Since the Nobel Prize was first awarded in 1901, the prize has slowly grown in stature to become one of the most prestigious awards in the world. Alfred Nobel, a Swedish scientist who invented dynamite, wrote in his will that he wanted an award gifted annually in his name "to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind." The prize has been awarded to the world's most gifted statesmen, peacekeepers, scientists, and economists (although not to mathematicians, much to their dismay, who are forced to feign interest in economics if they wish to be recognized for their mathematical work).
The prizes are not without controversy, however, especially in regard to the Nobel Peace Prize. Barack Obama infamously received the award in 2009, with commentators questioning what he had done so far to be deserving of such a prestigious award. Obama is far from the most controversial winner though, having been preceded by controversial figures such as Al Gore, Aung San Suu Kyi, Yasser Arafat, and Henry Kissinger.
Overall, 19 Canadians have been awarded a Nobel Prize over the years, nearly 2% of all Nobel Prize winners. And while this may not seem like a lot, it shows that Canadians are four times more likely than the average person to win the award, a testament to Canadian brilliance and industriousness. Here are the 20 Canadians who have received the award.
20. Sir Frederick Banting (Medicine, 1923)
Banting was the first Canadian to be awarded the Nobel Prize, and probably the second most famous Canadian recipient. In 1923, Banting became a Nobel laureate for his co-discovery of insulin, a revolutionary medical advancement for people living with diabetes.
Banting shared the prize with JJR Macleod, a Scottish biochemist who was at the time serving as a professor at the University of Toronto. Their relationship was not so friendly, however, with Banting asserting that Macleod had made a negligible contribution to insulin's discovery. Banting gave greater credit to his assistant, Charles Best, who he later shared half of his Nobel award money with.
Banting, a charitable man, ended up patenting insulin before selling the patent to the University of Toronto for just one dollar.
19. Lester B Pearson (Peace, 1957)
Likely the most famous of Canadian Nobel Prize winners, Lester B Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiating an end to the Suez Crisis while serving as Secretary of State for External Affairs under then-Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent.
After nationalizing the Suez Canal in 1956, the United Kingdom and France developed a half-baked plan to return it to western control. The two countries convinced the young State of Israel to invade Egypt to capture the Suez Canal, creating an excuse for France and Britain to stage a military intervention to bring peace to the region and retake control of the canal. The ploy failed, however, when France and Britain issued an ultimatum to the two powers well before Israeli forces made it to the canal, exposing the foreknowledge France and Britain had of the operation.
Pearson played an instrumental role in negotiating an end to the hostilities and establishing a UN peacekeeping force in the Sinai Peninsula, which remained there until the Egyptian government expelled them in the leadup to the Six Day War a decade later. For his diplomatic expertise in the conflict, Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957.
Pearson later became the 14th Prime Minister of Canada in 1963, leading two minority governments before his retirement in 1968. He is the only Prime Minister of Canada to have received a Nobel Prize, and the only Canadian to have receievd a Nobel Peace Prize.
18. Gerhard Herzberg (Chemistry, 1971)
Gerhard Herzberg was the first Canadian to bring home a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. A jew, he immigrated to Canada from Germany in the 1930s to flee the Nazis. At the time he became a laureate to the prestigious award, Herzberg was considered the top scientist in his field.
Ultimately, he won the prize for using spectroscopy to obtain "knowledge of electronic structure and geometry of molecules," particularly molecules known as "free radicals." A free radical is a type of molecule that is created briefly through a chemical reaction, and rearrange themselves into new molecules within millionths of a second. Herzberg was able to obtain the first spectrogram a molecule known as mythelene in 1959 while serving as the director of the Pure Physics Department at the Canadian National Research Council. Due to the very short life of such molecules, it was very difficult to measure the structure and geometry of these molecules. It took 18 years for Herzberg to obtain a spectograph of a free radical, but the effort certainly payed off.
17. David Hubel (Medicine, 1981)
David Hubel is a Canadian-American who co-laureated the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on the visual cortex, a cortical region at the backside of the brain which processes visual information obtained through the retinas. After moving to Montreal from Windsor, he graduated from McGill University where he studied mathematics and physics, and later enrolled in the university's medical school before moving to John Hopkin's in the United States.
Hubel shared the Nobel Prize with Swedish neurophysiologist Torsten Weisel, who was his research partner for decades. They received the Nobel Prize for two reasons. First, they described a concept called "ocular dominance columns," which they obtained through the study of cats. Ocular dominance columns are phenomena whereby one eye is treated preferentially by the brain for processing visual information. Specifically, he discovered that if you cover one eye of a kitten, the other eye will begin, over time, to process information that would have been processed by the covered eye had it been able to see. The process of ocular domination develops early, however, and quickly becomes irreversible, so don't expect to gain a wider vision from your left eye if you, for whatever reason, poke out your right. No kittens were harmed in this experiment, in fact, it hsa been reported that the kittens were so comfortable during experimentation that their purring proved a distraction for Hubel and Weisel.
