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Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine Winners

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Everyone wants to win a Nobel Prize, but which one? In this lesson, we'll talk about the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, and look at some notable past winners.

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

In 1896, Alfred Nobel died, causing his will to go into effect. This would turn out to be a very significant moment, because Nobel had set a large portion of his sizable estate to establish a series of prizes for people who accomplished amazing things for humanity. We call these awards the Nobel Prizes. Most people are familiar with the Nobel Peace Prize, but that's only one of them. There are actually five. One of them is for achievements in physiology or medicine. The winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is deemed by the Nobel committee to have done the most in this field. It's a pretty big honor and has accompanied some pretty big discoveries. In fact, many of the scientific truths we now take for granted were first discovered by Nobel laureates.

Emil von Behring

Let's start at the beginning, and work our way forward. The very first person to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was Emil von Behring who won the prize in 1901. Behring was a German scientist who demonstrated that the plasma in the blood, which held antibodies to fight disease, could be transferred between living things to transfer those antibodies. Known as serum therapy, this became widely used to treat diphtheria, a disease that killed many children a year. For developing the serum to treat diphtheria, Behring was honored with the first Nobel Prize in this field.

Emil von Behring
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Frederick Grant Banting and John James Rickard Macleod

Since many great scientific discoveries are made by teams of researchers, a number of the Nobel Prizes have been awarded to more than one person. In 1923, Canadian scientists Frederick Grant Banting and John James Rickard Macleod were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for their discover of insulin. Insulin is a hormone in the body that helps regulate blood sugar. Without it, your body cannot properly control its sugar levels, which is the cause of diabetes. While doctors in the early 20th century had a rough idea of what caused diabetes, they couldn't prove it. Banting and Macleod were the first to successfully isolate insulin, proving its existence and demonstrating that it could be used to treat diabetes.

Karl Landsteiner

What is your blood type? Before the 20th century, nobody would have been able to answer that question. Then came Karl Landsteiner. In the early 1900s, doctors couldn't figure out why some patients suffered fatal complications when given blood transfusions. Landsteiner found the answer: people can have different types of blood cells, and when mixed these different types form sometimes-deadly clots. For his discovery of the human blood types, Landsteiner was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1930.

Karl Landsteiner
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Roger W. Sperry

Nowadays, we are very familiar with the idea that people's personalities correspond to the dominant half of their brain. You've got right-brained people who are great at music and art, and you've got left-brained people who have strong analytical skills. This discovery was made in the 1960s by American researcher Roger W. Sperry. Sperry was the first to clearly identify the ways that each hemisphere of the brain contributes to a person's personality, which he accomplished by studying people who had lost the nerves connecting the hemispheres. Sperry won the Nobel Prize in 1981.

Francoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier

Soon after Sperry won his prize, two French scientists were conducting the research that would earn them theirs. In the 1980s, Francoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier were working with especially dangerous viruses called retroviruses. In their research, they discovered a very nasty retrovirus that attacked lymphocytes, blood cells necessary to the immune system. That retrovirus was the Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV. HIV is responsible for the disease AIDS and is one of the top killers in the world today. In 2008, Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier were awarded the Nobel Prize for this discovery.

Francoise Barre-Sinoussi
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