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Australia's Nobel Laureates and the Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prize is an international award for significant achievements and research that benefit humankind. Australia has produced 15 Nobel Laureates, which is the highest number per head of population of any country.

1996 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, Professor Peter Doherty. Courtesy of Science, Technology & the Future

The youngest ever Nobel Laureate, Lawrence Bragg, of Adelaide, was aged 25 years when he received the Nobel Prize for Physics with this father William Bragg in 1915, after Lawrence formulated what is known today as Bragg's Law and his seminal work in developing X-rays.

The work of Australia's Nobel Laureates reflects their international reputations. Laureates have often chaired significant scientific research institutes here and overseas. Some born in Australia have worked overseas and others returned to their familial country, like Aleksandr Prokhorov, who was born in Atherton, Queensland but returned to Russia in 1916 to eventually found the General Physics Institute in Moscow.

Howard Florey studied at the University of Adelaide before he teamed up with British and later Amercan scientists, to do his ground-breaking research to develop the first penicillin-based antibiotic medicines in the 1930s at Oxford, recognised with the 1945 Nobel Prize. Florey returned to Australia as Chancellor of the Australian National University in 1965 and his work is commemorated in the Howard Florey Institute a world-leading medical research centre located in Melbourne, Australia.

Florey's work on penicillin in the 1930s was continued by Robert Robinson, an organic chemist at the University of Sydney in 1912 and later Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University from 1930.  Robinson did this work in collaboration with scholarship winner John Cornforth of Sydney from 1938 to 1951, with Robinson awarded the Nobel Prize in 1947 and Cornforth in 1975. All three, Florey, Robinson and Cornforth, worked to advance the stable production of penicillin, with Australia being the first country to distribute it to civilians.

Nobel Laureate John Carew Eccles, 1963. Courtesy of John Curtin School of Medical Research, ANU.

Many Nobel Laureates have worked in Australia's key research institutions, helping establishing their reputations and attracting funding to Australia. An example is Frank Macfarlane Burnet who, as the Director at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research from 1944 to 1965, extended its scope and size, bringing the Institute to international prominence for virological research, and then for immunology.

Public institutions have played a key role in hosting Australia's Laureates and they in turn have nurtured others. Bernard Katz worked at the Sydney Hospital until 1946 with John Carew Eccles, who was to receive the Nobel Prize in 1963, with Katz recognised in 1970 – both of whom donated their time to give research lectures at the University of Sydney, strongly influencing the intellectual environment of the university. In 1973, Patrick White used the money from the Nobel Prize to establish a trust to fund the Patrick White Award, given annually to established creative writers who have received little public recognition, and the list today is an exemplar of Australia's poets, novelists and playwrights.

Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt with top Year 8 students at the University of Western Australia, 2012, Sea, Earth and Beyond challenge

Peter Doherty did his research at the John Curtin School of Medical Research in Canberra and later, as a Laureate from 1996, became an outspoken advocate for science, libraries, public education, health and safety, establishing the Peter Doherty Institute at the University of Melbourne. Robin Warren and Barry Marshall's research work was done at the Royal Perth Hospital.  Elizabeth Blackburn has contributed widely to scientific debate about the role of science in the quest for truth as well seeking to study chromosomes in the altered health of abused women. Brian Schmidt is an astronomer at the Australian National University who has recently attracted funding to develop and launch an online science curriculum website, Science by Doing, to get more Australian school students interested in research and discovery.

It might be said that William Bragg set a benchmark for these qualities of fearless determination to explore ideas in the pursuit of truth and their rigour in establishing decent laboratories as part of a collaborative research environment. At the same time, there was a contribution to public knowledge, cultural institutions and community benefit. When William Bragg arrived in Adelaide in 1886 as Professor of Mathematics and to give some instruction in physics, Bragg apprenticed himself to a firm of instrument-makers to make apparatus for his deficient teaching laboratory, before going on to become one of the eminent physicists of his day. Bragg was also active in supporting the affairs of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of South Australia, the School of Mines and Industries and the Teachers' Guild. It is a legacy that has benefitted not just the scientific community but has had great and lasting benefits to the Australian people.

The Nobel Prize

Queen Silvia, King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, Crown Princess Victoria, and at rear: Prince Carl Philip and Prince Daniel, at the 2011 Nobel Prize Award Ceremony. Courtesy of the Nobel Foundation.

Every year since 1901 the Nobel Prize has been awarded for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and for peace. The Nobel Prize is an international award administered by the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden. Recently, the Bank of Sweden has been awarding a non-official, but associated, Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics.

