Nobel Controversies

The Nobel Prize is awarded only once per year to a small number of people and is highly regarded as a pinnacle achievement in science. During the time I have spent in research, I have observed a trend that may not be that well known. It used to be possible for professors to conduct meaningful research on their own. This was in a day where scientists were performing broad, fundamental work, like Edwin Hall who wrote his doctoral thesis on the Hall Effect, now a well-studied phenomenon in physics. Now, research in science seems more gradual and specialized. Professors increasingly have been forced to spend less time doing real lab work while graduate students conduct most of the meaningful research (although this is not to say that being a professor is a cake walk – professors often must fill the roles of lab manager, accountant, editor, career advisor, grant writer, committee member, and journal referee all while balancing the expected teaching and research duties). While considering this, I wondered if any graduate students were ever significant contributors to research deemed worthy of a Nobel Prize but got snubbed when the award was given to their advisor. I came across articles on Nobel Prize controversies in science, where significant collaborators were omitted, reported results were dubious, and data was possibly manipulated. Here are a few contentious prizes awarded.

Johannes Fibiger

One notable awardee was Johannes Fibiger. Fibiger won the 1926 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of an organism he deemed Spiroptera carcinoma. He claimed that the organism was the primary cause of cancer in rats and mice. The growth that he believed was cancerous was actually only due to a vitamin A deficiency and would have been noticed if he had practiced what is now ubiquitous in science research: the use of a control group. If later being proven incorrect was not enough to deem this a Nobel controversy, the award also snubbed Katsusaburo Yamagiwa. Yamagiwa actually succeeded in his attempts to induce cancer in rabbits by painting coal tar on their ears just two years after Fibiger’s research (11 years before the prize was awarded). To top it all off, the award was actually given retroactively to Fibiger in 1927 after no initial decision could be made in 1926.

Robert Millikan

The name “Robert Millikan” might ring faint, vague bells for those who still remember general chemistry. Millikan is famous for his oil drop experiment that accurately and precisely measured the charge of an electron for the first time. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for this work in 1923. At the time, there was controversy surrounding the experiment and the awarding of the prize. Millikan was considered the front-runner for the prize in 1920 but did not receive it. Another physicist, Felix Ehrenhaft, claimed to have meticulously measured the charge of an electron and obtained values significantly less than what Millikan had measured. This debate delayed Millikan’s reception of the award but Ehrenhaft’s assertions were ultimately dismissed.

The oil drop experiment itself also buzzes with controversy. It is widely believed that Millikan selectively omitted data in order to obtain more precise values. This is substantially faux pas in science and could ruin careers, but Millikan is not discredited by these claims. The alteration of data did not change his final result and his precision would have still been better than anyone else had obtained. Still, these statements should not justify data manipulation.

Harvey Fletcher, Millikan’s graduate student at the time of oil drop experiment, was not awarded the Nobel Prize for the experiment. Five distinct papers were published directly from the results of the oil drop experiment. Fletcher had expected joint authorship for every paper, but Millikan wanted sole recognition for the most prominent paper that eventually won the Nobel Prize. Fletcher was merely a graduate student that wanted to finish his PhD, and so he struck a secret deal with Millikan. Millikan promised the fifth paper would be the basis of Fletcher’s thesis if Millikan could be the single author for the electron charge paper. Fletcher died in 1981, leaving behind an autobiography that revealed this agreement for the first time.  Fletcher’s account noted that he had authorship (jointly or solely) on the four other papers. Even in the Nobel Prize-winning paper, Fletcher was directly referenced multiple times as a collaborator. Still, Fletcher held no animosity toward Milliken, who apparently felt indebted to Fletcher’s silence on the issue as evidenced by the multiple accolades and job offers Fletcher received before graduation.

Alexander Fleming

Alexander Fleming was awarded the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of penicillin. However, decades before Fleming’s work, four scientists had already conducted experiments demonstrating the anti-bacterial effects of penicillin. Fleming himself acknowledges the oversight of the awarding committee, citing historical references to hyssop (from which penicillin can be extracted) in the bible. There is more controversy in this award since a large number of Fleming’s contemporaries who may have contributed were, again, left out. Still, Fleming was the first to isolate and produce an anti-bacterial substance that has saved millions of lives worldwide, making his award well-deserved.

Douglas Prasher

In 1988, Douglas Prasher was a newly appointed faculty member at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts studying bioluminescence when he received a large grant from the American Cancer Society to attempt to clone the green fluorescent protein (GFP) gene, which gives jellyfish their glow. He was successful in this project and shared his results with fellow scientists Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien. Since this discovery, GFP has been instrumental in biological research since it illuminates living cells and can be used to monitor cells over time. Prasher’s funding terminated after he published his preliminary results, and he couldn’t devote more time and resources to future investigations. He decided to leave academia while under review for tenure and held a variety of jobs before the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for the discovery of GFP – but not to Douglas Prasher. Instead, Martin Chalfie, Roger Tsien, and Osama Shimomura were awarded the prize. Tsien and Chalfie advocated for Prasher to be recognized for his seminal research on GFP, but the committee ultimately decided against this. When the prize was awarded, Prasher was working as a courtesy shuttle driver for Toyota for $8.50 per hour. The story has ended well for Prasher though, who ultimately accepted a job offer to work in Tsien’s lab at University of San Diego, where he is currently working on fluorescent proteins again.

There are many more controversies in the history of scientific Nobel Prizes, where it can be easy to overlook important contributors or where conflicting results can cause the committee to balk. There are many, many more controversies in the other Nobel Prize categories, where political affiliations and personal preferences can also influence committee members’ decisions. That is just what happens when a prestigious award is given in limited numbers to hypercompetitive fields. At the very least, it makes for interesting trivia.


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