Nobel Prizes

Nobel prizes, endowed by Alfred Nobel (1833–96), the Swedish inventor of dynamite, were created in 1901. Five were awarded annually, one for each of physics, chemistry, medicine or physiology, literature and peace, until 1969, when a prize for economics was endowed by the Swedish state bank. Nobel prizes constitute a medal accompanied by a cash award; they are often shared by two or three winners. The three prizes for science, awarded by the scientific academies of Sweden, are generally considered the world's highest scientific accolade. Nominations may be made by many people, e.g., university professors, to the Swedish Academy that awards the prizes.

Twelve Canadians have won Nobel prizes for science: F.H. BANTING and British-born J.J.R. MACLEOD were awarded the physiology/medicine prize in 1923, and Gerhard HERZBERG, Henry TAUB, John POLANYI and Rudolph Marcus the chemistry prizes in 1971, 1983, 1986 and 1992 respectively. In 1981, David Hubel won the prize for medicine with Swedish-born Torsten Wiesel for their ground-breaking work involving the mapping of the visual cortex. Sidney ALTMAN (born in Montréal in 1939 and based at Yale University since 1971) shared the prize for chemistry in 1989 for a discovery of the catalytic properties of the genetic material RNA.

In 1990 Richard E. Taylor, whose research has been conducted at Stanford University, shared the physics prize. In 1993 biochemist Michael SMITH shared the prize for chemistry with American scientist Kary Mullis for developing a crucial technique used in genetic engineering called site-directed mutagenesis. The discovery allows researchers to understand better how cancer and virus genes work. Bertram BROCKHOUSE shared the 1994 award for physics for his work in determining how atoms behave in solids, and in 2009 Willard S. Boyle and his partner George E. Smith shared the Nobel for physics with Charles Kao for their "groundbreaking achievements" in physics. Boyle and Smith were honoured for their 1969 invention of the charge-coupled device (CCD), which transforms patterns of light into useful digital information. The CCD is widely used in modern digital cameras and is an important component of telescopic devices such as the Hubble Space Telescope.

For most of the 20th century, lists of prize winners were convenient indicators of national standing in science. This indicator has become less useful in recent decades. Several of the Canadian laureates in science were immigrants whose careers began elsewhere. As well, a number of Canadians who later became Americans have won Nobel prizes in economics, including Robert Mundell who won the award in 1999.

Literature prizes, nominally for "idealistic" writing, contribute to national status, although they are awarded on more subjective grounds than those for science (where research citations indicate an individual's worldwide reputation). For example, the 1986 prize awarded Wole Soyinka was widely considered as appropriate recognition by Europe of African or Nigerian contributions to world culture.

Nobel Peace prizes, awarded by the Norwegian Parliament, are more explicitly political, and have been awarded to institutions, eg, the Red Cross and UNICEF, as well as to individuals. L.B. PEARSON was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for diplomatic solutions to the SUEZ CRISIS of 1956. In 1999, British born Canadian citizen James Orbinski, President on the International Council for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of that organization.

Nobel prizes acquired their political character in 1936, when a peace prize was awarded to Karl von Ossietzky, a German citizen then in a concentration camp. Adolf Hitler decreed that no German should accept a Nobel Prize. Three German scientists who were awarded prizes in 1938 and 1939 were presented with their medals (but not the cash) after the war. A number of individuals have refused Nobel prizes - Boris Pasternak (literature, 1958), Jean-Paul Sartre (literature, 1964) and Le Duc Tho (peace, 1973). Nobel prizes for science are generally considered nonpolitical and none have been refused.