Issue Date: April 11, 2016
Notable chemists who should have won the Nobel
Looking back over the 115-year history of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, there are some notable oversights—chemists who made important breakthroughs but never won the prize. Rules and restrictions in Alfred Nobel’s will, which established the prize’s guidelines, along with personal conflicts, premature death, and simple bad luck have made awarding the Nobel an imperfect and controversial process over the years.
Last month, at a Division of the History of Chemistry session at the American Chemical Society national meeting in San Diego, speakers told 10 stories about chemists who should have won the prize but didn’t and why some researchers have turned out to be notable Nobel Prize losers. Here are five of those stories.
Any list of the most important figures in the history of chemistry includes Mendeleev, a Russian chemist who developed the periodic table of elements in the 19th century. But he never won a Nobel, despite being alive when the first few prizes were awarded.
The key problem, explained Carmen J. Giunta of LeMoyne College, was that Alfred Nobel’s 1895 will said the prizes were to recognize “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.” So the early prizes, beginning with the first in 1901, went to work done roughly contemporaneously.
But in 1900, statutes that embodied an official interpretation of the will by the Nobel Foundation, which administers the prize, stated that the awards should primarily honor recent achievements but could also be granted for earlier work whose significance had recently become apparent.
Mendeleev supporters pointed to that latter interpretation after the inert gas elements were the subject of chemistry and physics Nobel Prizes in 1904. They thought those discoveries made Mendeleev’s 19th-century periodic table work Nobel-eligible. Mendeleev was therefore nominated for the 1905 prize but didn’t win.
He was nominated again for the 1906 prize, and the Nobel committee, which recommends winners, voted 4 to 1 in his favor. However, the Royal Swedish Academy, which makes the final prize decisions, did not accept the vote. Instead, it packed the committee with four more members and made the committee vote again. This subsequent vote was 5 to 4 in favor of Henri Moissan for isolating elemental fluorine and developing an electric furnace. The Royal Swedish Academy accepted that vote.
Scholars believe Svante Arrhenius, a prominent member of the Royal Swedish Academy, may have helped block Mendeleev’s selection because he was unhappy about the Russian’s long-standing and open criticism of Arrhenius’s ionic dissociation theory, the idea that electrolytes dissociate in water to form ions. Arrhenius may also have believed that Mendeleev’s achievement was just too old.
Mendeleev died in 1907 and therefore never got another chance because of another stipulation in Alfred Nobel’s will: Scientists must still be alive to win the prize.
Around 1930, Carothers, who worked at DuPont, invented condensation polymerization—a reaction that combines monomers with reactive end groups, releasing water in the process. By 1935, he had used the reaction to create a new material, nylon, which later became a raging commercial success. In San Diego, E. Thomas Strom of the University of Texas, Arlington, argued condensation polymerization surely deserved a Nobel.
Carothers carried out his polymer chemistry studies in DuPont’s Central Research Department, an academia-like research program initiated in 1927 by DuPont chemist Charles Stine. Stine’s idea was to recruit top researchers in colloids, physical chemistry, organic chemistry, and polymers and let them publish their findings in the open literature so they could receive international recognition for their work, the way academic scientists do. DuPont would then commercially spin off discoveries it deemed valuable. The Central Research Department was drastically reduced in size in the run-up to the pending Dow-DuPont merger.
Nylon caused a craze when it was made into women’s stockings, and today it is widely used in fibers, molded parts, films, and other products. The discovery of nylon did not become well-known outside DuPont until about 1939. However, Strom said Carothers could have won a Nobel for condensation polymerization in 1936.
For Carothers to have been considered seriously, it would have been best if a prominent chemist had nominated him. Irving Langmuir, who had won the 1932 chemistry prize for surface chemistry and was an industrial chemist at General Electric, would have been perfect.
Strom speculated that if Langmuir had nominated polymer chemistry pioneers Hermann Staudinger and Carothers together, “they would have had a good chance.” He noted that Staudinger, who had invented a technique called addition polymerization, had been nominated for the Nobel Prize nine times from 1931 to 1935 but had not won. And Carothers’ reputation was riding high in 1936, when he became one of the first industrial organic chemists elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
“So 1936 would have been the year,” Strom said. Carothers was never nominated, and “by 1937, the opportunity had been lost.” Carothers suffered from depression and alcoholism. “He felt he was a failure,” Strom said. Carothers committed suicide by cyanide poisoning in April 1937, ending his chances at the prize.
Staudinger eventually did receive a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, in 1953. “If Carothers had hung on, he probably would have shared” that prize, Strom said, but it was not to be.
Dewar, who was a chemistry professor at the University of Texas, Austin, made major contributions to the development of semiempirical theory, in which chemists combine experimental data and theoretical calculations to estimate molecular properties and behavior that often aren’t easily accessible with theory alone. Developed between the 1950s and 1980s, Dewar’s semiempirical methods still garner 400 to 500 citations per year today and “were well worthy of a Nobel Prize,” said Eamonn F. Healy of St. Edward’s University.
