What’s a Canadian Nobel winner, anyway?
By John Lorinc
As of 2022, there are 17 Nobel prizes that can be said, or claimed, to be Canadian. Ten fall into the categories of physics or chemistry. Four are for physiology, which is to say medicine. There are two Peace Prizes — one for an individual, the other for a group — and a single Nobel for literature. Among all these, nine were shared with one or two other researchers — a practice that isn’t new but has been increasingly common in recent decades.
But what does it mean to say that a Nobel prize is Canadian, or connected to any specific nation for that matter? Put another way, why do we associate an individual winner with a particular country when that person likely lived in, taught, or studied in many different places, and may not even carry the citizenship of the country that has laid claim to his or her award?
In our commemorations of Canada’s Nobel laureates, Defining Moments Canada will attempt to unpack the content and significance of those relationships — why they matter and how we should interpret the association between the particulars of nationality and the universalism of knowledge creation.
Let’s begin by acknowledging that these are not new questions. The impulse to bind nationality to this most prestigious of scholarly awards is both long-standing and something of a paradox. After all, in the will that established the prize, Alfred Nobel specifically stated that the prizes, to be awarded annually by the Swedish juries, shall be conferred “without any regard to nationality.”[i] Nobel was a very much a man of his time, i.e., the end of the 19th century. He believed in science and rational thought, and was also motivated to donate his wealth to the advancement of scholarship in order to counter the destructive capability of his best-known inventions — dynamite and related explosives that were used to make weapons during the nationalistic zeitgeist of the fin de siecle Europe.
However, the reality, in the 121 years since it was first awarded, is that the Nobel Prize and the national identity of the prize winners go hand in hand. There are box scores and online maps showing which countries have won the most prizes, and which ones have been left out. Across the span of the Nobel Prize’s existence, controversies have simmered insistently over geographical patterns — the proliferation of German physicists and American economists, or the relative dearth of Chinese winners in any category — as well as the seemingly unrelated matter of the maximum number of winners for a given award (three). Similarly, the choice of winner has consistently generated fierce debate about who was excluded and the nature of expertise.
Perhaps in an effort to counter the narrative about the importance of citizenship, one group, the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP), recently compiled a list of U.S. winners who were immigrants. According to the organization’s analysis, 38% of the chemistry, medicine and physics awards handed out between 2000 and 2019 went to immigrants to the U.S.; for winners in those three categories since 1901, 35% went to newcomers. As the NFAP pointed out, “these achievements by immigrants point to the gains to America of welcoming talent from across the globe.” Even the NFAP’s conclusion reveals a trace of nationalist pride.
In fact, the construction of the national identities of winners, and the ways in which the Nobel has been set up to take a narrow view of genius, are closely connected themes in the history of an award that is virtually synonymous with the rarest form of human brilliance and creativity. As historian Robert Marc Friedman wrote in The Politics of Excellence: Behind the Nobel Prize in Science, “Excellence is not an unambiguous concept, not even in science.”
An examination of the biographies of the Nobel Prizes winners claimed by Canada reveals the layers of ambiguity baked into the awards, especially when it comes to binary categories like nationality.
Among all the science winners, Bertram Brockhouse, a physicist who worked on cutting edge neutron spectroscopy techniques and was awarded the Nobel in 1994, has the most `Canadian’ bone fides. Born in B.C., he was educated in Canada, and went on to conduct almost all of his Nobel Prize-winning research at Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.’s Chalk River facility, north west of Ottawa, and then McMaster University, where he led the physics department until his retirement.[ii]
Frederick Banting’s discovery of insulin is similarly rooted in Canada: he was born in Alliston, Ont., educated at the University of Toronto, worked for a time in London, and then returned to U of T, where he, together with graduate student Charles Best, biochemist James Collip and physiologist John Macleod, isolated the substance, conducted animal trials, and finally tested their treatment on diabetic patients. Banting died in a plane accident during the Second World War, having never left Canada to work abroad.
Yet both Brockhouse and Banting shared their awards with scientists who were not Canadians — Banting with Macleod, a Scottish researcher who had come to U of T from a university appointment in Cleveland; and Brockhouse with Clifford Shull, an American physicist whose contribution to their Nobel can be traced to research he conducted in the late 1940s at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Tennessee. Brockhouse and Shull worked separately on the same set of problems, and split the prize for their respective discoveries on the behaviour of neutrons. Both scientists had other collaborators who were not awarded Nobels.
