Canadian Nobel laureates

This is the time of year when the Nobel Prizes for science are awarded, and while there haven’t been any Canadian winners this year, for a small country, Canada has been well represented in the awards in the past few years–and can lay claim to one of the most important discoveries in medicine earlier this century. And within Canada, Saskatchewan is also well-represented for its size among these prestigious awards.

A search of the Nobel Prizes’ Web site ( for the word Canada turns up more than 90 entries. In all, 10 Nobel Laureates are Canadian or are closely identified with Canada; many more studied, grew up or taught here in the course of careers that may have taken them all over the world.

The first Nobel Prize winner from Canada, and probably the best-known, was Sir Frederick Grant Banting, who received the 1923 Nobel Prize in medicine for his discovery, along with Dr. Charles Best, of insulin. What you might not know is that, although the 1923 Nobel Prize was shared, it was not shared by Banting and Best; the co-winner was John James Richard Macleod, a Scottish-born doctor who, at the time Banting began his work, was Professor of Physiology at the University of Toronto and who had himself done a lot of work on how the body metabolizes carbohydrates–part of the basic research underpinning the discovery of insulin. Banting discussed his plans with Macleod, and Macleod provided the laboratory space in which Banting and Best (then a medical student) worked. Banting was not pleased that Best was left out of the Nobel Prize; he protested the award to Macleod and shared the prize money with Best. Macleod died in 1935 and Banting in 1941; Best lived until 1978.

It’s perhaps a bit sad that only Best lived long enough to see another Canadian win a Nobel Prize in science; the next Canadian winner wasn’t announced until 1971, when Gerhard Herzberg received an award for his work in the field of atomic and molecular spectroscopy. Spectroscopy is based on the fact that each element emits a particular wavelength of energy when heated. Herzberg and his associates used spectroscopy to identify the structure of many molecules both on Earth difficult to determine any other way and to determine the gases that make up the atmospheres of other planets in the solar system, the composition of comets, and the elements present in interstellar space. What’s most interesting from a local point of view is that Herzberg, a native of Germany, fled that country in 1935 as a refugee and took up a guest professorship at the University of Saskatchewan, for which funds were made available by the Carnegie Foundation. He lived in Saskatchewan for 10 years, moved to Chicago, then returned to Canad in 1948 and began work with the National Research Council. His Nobel-prize-winning work was carried out for the NRC.

Canada didn’t have to wait another 48 years for a Nobel Prize; just 10 years later, in 1981, David H. Hubel, born in Windsor, Ontario, shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Torsten N. Wiesel. Hubel, a Canadian citizen by birth and a U.S. citizen through his parents, grew up in Montreal, where, he says, he was originally interested in chemistry and electronics. ( He gave up on electronics because “nothing I built ever worked.” ) He attended McGill University, where he studied medicine. Eventually he ended up at Harvard University, where his work focused on how our vision works. Hubel and Wiesel discovered that nerve impulses from the eyes pass through a series of cells in the brain, each of which analyzes a particular element of the scene: contrast, linear patterns, movement. These individual elements are assembled higher in the brain into the complete picture we see. They also demonstrated the importance of visual stimuli shortly after birth. Without stimuli, or if stimuli are dull or distorted, the brain’s ability to analyze images can be permanently impaired. Hubel and Wiesel’s discovery was a breakthrough in our understanding of vision.

Just two years later in 1983, Henry Taube, whom the Nobel committee called “one of the most creative contemporary workers in inorganic chemistry,” won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Putatively, it was for “his work on the mechanisms of electron transfer reactions, especially in metal complexes,” which sounds rather esoteric, but has practical use in many fields–even biochemistry, where his discoveries are playing an important role in the study of respiration.. In any event, as one of his nominators pointed out, Taube has made at least 18 major discoveries in chemistry.

Best of all, Henry Taube, though he is now a U.S. citizen, was born in Neudorf, Saskatchewan, in 1915, and received his bachelor and master of science degrees from the University of Saskatchewan.

The late 1980s to the present has seen a remarkable string of Canadian Nobel successes. In 1986, John C. Polanyi of the University of Toronto shared the Chemistry award with Dudley R. Herschbach of Harvard and Yuan T. Lee of the University of California at Berkeley for new insights into the dynamics of chemical reactions. Polanyi, who was born in Berlin and grew up in England but came to Canada in 1952, developed infrared chemiluminescence, a new way of studying chemical reactions by measuring and analyzing the extremely weak infrared emission from a newly formed molecule.

In 1989, Montreal-born Sidney Altman, whose childhood heroes included Montreal hockey stars as well as Einstein and who now teaches at Yale, shared the prize in Chemistry with Thomas Cech of the University of Colorado for the surviving discovery that RNA serves not only as one of the molecules of heredity, along with DNA, but also helps serve as a catalyst for various chemical reactions within the body (a catalyst is a substances that speeds up a reaction without itself being altered). This holds promise, among other things, to help create a new defense against viral infections. Altman credits growing up as the son of poor immigrants in Montreal with teaching him the importance of hard work–and the understanding that success doesn’t come easily.

The following year, a boy from Alberta won the big prize, this time in physics. Richard E. Taylor, born in Medicine Hat and, he says, “not an outstanding student,” attended the Uniersity of Alberta and became interested in experimental physics. He eventually moved to California and, after travelling quite a bit, eventually ended up at Stanford, where he was a key person in a research team that discovered that protons and neutrons, once thought to be the smallest particles of matter, in fact had further internal structure: even tinier particles called quarks. The discovery has revolutionized our study of matter.

The prizes keep coming. IN 1992, Rudolph A. Marcus, who, like Taube, studies electron transfer reactions in chemical systems, won the prize in Chemistry. Marcus was born in Montreal, received his Ph.D. from McGill University and worked with the National Research Council before moving on to U.S. universities, eventually ending up at the Californiat Institute of Technology in Pasadena. One year later, the Chemistry prize was shared by Kary B. Mullis of La Jolla, California (who invented the method used to multiply DNA segments millions of times over, making possible all the recent advances in the study of genes, and, not incidentally, the effective use of DNA evidence in criminal cases) and Michael Smith of the University of British Columbia, whose work allows researchers to alter a DNA molecule minutely and study the effect, and ability which is vital to genetic engineering and the whole burgeoning biotechnology industry. Though born in Blackpool, England, Smith has lived in Canada since 1956.

Canada’s most recent Nobel Prize laureate is Bertram N. Brockhouse of McMaster University in Hamilton, another Alberta boy, whose earliest memories were of living on a farm in the Milk River district near Lethbridge. At the age of eight his family moved to Vancouver, where he grew up. Brockhouse shared the 1994 prize in Physics with Clifford G. Shull of MIT. Brockhouse developed neutron spectroscopy and Shull the neutron diffraction technique. Both make use of beams of neutrons to determine the atomic structure of materials. In neutron diffraction, the change in direction of the neutrons tells you how atoms are arranged within the material, while in neutron spectroscopy, the change in velocity of the neutron tells you how the atoms within the substance are moving.

As noted earlier, many other Nobel Laureates have Canadian connections; scientists tend to move around a lot from university to university and research institute to institute. It’s proof, should anyone ask you, that Canada has played an important role in the development of science this century.

We can only hope that the funding of basic research remains at the level necessary to ensure that Canada continues to do so in the century that’s just around the corner.

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