Alfred Nobel (1833–1896), the inventor of dynamite, conceived the idea of the Nobel Prize following his concern about the increasing military uses of his invention. Nobel bequeathed a large amount of his assets 'which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.'

Most of the prizes are awarded annually in Stockholm, Sweden, on 10 December, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel's death. The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo, Norway. The Nobel Prize Laureates receive gold medals, which bear the portrait of Alfred Nobel. Laureates also receive the Nobel Prize Diplomas, which are created by foremost Swedish and Norwegian artists and calligraphers on special handmade paper. A cash amount is also awarded, which is over US$1 million for each prize.

Australian Nobel Laureates

Brian P Schmidt (2011)

Brian Schmidt, at Aula Magna, Stockholm University, 2011, after giving his Nobel Lecture, no source.

The Nobel Prize in Physics for 2011 was awarded jointly, one half to Australian Brian Schmidt and Adam G Riess, and the other half to Saul Perlmutter, 'for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe through observations of distant supernovae'. Two separate teams set out to study exploding stars or supernovae, and both were astonished to discover that the universe's expansion was accelerating, rather than slowing down as expected. This discovery has led to speculation about the existence of 'dark energy' pushing the universe apart. Schmidt's office-mate. Sean Carroll has created a one-minute video explanation of the accelerating universe and its implications.

Brian Schmidt is an astronomer at the Australian National University in the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, formerly known as Mount Stromlo and Siding Spring Observatories. He continues to work on supernovae and also leads Mt Stromlo's effort to build the SkyMapper telescope, a new facility that will provide a comprehensive digital map of the southern sky.

Elizabeth Helen Blackburn (2009)

Professor Elizabeth Helen Blackburn. Courtesy of Australian Scientists

Elizabeth Blackburn (b. Hobart, 1948) shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 with American scientists Carol W Greider and Jack W Szostak when she was working at the University of California in San Francisco, USA.

The prize was awarded for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase. The research showed that telomere sequences at the end of chromosomes protect the chromosomes from damage and maintain the integrity of the genome. The discovery has transformed our understanding of how cells age and die, and has opened up research in a new field of molecular biology.

Blackburn, along with her colleagues, investigated the effect of stress on telomerase and also on telomeres. Recently they discovered that psychological stress may accelerate aging right inside the cells. Overall poor health was observed in women who were abused resulting due to the shortening of telomere length. (Australian Scientists)

J Robin Warren and Barry James Marshall (2005)

Barry J Marshall (left) and J Robin Warren exchange a high five to celebrate their shared Nobel Prize in Medicine after the ceremony at the Concert Hall in Stockholm, Sweden. Image courtesy Herald Sun.

Dr J Robin Warren (b. 1937) and Professor Barry James Marshall (b. 1951) received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2005 for their discovery in 1982 of the Helicobacter pylori bacterium which causes stomach peptic ulcers and gastritis. Robin Warren, then a senior pathologist at Royal Perth Hospital, first observed the presence of small curved bacteria in a biopsy from the lower part of the stomach in 1979. He teamed up with Barry Marshall, a registrar in the gastroenterology department, in 1981. 

Warren (now a retired emeritus consultant) and Marshall (now Professor of Clinical Microbiology at University of Western Australia) cultured the bacteria, identified as a new species, and demonstrated the association of H. pylori and peptic ulcers, particularly duodenal ulcers. After repeated snubs, and with his research findings being ignored, Marshall took the drastic step of infecting himself in order to prove his theory. He proved his findings right by recovering with a few days treatment of antibiotics.

Eradication of the bacteria resulted in healing of the gastritis, and the ulcers rarely recurred. The implications of discovering the bacterium are significant. Peptic ulcer disease, once thought to be incurable, has been a major medical problem in most countries of the developed world. Now, treatment using antibiotics permanently eradicates ulcers.

Peter Charles Doherty (1996)

Professor Peter Doherty and students in microbiology and immunology, University of Melbourne, 2011, image by Aaron Francis. Courtesy of The Australian

Veterinary surgeon, Professor Peter Doherty (b. 1940) shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1996 with Swiss Professor Rolf M Zinkernagel (b. 1944) for the discovery of how the immune system recognises virus-infected cells. The two Nobel Laureates carried out the research at the John Curtin School of Medical Research in Canberra at the Australian National University. The research has laid a foundation in understanding how general mechanisms used by the cellular immune system recognise both foreign microorganisms and self molecules. During their studies of the response of mice to viruses, they found that white blood cells (lymphocytes) must recognise both the virus and certain self molecules – the so-called major histocompatibility antigens – to kill the virus-infected cells.