He also helped lay the foundation for explaining how the visual cortex detects motion, depth, and edges, allowing humans the ability to process three dimensional objects.
16. Henry Taube (Chemistry, 1983)
Henry Taube was born and raised in Neudorf, Saskatchewan, a small town of less than 300 people today. After earning two degrees from the University of Saskatchewan, Taube went on to get a PhD from UC Berkeley and over time worked at a number of universities across the United States. He originally wanted to return to Canada, but could not find a post at any Canadian universities.
He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in understanding "electron transfer reactions," the process by which an electron switches over from one atom or molecule to another. Taube won the prize 30 years after his research on this subject was published, and aside from enjoying a prestigious award he noticed another benefit as well: According to Taube, his students began paying closer attention after he won his Nobel Prize.
15. John Polanyi (Chemistry, 1986)
John Polanyi, like Gerhard Herzberg, is also a laurate of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and a Jew who was forced to leave Germany following the rise of the Nazis. Polanyi originally went to Britain, but his father sent him to Canada during the war where he studied at the prestigious University of Toronto Schools, which remains one of the top secondary schools in the country to this day.
Polanyi won the Nobel Prize alongside two other researchers, neither of whom were Canadian, for his role in researching chemical kinetics, the speed and rates by which chemical reactions take place. During his original experiment, Polanyi was unsure whether he would cause an explosion while experimenting with hydrogen atoms, but it all turned out to be worth it. Polanyi was able to, for the first time ever, cause a chemical reaction between hydrogen and chlorine allowing him to record a small, fleeting light. His discovery over time led to the development of a type of chemical laser.
Polanyi has a secondary school in Toronto named after him today which itself has a notable STEM program, following in the footsteps of their namesake.
14. Sid Altman (1989)
Sid Altman is a Canadian molecular biologist who won a Nobel Prize for his work on discovering the catalytic properties of RNA, a substance which essentially decodes DNA. Altman, prior to his discovery, was in a dire spot, set to leave his research position in just two weeks and without any further opportunities for employment. His discovery ultimately saved his career.
Altman shared the Nobel Prize with American chemist Thomas Chec.
13. Richard Taylor (Physics, 1990)
Born in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Richard Taylor began his journey as a physicist at the University of Alberta before going to get his PhD at Stanford University in California. He eventually went on to verify quark theory with two other physicists, who he shared the Nobel Prize with.
The verification took place when Taylor and his partners began smashing protons and neutrons together using an accelerator. They were able to prove, contrary to common belief at the time that protons and neutrons were indivisible, that these particles were actually made up of smaller quarks.
12.Rudolph Marcus (Chemistry, 1992)
Marcus is a dual citizen of Canada and the United States who was born in Montreal. Beginning in 1956, Marcus started developing what is now called Marcus theory, a theory which explains electron transfer reactions. The theory would be used to explain a number of important phenomena in the fields of both chemistry and biology, including photosynthesis, corrosion, and chemiluminescience, processes whereby the physical states of plants and objects change over time through chemical reactions.
11. Michael Smith (Chemistry, 1993)
Born in the United Kingdom in the early 1930s, Michael Smith moved to British Columbia in 1956 and began working at the University of British Columbia.
Smith was co-laureate of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in developing "site-directed mutigenesis," which is a method for altering DNA sequences at exact spots. The process allows for mutations to be made to DNA sequences by humans, a revolutionary technique for the study of DNA.
10. Bertram Brockhouse (Physics, 1994)
Born in Lethbridge, Alberta, Bertram "Bert" Brockhouse graduated from the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto before going on to work at Atomic Energy of Canada, a crown corporation. Afterwards, he went on to hold a post at McMaster University, where he spent the rest of his career..
Only some 12 years after the neutron was discovered, still little information was known about them. One day while he was working at AEC, he passed a lab which contained a controlled nuclear reaction which served as a method to scatter neutrons. Inspired by this, Brockhouse developed a "neutron beam" which would better scatter neutrons. It would also be able to scatter neutrons through solid structures.
9. William Vickrey (Economics, 1996)
The only Nobel Prize winner to be born in British Columbia, William Vickrey was an economist who revolutionized the study of assymetric information. In economic theory, markets are often assumed to have perfect information, whereby both the buyer and seller know everything about the transactions being made and nobody will over or understimate its value. Assymetric information is a phenomenon where the buyer knows something that the seller does not, or vice versa.
