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Notable Nobel Prize Winners in Medicine

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for penicillin

(Editor’s note: Welcome to Bold’s series on the Nobel Prize, its winners, and their contributions. Read up on the notable winners in physics here.)

A Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine means a stamp
A Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine means a direct benefit to the health of mankind.

Like other Nobel Prizes in various fields, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was first awarded in 1901. Since that time, there has been a total of 114 prizes given to a total of 226 different Nobel Laureates. Each year, professors at the Karolinska Institute convene to determine potential nominees. Subsequently, at least since 1977, a select committee of five professors then assess their merit. In doing so, it is evident that physiologists and scientists in the basic sciences receive preference over those in applied science. Their perspective thus appears to be that Nobel Prizes that changed medicine at a more basic level deserve the most credit.

Among the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, nearly everyone deserves recognition. Discoveries range from those that revolutionized the care of infectious diseases to those involving genetic therapies. In addition, the award has not been without its fair share of controversy at times. In 1949, Antonio Moniz received the award for work with prefrontal lobotomies. This was highly protested by the medical community on an ethical basis. Likewise, in 1952, litigation occurred after one scientist was not included as a recipient. Ultimately, court rulings awarded this individual patent rights alongside the Nobel Prize winner. Regardless, the following offers a collection of Nobel Prizes that changed medicine and the incredible intellects behind them.

  • Emil Adolf von Behring – Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1901

At the turn of the 20th century, little was known about the human immune system. But Emil Adolf von Behring was able to demonstrate that our immune system produced specific immune substances. He showed that serum from a horse could be transferred to a human to provide immunity against a disease. His work then used this strategy to cure and prevent infections from diphtheria. This completely changed approaches to infectious diseases thereafter and build a strong foundation for the study of immunology. It is therefore included on the list of critical Nobel Prizes that changed medicine.

  • Frederick Banting and John Macleod – Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1923

Around this time, there was a general belief that diabetes resulted from a lack of insulin as a result of pancreatic deficiency. If insulin could be isolated and provided to diabetics, then effective treatments might result. To this end, Frederick Banting believed a substance called trypsin metabolized insulin. So, he along with John Macleod treated dogs to eliminate trypsin, which allowed them to harvest insulin to treat diabetes. Thus, this is one of the Nobel Prizes that changed medicine and the lives of millions with diabetes thereafter.

some Nobel Prize winner on a stamp
You know you’ve accomplished something great for the world when you win a Nobel Prize in Medicine.
  • Sir Alexander Fleming, Ernst Chain and Sir Howard Walter Florey – Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1945

It’s easy to appreciate that the discovery of penicillin deserves recognition. This is why it is included among the most notable Nobel Prizes that changed medicine. Sir Alexander Fleming was the scientist who initially discovered the substance when noticing bacterial growth was impeded by a mold. Once isolated, however, penicillin proved to be rather unstable. It was thus the work of Ernst Chain and Howard Florey that allowed the pharmaceutical production of penicillin for widespread use. Naturally, this ushered in the era of antibiotic care.

  • Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins – Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1962

The award giving to those defining the structure of DNA is certainly among the most important Nobel Prizes that changed medicine. Maurice Wilkins initiated these discoveries with his work with x-ray crystallography. Watson and Crick then used Wilkins’ images to define the double helix structure of DNA and its protein bases. Not only did this explain how DNA could be utilized as a code but also offered insight about its replication. Today’s fields of genetics and genomics would not exist without these critical findings. (Read up on a recent genetics breakthrough in this Bold story.)

  • Allan M. Cormack and Godfrey N. Hounsfield – Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1979

For decades, x-rays had been used in medicine for diagnostic purposes. But with the introduction of computing in the 1950s, new possibilities emerged. These advanced technologies were thought to have potential applications in medicine, particularly in imaging diagnostics. Cormack and Hounsfield believed by sending x-rays at different angles, cross-sectional images of the body’s structures could be attained. Hounsfield developed the apparatus while Cormack determined the complex computer calculations. The result was computerized tomography, or the CT scan. Given the subsequent impact on diagnostics of this discovery, it too is included among the Nobel Prizes that changed medicine.

Nobel Prizes that changed medicine in a graphic
The Nobel Prizes that changed medicine are the ones with irrefutable benefit to mankind.
  • Stanley B. Prusiner – Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1997

While bacteria and viruses were known to be infectious particles, proteins alone were not. Yet, certain degenerative diseases affecting humans and animals appeared to have an infectious cause. Prusiner is the recipient of one of the Nobel Prizes that changed medicine because his work identified these infectious proteins. Prusiner labelled these proteins “prions” and demonstrated that they had abnormally folded structures. These folded structures, which resulted in cellular dysfunction, could be transferred from one cell to another. His findings were important because it defined a completely new infectious material. This has since led to a number of diseases being called prion disease.

  • Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren – Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2005

One of the criteria for Nobel Prizes that changed medicine is the capacity to cause paradigm shifts in care. This was certainly relevant to the work performed by Barry Marshall and Robin Warren. At the time of their work, gastric ulcers were considered chronic illnesses and the result of excess acid production. But Warren discovered clumps of bacteria within gastric ulcer sites that had never been seen. Marshall was then able to define these bacteria, now called Helicobacter pylori, which had not previously been isolated. They were then able to show that only by eradicating these bacteria with antibiotics could gastric ulcer patients be cured. Notably, their findings completely changed how gastric ulcer is treated, and it has provided cures to many in the process.


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