Nobel Prize mistakes: Who is history’s worst Nobel winner?

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Oct. 8 2012 12:38 PM

The Worst Nobel Prize

Who is the least deserving Nobel laureate of all time?

Transorbital Lobotomy.
A 12-year-old boy undergoes a lobotomy in 1960

Photo Courtesy George Washington University Gelman Library.

The Nobel committee awarded the 2012 prize in physiology or medicine to John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka for showing that adult cells can be reprogrammed into stem cells. With their win, Gurdon and Yamanaka became the 831st and 832nd Nobel laureates. (An award has also gone to an organization 23 times.) Just like the Oscars, there must be some clangers in there. Who was the least deserving Nobel winner of all time?

Johannes Andreas Grib Fibiger. Limiting the review to Nobel Prizes in science, one laureate stands out as erroneously honored. In 1907, this Danish scientist found that he could induce abnormal cell growth in rats by feeding them cockroaches that were infected with a species of worm he called Spiroptera neoplastica. Fibiger concluded that the worms caused cancer. To appreciate how significant the discovery seemed at the time, it’s important to understand that many doctors were furiously hunting a single cause of cancer. Some thought the disease was programmed into the body in embryonic cells. Others believed inanimate external factors triggered uncontrolled cell division. (English physician Percivall Pott observed in the 18th century that chimney sweeps were shockingly likely to suffer scrotal cancer.) The infectious theory was also quite popular, and its adherents pushed hard for recognition of Fibiger’s breakthrough. He received 16 Nobel Prize nominations beginning in 1922. After enormous internal controversy and no prize winner in 1926, the committee retroactively awarded Fibiger the 1926 prize in 1927. About a decade later, however, a series of experiments proved that Fibiger was wrong. The abnormal growths he induced were not cancerous lesions brought on by a pathogen but benign growths caused in large part by vitamin A deficiency. Many researchers now believe Fibiger’s mistake was to feed his rats a diet of white bread and water. A control group might have revealed the flaw in his experiment, although the practice wasn’t common in cancer research in Fibiger’s day. In 2004, scientists at the Karolinska Institute, the medical college tasked with awarding the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, admitted that Fibiger’s conclusions were inaccurate.

Other Nobel Prize controversies have more to do with value judgments that scientific rigor. For example, Portuguese neurologist António Caetano de Abreu Freire Egas Moniz won a share of the 1949 prize in physiology or medicine for developing the prefrontal lobotomy. In recent decades, mental health advocates have campaigned for the repeal of Egas Moniz’s prize, because the lobotomy brought far more suffering than good to mankind. The Nobel committee has held firm, though, arguing that there were “no effective alternative therapies” for many forms of mental illness when Egas Moniz developed the procedure.

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Perhaps the most controversial Nobel Laureate is 1918 chemistry prizewinner Fritz Haber. The quality of Haber’s research is beyond critique—students today still learn about the Haber process of synthesizing ammonia, and its role in fertilizer manufacturing has eased famine. But Haber was an enthusiastic advocate of chemical warfare during World War I and directed German research that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. As in the case of Egas Moniz, there have been posthumous calls to strip Haber of his prize. There’s something oddly appropriate about Haber’s award, however, since Alfred Nobel himself held the original patent for dynamite.

Arguments over omissions have also dogged the Nobel Committee. In 1923, the award was shared by Frederick G. Banting and John Macleod for the development of insulin to treat diabetes. (Prior to the discovery, doctors could only give diabetics opiates for pain relief.) Banting, however, insisted that his research partner Charles Best should have shared the award and that Macleod did little beyond providing laboratory space. Other famous omissions include Lise Meitner, whose colleague Otto Hahn won the 1944 chemistry prize for discovering nuclear fission, and Albert Schatz, who should have shared in the 1952 prize in physiology or medicine for his role in developing the anti-tuberculosis drug streptomycin.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.