The story with Banting and Macleod is quite different. Banting, a general surgeon, had approached Macleod with an idea for isolating a pancreatic secretion associated with diabetes. Macleod, a much more senior figure in terms of his academic credentials, had conducted research on the pancreas and initially regarded Banting’s idea as an opportunity to disprove one potential hypothesis on the cause of diabetes. He introduced the surgeon to Best, then a medical student, and they did most of the early work on insulin, with Macleod in a supervisory role.
Famously, Banting did not get along with Macleod and felt strongly that Best deserved to have been awarded the Nobel as well. Macleod, in turn, returned to Scotland a few years after they won the prize. The award, furthermore, recognized only the scientific achievement, and not the innovative — and arguably transformative — approach devised by the Toronto team to share the insulin formula around the world without profiting from the discovery.
Donna Strickland’s story offers yet another variation on the challenge of parsing citizenship and academic achievement among Nobel laureates. Born in Guelph, she did her undergraduate at McMaster and her graduate work at the University of Rochester, where, through a collaboration with her PhD supervisor, Gérard Albert Mourou, a French professor of electrical engineering, they discovered in 1985 “chirped pulse amplification,” a ground-breaking technique in the use of lasers that earned them the 2018 Nobel in physics. Strickland subsequently returned to Canada — she’s a professor at the University of Waterloo — while Mourou moved on to other U.S. institutions and eventually returned to France.
Finally, we can consider how nationality intersects with Gerhard Herzberg’s career. He and his Jewish wife fled Germany as the Nazis ascended to power in the late 1930s. As with many refugees, chance intervened, and they ended up at the University of Saskatchewan through a chance encounter. Herzberg took a short-lived research gig in Chicago, which he disliked, and ended up coming back to Canada, where he secured an appointment at the National Research Council. Herzberg became a Canadian citizen during the Second World War.
As he climbed the ladder at the NRC, Herzberg used his position and growing profile to participate actively in public debates about research funding policy. When he won the Nobel, in 1971, for years of work developing the science of spectroscopy, some observers interpreted the award as a recognition of the NRC’s role in the development of Canada’s international reputation for backing first class, inter-disciplinary research.
What about the rest of Canada’s Nobel prize winners? Six were born abroad. Some foreign-born winners built long careers in Canada (e.g. John Polanyi) while others spent relatively less time here (e.g., Polish-born endocrinologist Andrew Schally or British-born Ernest Rutherford, who spent nine years at McGill, where he conducted his Nobel-winning research, and then returned to England). A few Canadian-born winners received their undergraduate education in Canada but then left permanently. Invariably, these figures are claimed as Canadian or Canadian-born when the Nobels are announced each year.
(It’s important to point out that Canada’s three non-science Nobels — Alice Munro for literature, Lester Pearson for the Peace Prize, and the organizers of the Pugwash Conference, also for the Peace Prize, may have contributed more to our sense of national pride than the scientists, with a few high-profile exceptions, e.g., Banting, Polanyi and Strickland. In particular, Pearson’s award — for his advocacy of the establishment of a United Nations peacekeeping force as a means of ensuring cease-fires or peace treaties — contributed hugely to Canada’s self-image as an honest broker during the 1970s and 1980s. But the UN’s Peacekeeper operation saw its moral authority and effectiveness wane in the wake of mass tragedies in Rwanda and Bosnia, both operations led by high profile Canadian generals.)
The problem with linking Nobels to national identity, even informally, is that citizenship or place of residence doesn’t really get at the essence of what informs the achievement that makes someone deserving of such an illustrious honour. In fact, as some scholars have observed, it was the nationalities of the members of the Nobel nominating and awards committees that contributed to the pooling of winners in certain countries, especially Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, with its close scientific ties to the Swedish academy.
What’s more, the mere act of rewarding individuals for such achievements is not only reductive, but fuels the ‘winner-take-all’ ethic that permeates parts of the research world, as the chemist George B. Kauffman commented in his review of The Politics of Excellence.
The reality of scholarly accomplishment is completely at odds with the notion that one, two or three individuals can lay claim to these distinctions on their own. No one disputes the brilliance of Nobel laureates, yet they, like all creative people, stand on the shoulders of those who came before, and also work within the social milieu of scientific research — a world filled with collaborators, colleagues, lab technicians, graduate students and, in the case of both Herzberg and his wife Luise, and Marie and Pierre Curie, spouses.
