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10 People Who Should Have Won the Nobel Prize But Didn’t

Eleanor Roosevelt is one of a few Nobel Prize snubs

(Editor’s note: Welcome to Bold’s series on the Nobel Prize, its winners, and their contributions. Read up on Claudia Goldin, the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, here.)

Receiving the Nobel Prize in any of the five categories is indeed a prestigious honor. The prize recognizes those who have contributed tremendous discoveries and works to humankind. Once nominated, potential winners are selected by the criteria initially defined by Alfred Nobel set out in his will. The chemist, engineer, and philanthropist left most of his wealth for the establishment of these awards. But despite leaving precise instructions, that doesn’t mean the Nobel Prize committee has always gotten it right. Over the years, there have been some notable Nobel Prize snubs. This is not meant to imply recipients were not worthy of a Nobel Prize. But it is worth noting that some very deserving individuals failed to be properly recognized. With this in mind, here are 10 of the more noteworthy Nobel Prize snubs to date.

The Pope is worthy of the Nobel prize
Was Pope John Paul II worthy of the Nobel prize? Heck yeah!
  1. Rosalind Franklin

We know a great deal about the structure of DNA, which has led to incredible discoveries in genomics. Likewise, many of us recognize the contributions of Watson, Crick and Wilkins, all of whom received the Nobel Prize in 1962. But you may not have heard of Rosalind Franklin whose work in x-ray diffraction actually identified DNA structure in the first place. This as well as later research discoveries related to poliovirus certainly made her worthy of a Nobel Prize. But she was never granted the honor before she prematurely died at 37-years of age of ovarian cancer.

  1. Dmitri Mendeleev

The Nobel Prize awards weren’t awarded prior to 1905, but several individuals who won completed extraordinary work prior to this. One such person worthy of a Nobel Prize was Dmitri Mendeleev who created the periodic table. By organizing elements by their atomic weight, he realized elemental patterns existed. He even had the foresight to leave open spaces in the table for elements discovered in the future. Though nominated for the prize for three consecutive years beginning in 1905, Mendeleev was never selected. Given his contributions in chemistry, it’s clear to say he was among the more notable Nobel Prize snubs.

  1. Lisa Meitner

When it comes to Nobel Prize snubs, Lisa Meitner is commonly recognized in this regard. As a result of her work with Otto Hahn in Germany, she demonstrated how nuclear fission could be achieved. In fact, she was the scientist to actually coin the term nuclear fission. But after having to flee Germany to Sweden to avoid Nazi persecution, Hahn published her work, minimizing her involvement. Hahn went on to receive the Nobel Prize in 1944 for the work despite Meitner being the one truly worthy of the Nobel Prize. (Dig into the latest nuclear reactor technology in this Bold explainer.)

  1. Jonas Salk

Anyone familiar with poliovirus and its related vaccine readily recognizes the name, Jonas Salk. Salk was the very first to develop a polio vaccine, which created using dead poliovirus. After trying on himself and volunteers, he then inoculated one million children against the disabling and deadly virus. It was proven to be 95% effective, and Salk became a household name overnight. Unfortunately, despite saving thousands from life-debilitating disease, Salk was not deemed worthy of a Nobel Prize. Because his vaccine was based on prior discoveries, his work was not considered original enough.

A statue of some Nobel Prize winner
Sadly, not everyone who deserves a Nobel Prize gets one.
  1. Albert Schatz

Albert Schatz is another one of the scientists and Nobel Prize snubs that occurred as a result of greed. He is known to have discovered the antibiotic, Streptomycin, while performing doctoral work at Rutgers. Streptomycin became highly effective in treating a variety of diseases including TB, Typhoid, Cholera, and the Bubonic Plague. But rather than receiving credit, his lab supervisor, Selman Waksman, overtook ownership of the discovery and received the Nobel Prize in 1952. This is another case where someone worthy of the Nobel Prize was betrayed by a colleague.

  1. Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi is a name known to most, and it’s likely surprising that he too was among the Nobel Prize snubs. His strategies of non-violence to gain India’s independence certainly makes him worthy of a Nobel Prize in Peace. But despite being nominated five times between 1937 and 1948, he never received the award. Some suspect he would have received it in 1948, but sadly, he was assassinated before the awards were announced.

Gandhi is one of many Nobel Prize snubs
As Nobel Prize snubs go, Gandhi is definitely on the list for his accomplishments.
  1. Stephen Hawking

Another well-known scientist, as well as one of the Nobel Prize snubs to date, is Stephen Hawkings. As a premier astrophysicist, his theory on black holes effectively connected quantum mechanics with the theory of relativity. He theorized that black holes eventually evaporate and disappear, which was revolutionary at the time. However, because it’s difficult to test his theory through direct observation, he has yet to be deemed worthy of a Nobel Prize.

  1. Eleanor Roosevelt

When it comes to Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady is believed by many to be among the top Nobel Prize snubs. Before, during, and after her time in the White House, she was universally recognized for her civil and human rights work. But while many men have been determined worthy of the Nobel Prize for comparable works, she was not. She was nominated on several occasions, but never received the honor. Instead, her uncle, Theodore Roosevelt was the only one in the family to be a Nobel Prize winner.

  1. Leo Tolstoy

When it comes to the greatest literary authors of all time, Leo Tolstoy’s name routinely is included. The author of “War and Peace” as well as “Anna Karenina,” however, was never chosen as a Nobel Prize recipient. The reason he was among Nobel Prize snubs appears to be related to his works’ content. Alfed Nobel cited the criteria as the most outstanding work in an idealized direction. Being perceived from a more conservative perspective, Tolstoy’s works apparently did not qualify. The committee thus believed his literary achievements were not worthy of a Nobel Prize.

  1. Cecilio Payne

When it comes to Nobel Prize winners, the number or male recipients far exceed that of women. In the last two decades, only six women have won while 145 men have received the award. This may be why Cecilio Payne was also among the top Nobel Prize snubs. In short, she is responsible for what is known about the structure of stars today. By studying spectral emissions, she was able to determine that stars have large amounts of helium and hydrogen. Unfortunately, her work in 1925 was never appreciated as her advisor Henry Norris Russell took credit for it.


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