The Nobel Prizes are some of the best-known awards in the entire world. Consisting of five separate awards, they are awarded to “those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.” Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist and engineer, left most of his wealth to foundation of these prizes upon his death in 1896; the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 19011.
The Nobel Prizes were originally broken into five categories – Chemistry, Literature, Medicine or Physiology, Peace, and Physics – but now include Economics as well. A private intuition, the Nobel Foundation, manages the finances and administration of the prizes.2 Presently, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (Chemistry, Economics, and Physics), the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute (Medicine or Physiology), the Swedish Academy (Literature), and the Norwegian Nobel Committee (Peace) are responsible for awarding the prizes within their disciplines after being given a list of preliminary candidates from the Nobel Committee. A winner is chosen by a majority vote within the institution.3
As of 2023, 621 prizes have been awarded to 965 individuals (people who have won multiple prizes have only been counted as a single individual).4 How are these prizes for high-impact science spread across the globe?
Just over 34% of awards were presented to researchers associated with the United States; just over 75% of all awards were presented to researchers associated with these top 10 countries.
The United States’s most recent awards were in 2023 for Physics (Pierre Agostini, 1/3), Physiology or Medicine (Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman), Chemistry (Moungi G. Bawendi, Louis E. Brus, and Alexei I. Ekimov), and Economics (Claudia Goldin). The other 2023 awards went to Ferenc Krausz (Germany, Physics, 1/3), Anne L’Huillier (Sweden, Physics, 1/3), Jon Olav Fosse (Austria and Norway, Literature), and Narges Mohammadi (Iran, Peace). The award given to Narges Mohammadi marks only the second award given to an Iranian; the first was also a Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Shirin Ebadi in 2003.
Significantly fewer awards are given out outside of North America and Europe. The top three countries in Asia are Israel (13), India (12), and China (8). The top three countries in Africa are South Africa (11), Egypt (4), and Liberia (2). The top countries in Central and South America are Argentina (5), Mexico (3), and Chile, Columbia, and Guatemala all tied with two prizes each.
While the average Nobel laureate is 59 years of age, there is a ‘lag time’ between scientific contribution and award of twenty to thirty years. This isn’t always true; the youngest winner was only 17 (Malala Yousafzai; Peace) and the oldest winner was 90 when he received his award (Leonid Hurwicz; Economics). Peyton Rous (Physiology or Medicine, 1966) had to wait five decades for his award! However, there have been much quicker turnaround times; Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee (Physics; 1957) won a Nobel prize for work done just a year earlier.5 This year’s Physiology or Medicine winners made their first breakthrough regarding mRNA vaccination technology in 2005 and while interest began to increase in the 2010s, the technology realized its potential during the COVID-19 pandemic.6
A Different Path to the Nobel Prize
Of all the awards given, only 64 women have been honored with a Nobel Prize, and Marie Curie is the only woman to have been given two awards.7 Given how woman still struggle to be represented in STEM fields, this is not surprising, though we are heartened to see that woman were awarded (or were part of the group that was awarded) prizes in four of the categories this year.
Katalin Karikó, PhD, MD, is a Hungarian–American biochemist best known for her research involving mRNA technology and vaccines. She received her BSc and PhD from the University of Szeged (Hungary) and worked for the Hungarian Academy of Sciences before immigrating to the United States.8 However, in 1995, she was demoted by the University of Pennsylvania for her failure to procure NIH funding. Despite this, she persisted and even remained at UPenn despite the expectation that this sort of event would cause a faculty member to depart. After meeting and collaborating with Drew Weissman, her future co-laureate, published their first paper regarding mRNA technology in 2005,9 though they wouldn’t gain much interest until the 2010s. Their continued research has improved mRNA technology and made it safe and practical to use in COVID-19 vaccinations.8