Herzberg, in his speech[iii] at the 1971 Nobel awards banquet, also acknowledges the importance of his mentors and teachers, among them some of the highly acclaimed physicists whom he encountered as a student at the University of Göttingen in the 1920s, and inspired him to pursue a career in science.
Indeed, the geography of collaborative research is far more revealing than country of origin. Gottingen, for example, was a hub of physics and math scholarship, and therefore attracted young scientists eager to learn from the giants in these fields. There are numerous other examples of this kind of scholarly clustering[iv], among them New Jersey’s AT&T Bell Labs, and Xerox PARC, in Palo Alto, California. It’s interesting to note that among the relatively small collection of ‘Canadian’ Nobel winners, a handful of institutions make repeated appearances in the CVs of the laureates: the University of Manchester, the University of Saskatchewan, Chalk River, and the National Research Council. This detail underscores the synergies associated with the mentoring relationships that tend to take root in such environments.
Further challenging the links between nationality and the Nobel Prize is the fact that science research today is not just increasingly interdisciplinary — i.e., it no longer fits tidily into the four science categories — but also relentlessly international. It is utterly commonplace today to see scholarly papers co-authored by scientists from multiple institutions spread out around the world. Medical or pharmacological research may involve the pooling of results collected through randomized control trials in many different places, by many principal investigators. The deluge of research on COVID-19 has involved new forms of collaboration among far-flung research groups working with huge aggregated data sets and supported by coalitions of funding agencies/governments.
So beyond the media’s instinct to keep score[v] or assertions of national “prestige,”[vi] is there any justification to characterizing Nobels as being associated in some way with a national category, be it the citizenship/residence of the winner(s) or the location of the discovery?
A pair of Israeli scholars, Ayelet Baram-Tsabari, of Technion—Israel Institute of Technology, and Elad Segev, Tel Aviv University, offered one compelling answer in a 2018 paper entitled, “Global and local ‘teachable moments’: The role of Nobel Prize and national pride.”[vii] They examined patterns for Google searches on the names and discoveries of Nobel laureates between 2012 and 2016. Unsurprisingly, they found a spike in searches in the weeks following the annual release of the Nobel winners in October. Equally unsurprisingly, they observed that the searches tailed off fairly quickly, although searches for information on Nobel discoveries and related discoveries, as opposed to prize winners’ names, tended to last a lot longer. Interestingly, the share of searches “was particularly high in countries that do not regularly receive Nobel prizes.” Media attention, in turn, tended to have a national focus — the press in a given country are more likely to cover winners from that country (or region). “The news media in general are highly focused on national issues, to the extent that even international news are very often related to the country of the media outlet reporting the news,” Baram-Tsabari and Segev observe.
But they then pose an interesting and relevant question: “Are Nobel prizes used by the media as a teachable moment to further communicate the underlying science?”
In their analysis, they conclude that the answer is ‘yes,’ and that the coverage of a country’s Nobel winners contributes to a broader understanding of the underlying science, as well as what they call the “drama and process of science.” The point, in other words, is that the nationality of the winner doesn’t tell us much about that individual’s creative accomplishment, but it does serve to shine a spotlight on the importance of science.
For policy-makers assessing the importance of research funding, such choices invariably begin in a national context. But for young people learning about science or making decisions about careers, these teachable moments occur in a classroom or at a laptop computer in their bedroom, which is to say in ways that are — at least initially — rooted firmly in their own communities. The fruit of the knowledge that will be created, however, is universal, something that was true long before Alfred Nobel decided to celebrate the importance of science.
[i] Nobel himself was somewhat rootless. Born in Sweden, he travelled extensively for business, making his residence at various times in Russia, Germany and France.
[iv] “Cluster theory” has been extensively researched in recent decades, and describes the web of professional, social and economic relationships that develop around an institution or a region. Other examples would include Waterloo University and the Waterloo Region’s tech hub. One of the first proponents of this idea was Harvard’s Michael Porter, who described the way clusters work in the late 1990s. https://hbr.org/1998/11/clusters-and-the-new-economics-of-competition
[v] It’s worth noting that the Nobel Foundation doesn’t keep this particular score. The “fast-facts” page on the Nobel website slices up the winner data in a range of categories — youngest, oldest, multiple winners, women, etc. — but not by nationality. More details here: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/facts/nobel-prize-facts/.
[vi] See: “The Image of the Nobel Prize,” by Gustav Kallstrand, in Public Understanding of Science Journal (May 2, 2018). DOI: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0963662518764845
[vii] See: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0963662518768410