Zinkernagel's and Doherty´s findings had an immediate impact on immunological research. The wide relevance of their observations concerning the specificity of the T-lymphocytes became apparent in many contexts, both in regard to the ability of the immune system to recognize microorganisms other than viruses, and in regard to the ability of the immune system to react against certain kinds of self tissue.

The Peter Doherty Institute at the University of Melbourne is dedicated to 'the future of research into infectious diseases, immunology and improving public health and safety'.

John Warcup Cornforth, 1975. Courtesy of the Nobel Foundation

John Warcup Cornforth (1975)

Professor John Warcup Cornforth (1917-2013) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1975 whilst at the University of Sussex for his work on the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalyzed reactions. He shared the prize with Swiss Professor Vladimir Prelog, for his research into the stereochemistry. While they did not work together, the commonalities of their research led to international recognition.

Cornforth investigated the role of enzymes, the biological catalysts that control important chemical reactions, by detailing how they construct the essential precursor for cholesterol, squalene, in the cell. His focus was on how the shape of a molecule, or its stereochemistry, is created, and how this affects its behaviour. Conforth could track which choice the enzyme makes at each stage to create the correct product.

John Cornforth and Rita Harradence, c. 1938. Courtesy of University of Sydney

Cornforth grew up in Armidale, NSW, and suffered gradual deafness from the age of ten until 20, which had led him to be interested in laboratory work in organic chemistry. This had been introduced to him by his teacher at Sydney Boys High School, Leonard Basser.

In 1938 he won a scholarship, along with Rita Harradence, to study with Robert Robinson at Oxford, who was later to win the Nobel Prize in 1947. Together they built upon Howard Florey's work on the drug penicillin, working to purify and stabilise it. Cornforth acknowledged his wife, organic chemist Rita Harradence;

her experimental skill made major contributions to the work; she has eased for me beyond measure the difficulties of communication that accompany deafness….
we became part of the chemical effort on penicillin which was the major chemical project in Robinson's laboratory during the war. We made contributions, and I helped to write The Chemistry of Penicillin (Princeton University Press, 1949)…. The collaboration with Robinson continued after I joined (1946) the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council and worked at its National Institute, first at Hampstead and then at Mill Hill. In the end (1951) we were able to complete, simultaneously with Woodward, the first total synthesis of the non-aromatic steroids.
John Cornforth, Biographical, Nobel Foundation

Patrick White (1973)

1973 Nobel Laureate Patrick White, c 1973, no source

Patrick White (1912–1990) received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973 for 'an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature'. White was recognised for his

unbroken creative power, an ever deeper restlessness and seeking urge, an onslaught against vital problems that have never ceased to engage him, and a wrestling with the language in order to extract all its power and all its nuances

White was an established author with seven novels. The novels each portray rich, emotional characterisation of Australians, with dramatic accounts of life, love and death. Notable books include his first, The Aunt's Story(1948), Voss(1957), The Vivisector (1970) and, The Eye of the Storm(1973).

White's last two books are among his greatest feats, both as to size and to frenzied building up of tension. The Vivisector is the imaginary biography of an artist, in which a whole life is disclosed in a relentless scrutiny of motives and springs of action: an artist's untiring battle to express the utmost while sacrificing both himself and his fellow-beings in the attempt. The Eye of the Storm places an old, dying woman in the centre of a narrative which revolves round, and encloses, the whole of her environment, past and present, until we have come to share an entire life panorama, in which everyone is on a decisive dramatic footing with the old lady.
Swedish Academy, Nobel Prize in Literature 1973 - Press Release,

For a long time White had the distinction of being the only Australian author to have won a Nobel Prize for literature until the poet J M Coetzee, the 2003 Nobel Laureate for Literature moved from South Africa to Adelaide and took Australian citizenship in 2006.

Bernard Katz (1970)

Bernard Katz, 1970. Courtesy of the Nobel Foundation

Sir Bernard Katz (1911–2003), a naturalised Australian citizen, shared one-third of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1970 with Swiss Professor Ulf von Euler and American Dr Julius Axelrod. Katz was born in Leipzig in Germany before working in England in 1935 and then, with a post-doctoral fellowship, he completed his studies under the direction of John Carew Eccles at Sydney Hospital, later returning to England in 1946, working with Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley, who were to receive the Nobel Prize with Eccles in 1963. Katz served with the Royal Australian Air Force during the Second World War.

The three Nobel Laureates were awarded the prize 'for their discoveries concerning the humoral transmitters in the nerve terminals and the mechanism for their storage, release and inactivation'. Their research led to an understanding of what causes the transmission between the nerve cells, and between the nerve terminals and the effector organs. The transmission between the nerve cells is assisted by chemical substances (neurotransmitters) which carry the message from one cell to the other.

