As the Nobel Prize marks centennial, Jews constitute 1/5 of laureates

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Throughout the 20th century, Jews, more so than any other minority, ethnic or cultural group, have been recipients of the Nobel Prize — perhaps the most distinguished award for human endeavor in the six fields for which it is given. Remarkably, Jews constitute almost one-fifth of all Nobel laureates. This, in a world in which Jews number just a fraction of 1 percent of the population.

This year's winners for physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, economics and peace are being announced this week.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize, an all-day California Nobel Prize Centennial Symposium will be held Friday, Oct. 26 at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre in San Francisco. More than 12 Nobel laureates are expected to attend the event, which will include panel and roundtable discussions and excerpts from a documentary film in progress.

The event is presented by the Exploratorium and the Consulates General of Sweden in Los Angeles and San Francisco, in cooperation with several Bay Area universities, Lawrence Livermore Lab and KQED-TV.

Laureates will include economist Milton Friedman of the Hoover Institution, Stanford molecular biologist Paul Berg and U.C. Berkeley physicist Donald Glaser, among others.

It is ironic that this international recognition has rewarded Jewish accomplishment in the same century that witnessed pogroms, the Holocaust and wars that killed millions for no other reason than that they were Jewish. Certainly the Nobel Prize was not awarded to Jews because they were entitled to it, were smarter or better educated than everyone else, or because they were typically over-represented in the six fields honored by the award.

Rather, all Nobel laureates have earned their distinction in a traditionally fierce competition among the best and the brightest, although politics and controversy have not infrequently followed in the wake of the Nobel.

In December 1902, the first Nobel Prize was awarded in Stockholm to Wilhelm Roentgen, the discoverer of X-rays. Alfred Nobel (1833-96), a Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite, had bequeathed a $9 million endowment to fund significant cash prizes ($40,000 in 1901, about $1 million today) to those individuals who had made the most important contributions in five domains; the sixth, in "economic sciences," was added in 1969.

Nobel could hardly have imagined the almost mythic status that would accrue to the laureates. From the start "The Prize" (as it was sensationalized in Irving Wallace's 1960 novel) became one of the most sought-after awards in the world, and eventually the yardstick against which other prizes and recognition were to be measured.

Certainly the roster of Nobel laureates includes many of the most famous names of the 20th century: Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Mother Teresa, Winston Churchill, Albert Camus, Boris Pasternak, Albert Schweitzer, the Dalai Lama and many others.

The list of American Nobel laureates in literature alone is a pantheon of our writers, including Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neill, Pearl Buck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Toni Morrison. American peace laureates include Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Jane Addams, Ralph Bunche, Linus Pauling (a two-time winner, also awarded a Nobel for chemistry), Martin Luther King Jr., Henry Kissinger and Jody Williams.

A total of nearly 700 individuals and 20 organizations have been Nobel recipients, including two who refused the prize (Leo Tolstoy in 1902 and Jean-Paul Sartre in 1964.) Thirty women have won Nobels. The United States has had about one-third of all winners. Also remarkable is the fact that 14 percent of all the laureates in a 100-year span have been Californians, most of them affiliated with one or more of the world-class higher education and research institutions in our state.

Jewish names appear 127 times on the list, about 18 percent of the total. This is an astonishing percentage for a group of people who add up to 1/24th of 1 percent of the world's population. But this positive disproportion is echoed even further in the over-representation of Jews, compared to the general population, in such fields as the physical and social sciences, and in literature. An examination of the large professional communities from which Nobel laureates are selected would reveal an even more dominant disproportion. As an example, it is estimated that about one-third of the faculty at Harvard Medical School is Jewish.

How to account for Jewish proficiency at winning Nobels? It's certainly not because Jews do the judging: All but one of the Nobels are awarded by Swedish institutions (the Peace Prize by Norway). The standard answer is that the premium placed on study and scholarship in Jewish culture inclines Jews toward more education, which in turn makes a higher proportion of them "Nobel-eligible" than in the larger population. There is no denying that as a rule the laureates in all six domains are highly educated, although there are notable exceptions, such as Mother Teresa. Nevertheless, in a world where so many millions have university degrees it is difficult to see why on that basis alone Jews should prevail in this high-level competition.

Another question is why the physical sciences admired by Alfred Nobel are so attractive to Jewish scientists. Albert Einstein, the successor to Newton, Galileo and Copernicus and the greatest name in modern science, was Jewish. This is more than a matter of historic pride; it is an enormous statistical improbability. And such achievements were not always attained on a level playing field. For example, the Nazis dismissed relativity as "Jewish physics" and caused the uprooting and exile (mostly to the United States) of a generation of German scientists who happened to be Jewish.

In literature and peace as well, Jews are disproportionately represented among the winners. Jewish writers honored include Henri Bergson, Boris Pasternak, S.Y. Agnon, Nelly Sachs, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Joseph Brodsky and Nadine Gordimer. Peace laureates include Henry Kissinger, Menachem Begin, Elie Wiesel, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. In economics, for which the Nobel has been awarded for only the last 31 years, 13 laureates are Jewish, more than 40 percent of the total, including Paul Samuelson, Herbert Simon and Milton Friedman.

But it still seems insufficient to credit all this to reverence for education, skill at theoretical thinking or competitive instincts forged in a millennial-old struggle to survive and prosper.

Perhaps the desire to understand the world is also a strong or defining Jewish cultural trait, leading to education and careers suited to exploration and discovery. Science may have furnished an opportunity to not only understand but to lead, and to have one's work judged without bias in collegial communities that have no use for religious intolerance.

Whatever the reasons, Jewish successes in the high-stakes world of the Nobel Prize are nothing short of astonishing, and a source of understandable pride to Jews throughout the world. Consider the scorecard: 37 awards in physics, 21 in chemistry, 39 in physiology and medicine, 10 in literature, seven in peace and 13 in economics.

Listings and descriptions of the contributions of the Jewish laureates may be found in Burton Feldman's recently published book, "The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige" (Arcade Publishing).

Other information about the Nobel Prize — its history, institutions, background on the winners and their work, acceptance speeches, etc. can be found on the Internet at For California centennial activities, visit