Vickrey came up with what was dubbed the "Vickrey auction," a closed auction where the highest bidder wins the bidding, but pays the price of the second-highest bidder. Vickrey theorized that this would cause people to overbid for the item.
Vickrey also was one of the earlier developers of "congestion pricing," which proposes increasing the prices of public goods and services which have excess demand. The result, according to congestion pricing principles, would be that people have to pay for the cost of discomfort they impose on other people.Vickrey also made an early proposal in 1952 for subway services in New York City to be distance-based rather than uniform on the basis of this strategy.
8. Myron Scholes (Economics, 1997)
Myron Scholes is an economist from Timmins, Ontario. He developed a framework for modelling the prices of options such as puts and calls. The model, which measures the risk against the expected rate of return, is called the Black-Scholes model. The model remains a standard part of derivatives markets today.
7. Robert Mundell (Economics, 1999)
Robert Mundell is another graduate of the University of British Columbia before heading to study in the United States. He went on to work at a number of universities around the world. He became the third Canadian economist to win a Nobel Prize in four years.
Mundell is often considered a "father" of the Euro, having developed a deep understanding of monetary theory. He pioneered the conept of the optimal currency area, which describes the characteristics to best suit a region sharing a common currency, such as the Euro, which is used in 19 countries.
He also played a key role in developing the Mundell-Flemming model, an economic model which describes the relationship between exchange rates, interest rates, and GDP.
6. Willard Boyle (Physics, 2009)
Willard Boyle, born in Amherst, Nova Scotia, along with George Smith co-invented the Charge Coupled Device, winning them the Nobel Prize.
Boyle and Smith had a very classic, movie-esque hero story when developing the CCD. Mainly, most people in their field thought that they would never be able to do it, that the idea was unrealistic. Boyle and Smith, however, proved them wrong.
The concept for the device was developed in an hour and a half on a chalkboard. It contains an integrated circuit which senses light on elements known as pixels. It essentially allows light to be captured and transferred into a pixelated form. The device revolutionized the field of digital imaging.
5. Jack Szostak (Medicine, 2009)
Jack Szostak, a graduate of McGill University, has unfortunately surrendered his Canadian citizenship since moving to America (We might forgive him). He came to fame by discovering telomeres, a protectibe region at the end of chromosomes.
At the age of 27 working at Harvard University, Szostak discovered telomeres essentially by accident, initially having a confused reaction finding aspects of DNA he had never seen or heard of before. He and two other scientists he was working with performed an experiment where they transferred the telomeres from dead yeast to living yeast. They were actually shocked at the findings of their experiment, with all of them doubting that it would work. They wrote up their findings in 1982 and continued research on the subject, with the three of them eventually all being awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery.
4. Alice Munro (Literature, 2013)
If you've recently taken a Canadian grade school English course, it is likely that you are familiar with Alice Munro. A famous short story writer, Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the only Canadian to do so. Her stories mostly take place in Huron County, Ontario, a rural area in the southwestern part of the province bordering on Lake Huron. It is also the area she grew up in.
Munro is no stranger to recognition for her work. She has won the Governor General's Award for fiction three times, and was nominated twice more. She has also won the Giller Prize twice, and over a dozen other awards.
3. Arthur McDonald (Physics, 2015)
Arthur "Art" McDonald is an astrophysicist who began his academic journey at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.
Arthur “Art” McDonald is an astrophysicist who began his academic journey at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. He eventually became the director of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, located two kilometers underground.
McDonald received the Nobel Prize for his discovery, along with fellow physicist Takaaki Kajita, of neutrino oscillation. His discovery proved that neutrinos do, in fact, have mass, an idea which was first theorized, although never proven, in 1957. The discovery revolutionized the realm of physics.
2. Donna Strickland (Physics, 2018)
Donna Strickland is a professor at the University of Waterloo who received the Nobel Prize for pioneering chirped pulse amplification in the 1980s, while she was still a PhD student at the University of Rochester in New York state.
The techniques revolutionized lasers and has since become the standard for the highest quality of lasers, as her method allowed for the creation of the most intense lasers ever created. If you use a cell phone, or you've ever received laser eye surgery, you can thank Strickland for her innovation in the field. Thanks to Strickland, lasers can now be used to cut corneas, which is done during laser eye surgery. Small pieces of glass used in cell phones are also useable thanks to Strickland's technology.
She co-laureated the Nobel Prize with her fellow researcher Gerald Mourou of France.
1. James Peebles (2019)
The most recent Canadian to win the Nobel Prize, James "Jim" Peebles began his academic career at the University of Manitoba before moving on to Princeton for a graduate, PhD, and a career as a professor.
Peebles received the Nobel Prize for predicting and measuring the cosmic background radiation, electromagnetic radiation which has been left over from the big bang. He also was recognized for predicting dark matter as an existent force in the universe.