The three scientists worked independently of each other, but their discoveries all contribute in solving principal questions concerning the neurotransmitters, their storage, release, and inactivation.

Aleksandr Mikhailovich Prokhorov (1964)

Professor Aleksandr M Prokhorov. Courtesy of the Nobel Foundation

Professor Aleksandr Mikhailovich Prokhorov (1916–2002), born in Atherton, Queensland was awarded a quarter of the Nobel Prize in Physics 1964, with Russian Dr Nicolai Gennadiyevich Basov (receiving a quarter). Both Prokhorov and Basov were physicists at the P. N. Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow. This followed Prokhorov's return to Russia in 1923.  They had discovered ways to 'nudge electrons around atoms' leading to the discovery of the maser, a device that emits microwave radiation of a single wavelength. The Nobel Prize was shared with American Professor Charles Hard Townes (receiving half), who had independently developed a maser about the same time.

The prize was awarded 'for fundamental work in the field of quantum electronics, which has led to the construction of oscillators and amplifiers based on the maser-laser principle'. Their research led to the development of the maser, which is important in radio astronomy and which are being used in space research for recording the radio signals from satellites. They also invented the laser, which is now used in a wide range of applications from surgery and engineering to barcode scanners.

Dr. Prokhorov was among 97 Nobel Prize winners who called for a freeze on the development and deployment of nuclear weapons in 1982. In 1983 he founded the General Physics Institute in Moscow, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and he served as the Institute's director until 1988.

John Carew Eccles (1963)

John Carew Eccles. Courtesy of the Nobel Foundation

Sir John Carew Eccles (1903–1997) shared a third of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1963, with British professors Alan Lloyd Hodgkin and Andrew Fielding Huxley, who worked with Bernard Katz, a Nobel winner in 1970. Eccles was Professor of Physiology at the Australian National University from 1951 to 1966. He was later Professor of Physiology and Biophysics at the State University of New York, Buffalo 1968-1975.

The 1963 Nobel prize was awarded 'for their discoveries concerning the ionic mechanisms involved in excitation and inhibition in the peripheral and central portions of the nerve cell membrane'. The research concerned the basic processes that cause the electrical impulses which control nerves and, therefore, muscular movement. The results deal with the nature of the nerve impulse itself and with the electrical changes that it causes at the bodies of nerve cells. The electrical processes were recorded with microelectrodes, amplified about a million times, and then displayed on the screen of a cathode ray tube.

Frank Macfarlane Burnet (1960)

Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet (1899–1985) born in Traralgon, Victoria, shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1960 with British Professor Peter Brian Medawar 'for discovery of acquired immunological tolerance'. Their work looked at how tissue grafts from one animal to another could be successful without the risk of the animal rejecting the graft. Their experiments introduced foreign tissue into the embryos of mice. The mice were then born normally and the same foreign tissue again injected. The mice did not have any reactions to the grafts, which showed that they had developed immunological tolerance to the foreign material.

Frank Burnet in the lab at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Melbourne,1945, no source.

Burnet's first book, Biological Aspects of Infectious Disease, was published in 1940. It had wide influence and was translated into several languages. From 1944 to 1965, Burnet conducted his pioneering research at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. Despite offers of 'chairs' in London twice and at Harvard University, Burnet remained in Australia.

Burnet worked on the genetics of influenza from 1951-56, and then in 1957 decided that research at the Institute should focus on immunology. Burnet introduced a hypothesis about the situation where the body failed to make antibodies to its own components (autoimmunity) and by extension the idea of immune tolerance but was unable to prove this experimentally until he worked with Peter Medawar.

Burnet served on numerous national and international committees, chairing the (Australian) Radiation Advisory Committee (1955–59) and the (British) Commonwealth Foundation (1966–69). Never afraid to speak out on public issues – such as the use of nuclear energy, which he first opposed then later supported – he assumed greater prominence after winning the Nobel Prize. He worked extensively with publishers and the media to promote his blend of popular science, history, social and political theory and philosophy. (G. J. V. Nossal, Burnet, Sir Frank Macfarlane (Mac) (1899–1985), Australian Dictionary of Biography)

Robert Robinson (1947)

Professor Sir Robert Robinson. Courtesy of the Nobel Foundation

Professor Sir Robert Robinson (1886–1975) was an organic chemist, appointed as the first Professor of Pure and Applied Organic Chemistry in the School of Chemistry at the University of Sydney in 1912, and later Waynflete Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University from 1930.

