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Nobel Prize

Nobel journeys in chemistry: Mapping the lives of laureates

Welcome to C&EN’s data visualization tracking pivotal moments in the lives of chemistry’s Nobel Laureates

by Matt Davenport
September 19, 2016 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 94, ISSUE 37

Chemistry’s 174 laureates—counting two-time winner Frederick Sanger only once—were born in 37 different countries according to today’s political boundaries. That number decreases to 19 countries when considering where the Nobel Laureates lived when they won.

Stanford University is the primary affiliation for seven Nobel Laureates at the time of their award, the largest number for a single institution. Harvard University and the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology follow with six laureates each. However, as a system, the University of California is the primary affiliation of 13 laureates, and the various institutes of the Max Planck Society can claim 11.

Two laureates were without official affiliations when they won: Kary B. Mullis was between jobs, and William S. Knowles was retired. Mullis won the 1993 prize for inventing the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and Knowles earned the 2001 prize for his work on hydrogenation reactions catalyzed by chiral transition-metal complexes.

The average age for a Chemistry Nobel Laureate is 58, with 57 being the median. The most common age for a laureate is 54.

Henri Moissan spent the least amount of time with his award, dying in February 1907, just two months after delivering his acceptance speech. Moissan won for isolating fluorine and for “the electric furnace called after him,” per the prize announcement. Adolf F. J. Butenandt held his award the longest: 56 years between 1940 and 1995. Butenandt earned his award for his studies of sex hormones, including his discovery of the composition of estrogen.

The average age for chemistry’s four female laureates is 52. Ada E. Yonath is the eldest of this group, winning her award at the age of 70 in 2009 for showing the structure of ribosomes through X-ray crystallography. The youngest is Irène Joliot-Curie, who was 38 when she won the 1935 prize for the first synthesis of radioactive elements.

The youngest scientist to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry is Frédéric Joliot, who earned his prize at 35 for his work with Irène Joliot-Curie in synthesizing radioactive elements. Joliot is also the first laureate born in the 20th century. Chemistry’s oldest laureate at the time of the award is John B. Fenn, who won at 85 in 2002 for developing mass spectrometry methods for analyzing large biomolecules. Fenn died on Dec. 10, 2010, exactly eight years after delivering his speech at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm.

Charles J. Pedersen is the only Nobel Laureate in Chemistry born in Korea. He was born to a Norwegian father and Japanese mother in 1904 in a town which would become Busan, South Korea. Pedersen grew up near the Unsan Mines in what is now North Korea, although the mines themselves were contractually controlled by U.S. interests. At the age of eight, Pedersen left Korea for Japan, where he would live until enrolling as an undergraduate at the University of Dayton in 1922. After earning a master’s degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pedersen secured a job at DuPont, where he discovered crown ethers in 1967 and earned his Nobel Prize 20 years later.

Chemistry’s sole laureate born in China is Ei-ichi Negishi, who was nevertheless born as a Japanese citizen. He and his family moved to Japan after World War II. Negishi moved to the U.S. in 1960 to work on his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. Negishi won for the palladium-catalyzed coupling reaction that bears his name.

Ernest Rutherford is the laureate who won the prize farthest from his birthplace, Nelson, New Zealand. Rutherford won the 1908 prize—for exposing fundamentals of radioactivity—while at Victoria University in Manchester, England, more than 18,000 km from Nelson.

Fourteen laureates won the prize within 10 km of where they were born. The most recent was Aaron Ciechanover, who won the 2004 prize in Haifa, Israel, for helping discover a protein-degradation process pivotal to human health.

Roughly one-third of all laureates (59 out of 174) won their prize in a country other than the one where they were born. Of those, most won in the U.S. (22), followed by Germany (11), and England (9).

As of Sept. 6, 2016, there are 58 living laureates.

The laureate who lived the longest is John W. Cornforth, who died at age 96, nearly 40 years after winning the 1975 award for his studies of enzymes. The living laureate who has held the award the longest is Manfred Eigen, who won in 1967 for using high-frequency sound waves to spur chemical processes. He is 89.

Some notes on our methods:

C&EN collected all the data analyzed for this visual story from, the official website of the Nobel Prizes. All geographic information presented reflects current geopolitical names and borders. For example, prizes won by laureates working in West Germany have been included in Germany’s count. In the event that a laureate had two affiliations at the time of their award, we’ve chosen to include only the affiliation listed first on Awards won by laureates working at an institution’s medical school were counted with the main institution. We elected to calculate the age of the laureates in two different ways using the available data: (1) using their ages at the time they delivered their acceptance speech and (2) simply subtracting their birth year from their award year. Both methods yield the same mean, median, and mode age of the award.

C&EN preserved the same subfield designations used in our 2015 interactive.



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Mohammad Hossain (September 19, 2016 3:54 PM)
Gerhard Herzberg,(December 25, 1904 – March 3, 1999) was a German-Canadian pioneering physicist and physical chemist, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1971, "for his contributions to the knowledge of electronic structure and geometry of molecules, particularly free radicals". But I could not find him in the map when I was looking for him in Germany.
Matt Davenport (September 20, 2016 1:29 PM)
Thanks so much for checking out the graphic and letting us know! I'll look into that ASAP and let you know what went wrong!
Matt Davenport (September 20, 2016 6:11 PM)
Update: I think Herzberg has been covered by Otto Diels in Hamburg (we have them listed in our data with identical latitude and longitude coordinates). We're working out a fix that will work for this pair and any others we may have missed. Thanks again for letting us know about it!
Dr. Mark B. Fischer (September 19, 2016 10:56 PM)
University of California ties with Stanford with 7 present and past Nobel laureates 1986 - Yuan T. Lee
1961 - Melvin Calvin
1951 - Edwin M. McMillan
1951 - Glenn T. Seaborg
1949 - William F. Giauque
1946 - John H. Northrop
1946 - Wendell M. Stanley
Matt Davenport (September 23, 2016 11:53 AM)
Thanks for your comment! We used data from for a laureate's affiliation at the time of their award. Both Northrop and Stanley are listed as being at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research when they won their Nobels although they would both work at UC Berkeley as well. It would be super interesting to track the laureates through all of their affiliations and see which universities and institutions have hosted the most in that more comprehensive count. That’s something for us to look into... Thanks again!
Joe Q. (September 20, 2016 2:25 PM)
Rudolph (Rudy) Marcus won the Chemistry Nobel in 1992. He was born in Montreal, Canada, but I don't see him listed there.
Matt Davenport (September 23, 2016 11:56 AM)
Thanks for your comment, Joe! Marcus is currently hidden by Sidney Altman, who was also born in Montreal. We're currently working on a fix, but thanks so much for catching that and letting us know.
Daniel Berg (September 21, 2016 2:49 PM)
The question I have is "What undergraduate school in the United States has as alums the most Nobel Laureates"? The article above shows data on where many Laureates were when they received their awards and not where they were educated. Thanks.
Matt Davenport (September 23, 2016 12:07 PM)
That's a super interesting question. We definitely hope to update this graphic with more information over time. Thanks for the suggestion!

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