Semiempirical theory makes compromises. It isn’t as rigorous as ab initio theory, Healy said. That makes semiempirical methods a lot more practical than ab initio theory because they require much less computer time to give useful results. But ab initio theory is a complete solution to modeling problems, and when you use it, “you know where you are going,” Healy said—even though it is likely to be a long trip.
Despite the great utility of semiempirical theory, Dewar failed to earn a Nobel, and many think it was because of his combative personality and “acerbic tongue,” Healy said.
In one notorious incident, “Michael stood up in a public forum where a prominent theoretician was speaking and called him ‘a disgrace to science,’ ” Healy said. “He argued with everybody, really.” But his long-standing conflicts with chemistry Nobel Prize winners William N. Lipscomb and Linus Pauling were key roadblocks on his path to the prize.
“Lipscomb made the very important criticism that the trouble with semiempirical theory is that when it’s right, you’re not quite sure why it’s right, and when it’s wrong, you’re not quite sure why it’s wrong,” Healy said. “Michael would have answered that it didn’t matter—just take the result and work with it.” That response probably diminished the case for his work being Nobel caliber.
Pauling was a titan of theoretical chemistry, but Dewar disdained resonance theory, an electron delocalization concept Pauling had developed around 1930. Dewar felt it was misguided and had held back progress in the field of theoretical chemistry. In terms of winning a Nobel Prize, “that was a death knell right there, but Michael had many nails in his Nobel coffin at that stage,” Healy said.
Dewar never got the prize and died in 1997. “There’s a lesson here,” Healy said. “Even if you think you’re right, it’s not always best to tell people so, at least not the way Michael did.”
Hammett was a pioneer in physical organic chemistry and wrote a key textbook in the field. At the national meeting, Charles L. Perrin of the University of California, San Diego, argued that Hammett deserved a Nobel for his 1937 discovery of the Hammett equation.
The Hammett equation describes how substituents on a molecule affect the molecule’s reactivity. “The significance of the Hammett equation, and the reason I think it deserved a Nobel Prize, is that it established organic chemistry as a science with predictable regularities rather than only a collection of observations and preparations, and it allowed you to make mechanistic inferences about reactions,” Perrin said.
“It would have been quite reasonable for Hammett and Christopher K. Ingold to share the Nobel Prize because they set forth the idea of organic chemistry as a logical, systematic science,” Perrin said. Ingold, a noted British chemist, had developed physical organic chemistry concepts such as four types of reaction mechanisms—SN1, SN2, E1, and E2.
But Ingold had a powerful enemy in the chemistry community in Nobel-prize-winning organic chemist Robert Robinson, who had considerable influence with the Nobel committee, Perrin told C&EN. This, Perrin said, perhaps led to neither Hammett’s nor Ingold’s ever winning the prize.
“The ability of the Hammett equation to predict reactivity across a wide range of processes represented a major advance,” Perrin said. “It was deserving of the prize but overlooked.”
Simmons spent his entire professional career, from 1954 to 1991, at DuPont and headed DuPont’s Central Research Department from 1974 to 1991. Much of that department’s innovative work in fundamental chemistry was done under Simmons’s stewardship, said Pierre Laszlo, emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of Liège, and École Polytechnique.
Laszlo thinks Simmons should have won a Nobel Prize for the codiscovery of cryptands, crown ethers that form complexes with other compounds selectively. Simmons discovered cryptands independently of French chemist Jean-Marie Lehn, who did win the 1987 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the crown ethers.
Why wasn’t Simmons also awarded the prize? Possibly in part because Alfred Nobel’s will set a limit of three winners per year, and Lehn shared the 1987 prize with two other supramolecular chemists.
However, “Simmons’s main problem is that he spared too little time writing up his results,” Laszlo said. “He was beset with the huge burden of running the Central Research Department, trying to keep the scientists there happy and placate management at the same time. So many of his results are still unpublished.”
In addition, Simmons “was incredibly gentlemanly and generous,” Laszlo said. “He shared all his results on cryptands with Jean-Marie.” When Lehn won the Nobel Prize, he called Simmons twice from France to make sure Simmons wasn’t upset, Laszlo said. He wasn’t.
Simmons made scintillating discoveries and had a penetrating intellect and the character of a can-do achiever, Laszlo said. He made a great impact on chemistry, “despite the burden his administrative duties and leadership placed on his time and energy,” Laszlo added. “I respectfully submit his name for a posthumous Nobel Prize.”
Other Notable Nobel Snubs
Several other chemists who #shouldawonaNobel were discussed in San Diego at a session titled “The Posthumous Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Correcting the Errors & Oversights of the Nobel Prize Committee.” We present them in this list, along with other favorites nominated online by readers.
BET theory (three scientists)
BET theory, named after its developers Stephen Brunauer, Paul Hugh Emmett, and Edward Teller, is used to measure surface areas of materials. At the symposium, Burtron H. Davis of the University of Kentucky noted that it built upon an earlier surface theory devised by Nobel Prize winner Irving Langmuir to describe how a single layer of molecules adsorbs onto a substrate. But the BET model is based on multilayer adsorption. Experiments by Brunauer and Emmett on surface areas of porous materials and metals and on surface compositions of multicomponent catalysts helped lead to BET theory. Although the general public knows Teller as the “father of the H-bomb,” his name is also associated with several well-known effects in chemistry and physics, including the Jahn-Teller effect. In an interview, he once indicated that if he received a Nobel Prize, it should be for BET theory.
