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Chemistry Nobel Prizes and second acts

While having a discussion about Barry Sharpless with a fellow chemist the following random question occurred to me: How many chemists have contributed at least one significant piece of work to science after winning the Nobel Prize? Sharpless himself invented click chemistry after being recognized for asymmetric synthesis.

After winning the prize many laureates bask in the sunlight and cut down significantly on research. Some use their newfound celebrity status to advance educational or social causes. Others can disappear from the world of science altogether. But a select few plough on as if they had never won the prize and the names of these persistent souls should be more widely known. 

A couple of examples spring to mind. At the top of the list should be the man who continued to do research that turned out to be so important that he shared another Nobel Prize for it: Fred Sanger, who got his first Nobel Prize for protein sequencing and the second for DNA sequencing.

R. B. Woodward must also join Fred Sanger at the top. Although technically he won just one Nobel Prize he would have undoubtedly won another (for the Woodward-Hoffmann rules) had he been alive (and cut down on the scotch and cigarettes) and was probably a candidate for a third (ferrocene and organometallic chemistry).

But we can find examples much further back. Ernest Rutherford received an anomalous 1908 prize in chemistry instead of physics, but after winning it he continued to churn out Nobel Prize-winning students and pathbreaking discoveries, including the demonstration of artificial or induced radioactivity. Harold Urey received a prize in 1934 for his discovery of deuterium, but he contributed at least partially to the founding of origins of life chemistry with Stanley Kubrick (ok it's Miller, huge typo, but I am going to let this stay; I can only surmise that I was fantasizing about a Kubrick movie titled "2001 A Space Odyssey: RNA World Edition") in the 50s. In this context Manfred Eigen is another interesting example; after being recognized for methods to study fast reactions in 1967, Eigen embarked on an origins of life career and among other things came up with the idea of "hypercycles".

Interestingly, Linus Pauling who is widely considered the greatest chemist of the twentieth century had exhausted his quota of important chemical discoveries by the time he won the Nobel Prize in 1954. Until then he had already revolutionized the theory of chemical bonding, proposed the alpha helix and beta sheet structures in proteins and had contributed a host of other important ideas ranging from rules for predicting the structure of minerals to proposals about the mechanism of action of antibodies and enzymes. Pauling continued to do interesting work scientific after this, but most of his attention was focused on arms disarmament for which he won the peace prize in 1962. For the rest of his life Pauling was occupied partly with interesting scientific projects and partly with controversial medical projects. Nothing that he did came close to his accomplishments before winning the prize, although given the magnitude of those accomplishments I guess we can cut him some slack.

I don't have an exhaustive list here but I doubt if there's many more names to add here. Doing one piece of significant science in your life seems hard enough so perhaps it's unrealistic to expect two. And yet there are a few hardy souls who achieve this.


  1. Replies
    1. Clearly it is supposed to be Stanley Miller.

  2. I believe you meant to say Stanley Miller. Urey also contributed in fundamental ways to earth and space science. He also advised and assisted the government on numerous occasions, and spoke publicly on non-scientific matters when inclined to do so.

  3. Thanks for pointing that out! I can only surmise that I was fantasizing about a Kubrick movie titled "2001 A Space Odyssey: RNA World Edition". I think I am going to let it stay there as a reminder of what happens when expectations usurp reality.

  4. Not chemistry, but in Physics there are lots of good choices-- recent ones include Bardeen (double laureate, superconductivity and transistor), and Phil Anderson (got the prize for the effect of disorder in electronic systems; first invented what is known as the Higgs mechanism, and has the leading theory for High-Tc superconductivity)

    1. Yes, in fact it's worth doing a separate post on physicists.

    2. And don't forget Brian Josephson.

  5. scientists also have to consider moving roles from chief researcher, to facilitator of others endeavours. There are stories to mine in Banting/Best/Noble/McCloud in the discovery of Insulin and subsequent science. Or Chain and Penicillin.

  6. Roger Tsien is on that same road. The man is still doing awesome research... And I heartily support your leaving Kubrick where he doesn't belong, because the absurdity is awesome.

  7. Ada Yonath, Martin Chalfie,

  8. I'd add Emil Fischer (1902) and Bill Lipscomb (1976) for their work with amino acids/proteins after their recognized accomplishments with sugars and boranes, respectively.

  9. Speaking of RNA World, how about Tom Cech? After winning the Nobel Prize for discovering catalytic RNA, his lab did some important work on telomere and telomerase, including cloning of the gene for the protein component of the telomerase.

    In physics, I'd say Chen-Ning Yang for Yang-Mills theory.

  10. All good choices. I also forgot Jack Szostak who has made many pioneering contributions to origins-of-life research after co-discovering telomerase.

    1. Sharpless did not invent the click chemistry......the 1,3 cycloaddition between a dipolarophile (alkyne) and a dipole (azido groups) was developed by Rolf Huisgen in the 60´s (????????).....The name reaction should be The Huisgen Reaction.....I think Barry just improved the methodology by employing copper (II) and ascorbate.......the best- bad example for a post-Nobel Prize winner doing nothing for science must be Kary Mullis.......


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