Nobel Jews

As the Nobel Prize marks its centennial,
Jews constitute 1/5 of laureates

Throughout the 20th century, Jews, more so than any other minority, ethnic or cultural group, have been recipients of the Nobel Prize -- perhaps the most distinguished award for human endeavor in the six fields for which it is given. Remarkably, Jews constitute almost one-fifth of all Nobel laureates. This, in a world in which Jews number just a fraction of 1 percent of the population.

It is ironic that this international recognition has rewarded Jewish accomplishment in the same century that witnessed pogroms, the Holocaust, and wars that killed millions for no other reason than that they were Jewish. Certainly the Nobel Prize was not awarded to Jews because they were entitled to it, were smarter or better educated than everyone else, or because they were typically over-represented in the six fields honored by the award.

Rather, all Nobel laureates have earned their distinction in a traditionally fierce competition among the best and the brightest, although politics and controversy have not infrequently followed in the wake of the Nobel.

In December 1902, the first Nobel Prize was awarded in Stockholm to Wilhelm Roentgen, the discoverer of X-rays. Alfred Nobel (1833-96), a Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite, had bequeathed a $9 million endowment to fund significant cash prizes ($40,000 in 1901, about $1 million today) to those individuals who had made the most important contributions in five domains; the sixth, in "economic sciences," was added in 1969.

Nobel could hardly have imagined the almost mythic status that would accrue to the laureates. From the start "The Prize" (as it was sensationalized in Irving Wallace's 1960 novel) became one of the most sought-after awards in the world, and eventually the yardstick against which other prizes and recognition were to be measured.

Certainly the roster of Nobel laureates includes many of the most famous names of the 20th century: Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Mother Teresa, Winston Churchill, Albert Camus, Boris Pasternak, Albert Schweitzer, the Dalai Lama and many others.

The list of American Nobel laureates in literature alone is a pantheon of our writers, including Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neill, Pearl Buck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Toni Morrison. American peace laureates include Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Jane Addams, Ralph Bunche, Linus Pauling (a two-time winner, also awarded a Nobel for chemistry), Martin Luther King Jr., Henry Kissinger and Jody Williams.

A total of nearly 700 individuals and 20 organizations have been Nobel recipients, including two who refused the prize (Leo Tolstoy in 1902 and Jean-Paul Sartre in 1964.) Thirty women have won Nobels. The United States has had about one-third of all winners. Also remarkable is the fact that 14 percent of all the laureates in a 100-year span have been Californians, most of them affiliated with one or more of the world-class higher education and research institutions in our state.

Jews Clues

Jewish names appear 127 times on the list, about 18 percent of the total. This is an astonishing percentage for a group of people who add up to 1/24th of 1 percent of the world's population. But this positive disproportion is echoed even further in the over-representation of Jews, compared to the general population, in such fields as the physical and social sciences, and in literature. An examination of the large professional communities from which Nobel laureates are selected would reveal an even more dominant disproportion. As an example, it is estimated that about one-third of the faculty at Harvard Medical School is Jewish.

How to account for Jewish proficiency at winning Nobels? It's certainly not because Jews do the judging: All but one of the Nobels are awarded by Swedish institutions (the Peace Prize by Norway). The standard answer is that the premium placed on study and scholarship in Jewish culture inclines Jews toward more education, which in turn makes a higher proportion of them "Nobel-eligible" than in the larger population. There is no denying that as a rule the laureates in all six domains are highly educated, although there are notable exceptions, such as Mother Teresa. Nevertheless, in a world where so many millions have university degrees it is difficult to see why on that basis alone Jews should prevail in this high-level competition.

Another question is why the physical sciences admired by Alfred Nobel are so attractive to Jewish scientists. Albert Einstein, the successor to Newton, Galileo and Copernicus and the greatest name in modern science, was Jewish. This is more than a matter of historic pride; it is an enormous statistical improbability. And such achievements were not always attained on a level playing field. For example, the Nazis dismissed relativity as "Jewish physics" and caused the uprooting and exile (mostly to the United States) of a generation of German scientists who happened to be Jewish.

In literature and peace as well, Jews are disproportionately represented among the winners. Jewish writers honored include Henri Bergson, Boris Pasternak, S.Y. Agnon, Nelly Sachs, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Joseph Brodsky and Nadine Gordimer. Peace laureates include Henry Kissinger, Menachem Begin, Elie Wiesel, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. In economics, for which the Nobel has been awarded for only the last 31 years, 13 laureates are Jewish, more than 40 percent of the total, including Paul Samuelson, Herbert Simon and Milton Friedman

But it still seems insufficient to credit all this to reverence for education, skill at theoretical thinking or competitive instincts forged in a millennial-old struggle to survive and prosper.

Perhaps the desire to understand the world is also a strong or defining Jewish cultural trait, leading to education and careers suited to exploration and discovery. Science may have furnished an opportunity to not only understand but to lead, and to have one's work judged without bias in collegial communities that have no use for religious intolerance.

Whatever the reasons, Jewish successes in the high-stakes world of the Nobel Prize are nothing short of astonishing, and a source of understandable pride to Jews throughout the world. Consider the scorecard: 37 awards in physics, 21 in chemistry, 39 in physiology and medicine, 10 in literature, seven in peace and 13 in economics.

