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Harvard Wins The Most Nobel Prizes In Physiology And Medicine (For Dudes)

UPDATE (Oct. 3, 8:30 a.m.): Yoshinori Ohsumi has won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. Ohsumi is a 71-year-old Japanese scientist who received the honor for his work with autophagy. He did much of his research at the University of Tokyo and is now a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.


The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine will probably be announced in the wee hours of Monday morning. We don’t know who will win, but we can tell you about who has won it in the past. The typical winner is a man, born in the United States, who does his research at Harvard University. He is, on average, 58 years old when he wins.1

Unless you are unaware of the vast imbalance in monetary resources that has historically favored both research in the U.S. as a whole and at Harvard specifically, this is probably not a terribly shocking set of facts. But the world of physiology/medicine Nobel laureates gets a lot more interesting when you compare the male winners with the female ones.

First, there are far fewer female winners, only 12 out of 210 in the history of the award, which has been given out since 1901. As with the males, they tend to be from the U.S. But they are a little older — about 63, on average, compared with 58 for men.2 And not a single one listed Harvard as her primary research institution. That’s surprising, given that there were as many male winners from Harvard as there were total female winners. In fact, of the eight institutions that have won this award five times or more, only two had a female winner. These powerhouse research centers seem to only be powerhouses for one sex when it comes to this prize. So where should you work if you’re a woman who wants to win a Nobel in physiology or medicine? Your best bet might be to set up your lab at an institution that’s never won before. While Harvard won the most awards of any single institution, it’s most common for winners to hail from institutions that have no other wins to their name. Ninety winners fit this profile, including three female winners. No other institution had more than one female winner.

INSTITUTION NUMBER OF WINNERS FEMALE WINNERS
Harvard (University and Medical School combined) 12 0
Rockefeller University 10 0
Pasteur Institute 7 1
MIT 5 0
Caltech 5 0
University College London 5 0
Oxford University 5 0
Max Planck Institutes 5 1
Institutions with the most physiology or medicine Nobel Prize winners

Source: data.nobelprize.org

Footnotes

  1. We made some calls on what “typical” means. We pulled data from the website of the Nobel Foundation, which has fact pages for each winner, and focused on age at the time of winning, sex of the winners, their country of birth and their primary institutional affiliation (some had additional affiliations that we did not count). When multiple people shared a Nobel, we counted all the winners equally. Age is averaged. For the other stats “typical” means “winningest.” The category “Harvard” combines Harvard University and Harvard Medical School.

  2. Yes, there are so few female winners that the overall average age is almost exactly the same as the male average age — 57.9 vs. 57.6.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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