Mark’s claim to fame was that he was the Geheimrat—a nickname in German meaning secret councilor—of polymer science. He carried out important scientific work on polymers in three countries but was forced to leave Germany and Austria before World War II. Although he produced good science in the U.S., he is better known for founding the Polymer Research Institute at Brooklyn’s Polytechnic Institute and the Journal of Polymer Science. The community never got behind his nomination for a Nobel, said Gary D. Patterson of Carnegie Mellon University, who presented a talk on Mark in San Diego.
Moseley deserved to win a Nobel Prize in chemistry or physics because of his use of X-ray spectroscopy to demonstrate the importance of atomic number over atomic weight in organizing the periodic table, said Virginia Trimble of the University of California, Irvine, who spoke about Moseley at the session in San Diego. Although he was nominated for both prizes in 1915 by famed physical chemist Svante Arrhenius, Moseley did not receive one because, by the time the committees deliberated, he was dead—shot at the Battle of Gallipoli during World War I.
Woodward, a much-beloved figure in the chemistry community, won the 1965 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the synthesis of complex organic molecules. But he could have earned one more Nobel Prize for codeveloping the Woodward-Hoffmann rules with theoretical chemist Roald Hoffmann. Hoffmann received the 1981 chemistry prize for that work, but Woodward had died in 1979. Jeffrey Seeman, a chemical historian at the University of Richmond, discussed Woodward at the ACS session.
Yevgenii Konstantinovich Zavoiskii
Zavoiskii was the first person to build a magnetic resonance spectrometer, said David E. Lewis of the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, who discussed the researcher at the ACS meeting. Zavoiskii observed the first nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) signal, but his magnetic field did not have sufficient homogeneity to generate signals with reproducible frequency or amplitude. He thus demonstrated that NMR was possible but very hard to do. He also observed the first reproducible magnetic resonance signal—from electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR), from which reproducible signals were easier to obtain. Powerful individuals in the Russian scientific establishment greeted Zavoiskii’s initial EPR signal observation with skepticism, so he was not nominated for the Nobel until after others had already won for NMR. Only one Russian Nobel Laureate actually nominated him, and his chance was therefore lost, Lewis explained.
Talbert “Ted” Abrams
I always thought that Ted Abrams should have won a Nobel in chemistry or medicine. He discovered the cephalosporins, first isolated them, and determined their structure, work that led to the biggest class of clinically used antibiotics ever. What was not generally known was that he was the first person to suggest that penicillin was structurally a β-lactam. At that time, his professor, Robert Robinson, was so convinced Abrams was wrong that he refused to let him publish. Thus, R. B. Woodward now gets credit [for that structure assignment].
—Robin Cooper, via C&EN’s website
A glaring example of a chemist [snubbed for a Nobel] whose work changed society is the late Carl Djerassi, the “father” of the oral contraceptive pill. His work in that field has had an impact upon society worldwide equal to or even surpassing that of the discovery of penicillin.
—Rob Ronald, via C&EN’s website
I knew Henry Eyring [who discovered transition-state theory] and had numerous discussions with him, some not on chemistry. His depth of insight in chemical reactions was amazing. Eyring deserved a Nobel Prize.
—E. G. Meyer, via C&EN’s website
Another chemist who was also omitted and should have been given the Nobel Prize was Rosalind Franklin for her brilliant research in discovering the α-helix structure [of DNA] by X-ray crystallography.
—Harold Edelstein, via C&EN’s website
Editor’s note: Franklin died in 1958, four years before James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins won a 1962 Nobel for solving the structure.
Percy Julian’s work on steroid chemistry was never truly considered for a number of reasons. The wide range of applications of his work is amazing.
—Melissa Bickford, via C&EN’s website
Editor’s note: Julian pioneered chemical syntheses of plant-based medicinal drugs, including the glaucoma treatment physostigmine, helping lay the foundation of the steroid drug industry.
G. N. Lewis
There is a wonderful book published several years ago called “The Cathedrals of Science” that looks deeply at why [physical chemist] G. N. Lewis never got the chemistry Nobel Prize. He is the most nominated nonwinner in the history of the Nobels. One of his troubles was starting fights with influential people in the Nobel committee.
—Neil Gussman, via C&EN’s website
Editor’s note: A talk about G. N. Lewis was planned for the symposium held in San Diego, but it was canceled because the speaker could not travel for medical reasons.
However deserving these gentlemen [on the original list] were science-wise, this is so far a list of one race and gender. I think at minimum Rosalind Franklin and Lise Meitner should be included.
—AlyP, via C&EN’s website
Editor’s note: Meitner made pioneering advances in radioactivity and nuclear physics, including the discovery of nuclear fission of uranium with German radiochemist Otto Hahn. Hahn, however, took home the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for nuclear fission all by himself.
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