Listings and descriptions of the contributions of the Jewish laureates may be found below:

Albert Einstein -- The most famous and influential scientist of all time

Richard Feynman -- 'The greatest scientific mind since World War II '

Lev Landau -- Soviet physicist, Nobel Prize in Physics 1962

Rita Levi-Montalcini -- winner of the Nobel Prize for her work on Nerve Growth factor (with Stanley Cohen)

Aaron Klug -- Nobel prize winner in Chemistry, for work on X-ray analysis of biomolecules

Elie Wiesel -- Jewish author: 'Night', winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace

Martin Perl -- Nobel prize winner in Physics: discoverer of the Tau Lepton

Isaac Bashevis Singer -- Author, Nobel Prize-winner for Literature

Shimon Peres -- Israel's Labor party leader

Niels Bohr -- Nobel prize-winning Physicist: atomic structure

Yitzhak Rabin -- Prime Minister of Israel - Worker for Peace' Chief of Staff in Six Day War

Milton Friedman -- Recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics

Arno Penzias -- Nobel prize winner in Physics, studied interstellar isotopes

Henri Bergson -- Author/Philosopher, Nobel prize for Literature

Georges Charpak -- won the Nobel Prize in Physics 1992 for his particle detector

Albert Michelson -- Nobel Prize for Physics 1907

Selman Waksman -- Microbiologist, 1952 Nobel Prize winner in physiology and medicine

Joseph Brodsky -- Nobel Prize winner in literature, most famous modern poet

Paul Samuelson -- Nobel Prize in Economics (first ever)

Elie Metchnikoff -- Nobel prize winner in Medicine, studied immunity in infectious diseases

Hans Bethe -- Nobel Prize in Physics in 1967

Paul Ehrlich -- Nobel prize for descovering a treatment for syphilis.

John Harsanyi -- Winner of the Nobel prize in Economics: studied utilitarian ethics

George WALD -- Nobel Price in Medicine for work contributing to our understanding of vision.

Tadeus Reichstein -- Nobel Prize for Medicine 1950

Isaac Bashevis Singer -- 1978 Nobel Laureate in Literature: 'Enemies : A Love Story', 'The Golem', 'Meshugah'

David Baltimore -- Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine

Shmuel Yosef Agnon -- Israeli writer, winner of the 1966 Nobel Prize: 'The Bridal Canopy'; `A Guest for the Night'

Howard Temin -- 1975 Nobel Prize in Medicine

Franco Modigliani -- Italian-born economist, 1985 Nobel Laureate in Economics: saving and financial markets

Baruch Blumberg -- Nobel prize winner in Medicine: field of epidemiology

Joshua Lederberg -- Nobel prize winner in Medicine, discovered viral transduction

Roald Hoffmann -- Nobel prize winner in Chemistry: field of electronic structures

Daniel Nathans -- Nobel prize in Medicine: for restriction analysis of Simian Virus 40 DNA

Nadine Gordimer -- South African novelist, Nobel prize-winner in Literature

Stanley Cohen -- Nobel prize winner in Medicine, for work in experimental embryology

Herbert Simon -- Nobel prize winner in Economics: for work on decision-making

Saul Bellow -- Canadian born novelist and Nobel Prize winner for lietature

Fritz Haber -- winner of the Nobel Prize of Chemistry in 1918, for the synthesis of ammonia from its elements

Joseph Goldstein -- Nobel prize in Medicine

Stanley Prusiner -- Nobel prize winner in Medicine: for the discovery of Prions, infectious proteins

Herbert Brown -- Nobel prize winner in Chemistry: for his work in the borane-organoborane area

Claude Cohen-Tannoudji -- Nobel prize winner in Physics, developed laser-cooling technology

Murray Gell-Mann -- Nobel prize in physics 1969. Introduced 'quarks'.

Isidor Rabi -- Nobel prize in physics in 1944

Hermann Muller -- Nobel prize winner in Medicine: for work on biological effects of radiation

Paul Johann Ludwig Heyse -- Nobel prize winner in Literature, 1830-1914

David Lee -- Nobel prize winner in Physics: for work on superfluidity

Nelly Sachs -- Poet, winner of the Nobel prize in Literature

Douglas Osheroff -- Nobel prize winner in Physics, for work in superfluidity

Andrew Schally -- Nobel prize winner in Medicine: field of endocrinology

Bernard Katz -- Nobel prize winner in Medicine, studied neuromuscular transmission

Elias Canetti -- Bulgarian born essayist and novelist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981

Jack Steinberger -- Particle Physicist, winner of the Nobel Prize

Harold Kroto -- Nobel prize-winner in Chemistry, discoverer of C60

Reinhard Selten -- Nobel prize winner in Economics: for work on 'game equilibrium models'

Cesar Milstein -- Nobel prize winner in Medicine: field of immunology

Simon Kuznets -- Nobel prize winner in Economics

Leon Lederman -- Nobel prize winner in Physics, 1988

Jack Steinberger -- Nobel Prize winner in Physics, 1988

Source: Stephen Mark Dobbs