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The Typical Chemistry Nobel Winner Changed After 1980

UPDATE (Oct. 5, 8 a.m.): The 2016 Nobel Prize in chemistry will go to three men, Jean-Pierre Sauvage of France, Sir Fraser Stoddart of the UK and Bernard Feringa of the Netherlands for their work with “nano-machines.” Sauvage and Feringa are affiliated with institutions in their home countries, Stoddart with Northwestern University in the U.S.

The typical winner of a Nobel Prize in chemistry is a 58-year-old man who was born in the United States. Stop us if you’ve heard this before. All this week, we’ve been looking at the data on Nobel Prize winners to find the profiles of the typical winner in each category. Today we’re taking a look at chemistry, scheduled to be announced early Wednesday. Turns out, this category is also a good one for middle-aged men from the U.S. The profiles get more varied when you start looking at winners’ typical research affiliation. In the case of chemistry, there’s a four-way tie for winningest institution: Of the 172 awards handed out since 1901, Harvard, Stanford, the Max Planck Institutes and the British Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology all have seven wins apiece.1

You might also guess, then, that after the U.S., the winningest countries are Germany and the United Kingdom. What you can’t see from the raw counts, though, is how the distribution of winners has changed over time. People born in the United States have won 52 chemistry Nobels, and 63.5 percent of those wins came in 1980 or later.2 The wins for Germany and the UK are flipped, distribution-wise. German-born chemists have won 24 awards, and those born in the UK have won 21 — but 79 percent of the Germans and 76 percent of the Brits won before 1980. The last few decades have seen a shift in chemistry-Nobel-winning power.

USA 19 33 52
Germany 19 5 24
UK 16 5 21
France 7 1 8
Japan 0 6 6
Austria 3 2 5
Sweden 3 1 4
Russia 4 0 4
Canada 1 3 4
Israel 0 4 4
Poland 4 0 4
Winners of the Nobel Prize in chemistry by birth country

Source: Nobel Foundation

And these aren’t the only winners whose patterns varied over time. The fourth- and fifth-place countries — France and Japan — have similarly flip-flopped. France has won eight awards; all but one came before 1980. Japan has won six awards, all post-1980. If you look just at the new millennium, the top three countries become the U.S., Japan and Israel. It’s not clear exactly what factors are behind these distribution shifts, but it’s probably safe to say that this is a sign that it’s not just smarts that win you a Nobel. Though many winners are awarded for work they’ve done outside their home countries, it’s clear that the political, economic, and research-and-development heft of the country you were born in also matter.


  1. We pulled data from the website of the Nobel Foundation, which has fact pages for each winner, and we focused on age at the time of winning, sex of the winners, their country of birth and their primary institutional affiliation at the time the prize was won (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.”

  2. This is a somewhat arbitrary cutoff point. I chose it because, as I was scrolling through the country and year data, I noticed that it looked like who was winning began to shift at around that time.

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