few years later, however, critics would (rightly) point to serious moral and ethical problems with the practice that would cause it to fall out of use and Moniz’s name to fall into disgrace.

  4. William Shockley, Physics, 1956:

    William Shockley may have been a brilliant physicist, but it was his personal political views that led to not only his Nobel win being disgraced but his career as a whole. The aptly named Shockley would win the Nobel Prize in 1956 (along with John Bardeen and Walter Houser Brattain) for his role in the invention of the transistor, a development that made possible the wide array of electronics and innovations we use today. While certainly deserving of the prize for his work, Shockley would eventually alienate himself from the scientific community and the public through his support of the eugenics movement. As part of his mission to improve human genetics, Shockley donated sperm to the Repository for Germinal Choice, a sperm bank developed to spread humanity’s best genes. His racism and radical ideas would eventually ruin his reputation and undo any honor afforded by the Nobel Prize.

  5. Harald zur Hausen, Physiology or Medicine, 2008:

    Doctor Harald zur Hausen was honored with the Nobel Prize in 2008 for his discovery that HPV causes cervical cancer. That this discovery is significant and could potentially save lives is inarguable, but his winning of the Nobel Prize would cause a huge amount of scandal nonetheless. Why? Because of corporate sponsorship. As it turns out, pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca had recently begun sponsoring the Nobel website and had links to two senior figures on the medicine prize’s selection committee. More importantly, it held a stake in two HPV vaccines which would be much more publicized, and profitable, with a Nobel Prize linked to them. Unfortunately for Dr. zur Hausen (who was not found to have a role in the scandal), his prize would be tainted by a Swedish police investigation into improper influence, and while charges were never brought against AstraZeneca, the 2008 prize will always be associated with this alleged impropriety.

  6. Henry Kissinger, Peace, 1973:

    The decision of the Nobel Committee to award its peace prize to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was perhaps one of the most controversial in the history of the award. Jointly awarded to Kissinger and North Vietnamese leader Le Duc Tho, the award was intended to honor the duo for their work on the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, an arrangement intended to bring about a cease-fire in the Vietnam War and a withdrawal of the American forces. Le Duc Tho declined his part of the award, citing the fact that there was no actual peace in Vietnam at the time (and he disliked Kissinger), but Kissinger accepted, causing quite a commotion around the world. Those familiar with history will understand why, as Kissinger was not exactly a proponent of peace. He had prompted the bombing of Cambodia and Laos, played a major role in Operation Condor, a campaign of kidnapping and murder in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay, caused the death of French nationals under the Chilean Junta, and caused Cyprus to be divided into two by supporting Turkish intervention. When the award was announced, two Norwegian Nobel Committee members resigned in protest. The award remains one of the most controversial Nobel decisions to this day.

  7. Linus Pauling, Peace, 1962:

    Pauling is one of the few people in history to win a Nobel Prize in more than one category, first taking home a prize in chemistry for his work on the nature of chemical bonds in 1954. While Pauling had worked on numerous weapons projects for the U.S. military during his career, the advent of the nuclear era gave him pause and he became a fervent peace advocate, along with scientific heavy hitters like Albert Einstein who were calling for the end of nuclear testing. His enthusiasm would cause Pauling some problems, however, in the McCarthy-era world. He would have his passport withdrawn by the U.S. State Department and was accused numerous times of having communist leanings. The peace prize only added fuel to the fire, as did the International Lenin Peace Prize he won from the USSR in 1970. He was ordered to appear before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and was dogged with communist rumors for years, despite remaining a pivotal figure in the scientific community and one of the greatest American scientists of all time.

  8. Cordell Hull, Peace, 1945:

    American politician Cordell Hull was the U.S.’s longest-serving Secretary of State, holding office for 11 years during the tenure of FDR. In 1945, after WWII, Hull was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in establishing the United Nations. While the development of the UN may have been a bright spot in a world recovering from a devastating war, Hull winning the prize was not without controversy. In 1939, the SS St. Louis had arrived in the U.S. with almost 950 Jewish refugees on board, seeking asylum from Nazi persecution. Despite FDR wanting to help, Hull, together with a group of Southern Democrats, put up strong opposition by threatening to withdraw their support for FDR in the upcoming election if the refugees were allowed to stay. In the end, the ship was denied entry and the refugees were forced to return to Europe where some were allowed to stay in the U.K. and other European nations, though more than a quarter of the passengers would eventually die in the Holocaust.

  9. James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins, Physiology or Medicine, 1962:

    There is no debate that the discovery of the structure of DNA was a huge boon to science, but the decision of the Nobel Committee to award only these three men for it was certainly controversial, and has been a point of contention since the award was announced in 1962. Like many major discoveries, the revelation that DNA had a helical structure wasn’t the result of the research of any one person, instead relying on the insights of several bright scientists working at the time. Among them were Alec Stokes, Herbert Wilson, and Erwin Chargaff, and Oswald Avery. Yet the researcher most shortchanged by the honor was Rosalind Franklin, whose work contributed directly to Watson and Crick solving the mystery of the DNA molecule’s structure. What’s worse, many believe that Watson and Crick bent (or just plain disregarded) ethical rules by looking at Franklin’s data without her permission or knowledge, with information about her unpublished work given to them by Wilkins, a co-worker of Franklin’s. Allegations of sexism have plagued the honor for decades and it remains a major point of contention today, especially with Watson’s history of racist, sexist, and homophobic outbursts.

  10. Otto Hahn, Chemistry, 1944:

    German chemist Otto Hahn was a pioneer in the fields of radioactivity and radiochemistry and is today regarded as one of the most important figures in the development of nuclear chemistry. Hahn’s prize was for his work with nuclear fission, a discovery that would eventually lead to the development of nuclear weapons, a connection that Hahn would always deeply regret. His award is not only tainted by the death of thousands of civilians at the hands of those who would use his work to develop atomic weaponry, but also to a glaring omission (many believe to be due to personal biases) by the Nobel Committee itself. Like many other scientists honored by the Nobel Prize, Hahn was not working alone on his discovery. He was aided by physicist Lise Meitner, who played a key role in helping to puzzle out how nuclear fission works and the two had worked together on the papers that were key to Hahn getting the award. Today, her exclusion from the award is considered one of the most glaring oversights by the Nobel committee of all time (though she was nominated 13 times, she never received an award). Though it certainly does help that element 109, Meitnerium, was named after her.

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