His synthesis of tropinone, a precursor of cocaine, in 1917 was not only a big step in alkaloid chemistry but also showed that tandem reactions in a one-pot synthesis are capable of forming bicyclic molecules. He invented the symbol for benzene having a circle in the middle whilst working at St Andrews University in 1923. He is known for inventing the use of the curly arrow to represent electron movement, and he is also known for discovering the molecular structures of morphine and penicillin.
Birch, A. J. (1993). Investigating a Scientific Legend: The Tropinone Synthesis of Sir Robert Robinson, F.R.S. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London (1938-1996) 47 (2): 277–226.

Robinson was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1947 'for his investigations on plant products of biological importance, especially the alkaloids'. The work focused on alkaloids, chemicals found in vegetables, and led to a greater understanding of the molecular structure of morphine, strychnine and other alkaloids. Sir Robert also contributed theories about how plants build up these molecules.

Howard Walter Florey (1945)


Howard Florey, c.1960. Image courtesy National Library of Australia: an23609885.

Sir Howard Walter Florey (1898–1968) shared a third of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1945 with his British colleagues Sir Alexander Fleming and Ernest Boris Chain 'for the discovery of penicillin and its curative effect in various infectious diseases'.

Following the discovery of penicillin by Fleming in 1928, Florey and Chain headed a team of British scientists in 1938 to experiment on mice and then humans. Together with a team of researchers, Florey and Chain spent the next couple of years developing a method that allowed them to create a medicine that could be used to effectively kill harmful bacteria that caused infection, illness and death. Penicillin, now known as an antibiotic medicine which fights infection, was developed to control a range of illnesses such as general blood poisoning, cerebral meningitis, pneumonia, and syphilis.

William Henry Bragg and William Lawrence Bragg (1915)

Professor William Henry Bragg, Courtesy of the Nobel Foundation

Professor Sir William Henry Bragg (1862–1942) and his son Professor (William) Lawrence Bragg (1890–1971), aged 25 years, were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1915 'for their services in the analysis of crystal structure by means of X-rays'. Lawrence Bragg was the youngest ever Nobel Laureate, but being part of a father-and-son team meant it was years before he received true recognition for his seminal work in X-ray crystallography.

W H Bragg arrived at the University of Adelaide in 1886 to take up his university post, described as 'Professor of Pure and Applied Mathematics, who shall also give instruction in Physics'. The latter was a subject about which he knew very little but he went on to become one of the great thinkers in physics of his age.

In 1904 William H Bragg developed his theory of the ionization of gases, which led to a brilliant series of researches which within three years earned him a fellowship of the Royal Society of London. Bragg concluded that X-rays and γ rays were streams of neutral-pair particles rather than electromagnetic waves. This made him the centre of a controversy for several years.

Professor (William) Lawrence Bragg. Courtesy of the Nobel Foundation

In 1912 Max von Laue showed that X-rays could be diffracted by crystals and established their wave nature. During that summer Bragg and his son William Lawrence, who was then at Trinity College, Cambridge, discussed this development. While the father, with his experience of ionization measurements, went on to construct an X-ray spectrometer for the further study of the properties of X-rays, the son found a brilliant simplification of Laue's diffraction problem and formulated Bragg's Law, relating the location of maxima of the diffraction pattern to the wavelength of the radiation and the distance between the appropriate planes of atoms in the crystal.
S. G. Tomlin, Bragg, Sir William Henry (1862–1942), Australian Dictionary of Biography

In 1915 William H Bragg was appointed to the Quain chair of physics at University College, London. Lawrence Bragg went on to become director of the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, where in 1953 James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA, utilizing X-ray crystallography.

Both father and son worked creatively to help develop better public awareness and understanding of science. W H Bragg established a tradition of popularizing science with a Christmas lecture series for young people. Lawrence Bragg visited Australia in 1960 and spoke at the University of Adelaide of the latest triumphs of crystallography.

The process of scientific inquiry

At the 1975 Nobel Banquet, John Warcup Cornforth gave the following description of the process of scientific inquiry;

In a world where it is so easy to neglect, deny, corrupt and suppress the truth, the scientist may find his discipline severe. For him, truth is so seldom the sudden light that shows new order and beauty; more often, truth is the uncharted rock that sinks his ship in the dark. He respects all the more those who can accept that condition; and in returning thanks tonight we are saluting all those who make our load lighter by sharing it.
John Warcup Cornforth, Banquet speech, December 10, 1975

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Last updated: 30 October 2013
Creators: David Gardiner, Kathryn Wells

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