You Gotta Know These Nobel Prize Winners in Physiology or Medicine
The official name of this prize is the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, though it is common referred to as the “Nobel Prize in Medicine.”
- Ronald Ross (won in 1902) was the first British recipient of the Nobel Prize, recognized for his work related to the transmission of malaria. While studying in India, he dissected a mosquito of the species Anopheles (which he termed “dappled-winged” due to its strange posture), and discovered the presence of the malarial parasite (from the genus Plasmodium). He then used birds to demonstrate that the parasite is stored in the salivary gland of mosquitoes and is released when a host is bitten. Ross received the Nobel prize individually in 1902, after fellow bacteriologist Robert Koch voiced his support for him over Italian scientist Giovanni Battista Grassi, who had reported similar findings on the malaria lifecycle.
- Ivan Pavlov (won in 1904) performed detailed research on the process of digestion, which he published in 1897 in The Work of the Digestive System. By surgically exposing selective sections of a dog’s digestive system, Pavlov was able to study in detail how material moves through the stomach and intestines; he identified the timing of various gastric and pancreatic secretions. While he won the Nobel purely for his contributions to physiology, he’s more well-known for performing the first psychological studies of classical conditioning. After observing the behavior of dogs upon repeatedly bringing them food, Pavlov noticed that the dogs would begin to salivate prior to food even arriving, providing the basis for the concepts of a conditioned response and conditioned stimulus.
- Robert Koch (won in 1905) pioneered the field of modern bacteriology, and established his theory of four postulates that must be satisfied in order to determine that a disease is caused by a particular microbe. He used these postulates to discover the bacterial agent that causes tuberculosis, contradicting the popular opinion that the disease was inherited. Koch also determined the causative agents of cholera and anthrax and examined the concept of acquired immunity while on exhibition in German New Guinea.
- Paul Ehrlich (won in 1908) performed early work in the field of immunology. He discovered that, after exposing mice to a small dose of ricin and gradually increasing the dose given, the animals developed an immunity to it. In addition to his Nobel-winning work, he also postulated the concept of a “magic bullet,” a compound that could be used to selectively target and eliminate agents of disease. He made his own “magic bullet” in 1909 when he discovered that the compound arsphenamine (now called Salvarsan) could be used as an effective cure for syphilis. In the early phase of his career, Ehrlich developed a close friendship with Robert Koch after presenting him with an improved technique for staining bacteria, which would become the precursor to the technique of Gram staining.
- Willem Einthoven (won in 1924) performed groundbreaking work related to electrocardiography. He invented a device called the string galvanometer to measure the electric current of the heart, which until then had been impossible without applying electrodes directly to the heart. This galvanometer would form the basis of the modern ECG (EKG) machine. His method of assigning three leads on human limbs, forming an inverted equilateral triangle centered on the heart, is still used in EKGs today, and is known as Einthoven’s triangle. He also assigned the letters ‘P’, ‘Q’, ‘R’, ‘S’, and ‘T’ to the various deflections seen on an EKG; that notation, which describes the familiar QRS complex pattern, is also still used today.
- Karl Landsteiner (won in 1930), known as the “father of transfusions,” made important discoveries in the field of serology in the early 1900s, including the identification of the three major blood groups (A, B, and O). He determined that mixing blood from two individuals with incompatible blood types can lead to a dangerous form of blood clumping called agglutination. In 1937 (after he received the Nobel), he also identified the Rh factor (the “plus” or “minus” in one’s blood type) in the blood of the rhesus monkey, a discovery which further increased the safety of blood transfusions. While studying in Vienna in 1908, Landsteiner isolated the polio virus, providing the basis for Jonas Salk’s vaccine against the disease.
- Thomas Hunt Morgan (won in 1933) discovered the basic mechanisms of genetic inheritance via his experiments on fruit flies, specifically the species Drosophila melanogaster. By conducting a series of experiments in his renowned “Fly Room” at Columbia University, Morgan and his students tracked mutations, noting how various traits were inherited across successive generations of the flies. His data supported the idea of genetic linkage by noting that the probability of two genes being inherited together correlates inversely with their physical distance on a given chromosome, leading Morgan to postulate the mechanism of crossing over. Because of his work, the unit centimorgan is now used to measure the physical distance between genes.
- Alexander Fleming (won in 1945) made the accidental discovery of the antibiotic penicillin after haphazardly stacking Petri dishes in the corner of his notoriously untidy laboratory. He noticed that one culture of the Staphylococcus that he was studying had developed a fungus that destroyed all the nearby colonies of bacteria. After developing the mold in a culture of its own, he discovered that it produced a “mold juice,” later called penicillin, that killed a number of disease-causing bacteria. Although Fleming originally believed penicillin to be too slow-acting to have any positive therapeutic effect, it formed the basis for beta-lactam antibiotics, which are still effective in many medical cases today.
- James Watson and Francis Crick won in 1962 for discovering the molecular structure of DNA. They published the well-known double-helix structure based on “Photo 51,” an X-ray diffraction image of DNA produced by Rosalind Franklin. Because Franklin died in 1958 (the Nobel committee does not award prizes posthumously), Francis and Crick instead shared the prize with Maurice Wilkins, a colleague of Franklin who provided them with the diffraction data. The pair also determined, with the help of Chargaff’s rules, that the base pairs of adenine-thymine and cytosine-guanine were structurally similar within the DNA molecule.
- Barbara McClintock (won in 1983) described the existence of transposons, also called “jumping genes,” from her observations that certain DNA sequences on the maize she was studying could change position on a chromosome. While studying generations of maize at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, she hypothesized that these “controlling elements” were regulatory in nature, and that their motion around the genome could be the driving factor behind how two identical genetic sequences can exert different functions. McClintock is the only non-shared female recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
This article was contributed by NAQT writer Connor Woods.