And the winner is … the team
© Gorodenkoff Productions OU
August 2022

And the winner is … the team

By Volker Paulun
A look at the Nobel Prizes that have been awarded since 1901 shows how important teamwork is in the areas of research, development and science. In many cases, the joint work of two or three individuals is selected as the winner of the prestigious award.

A total of 609 Nobel Prizes have been awarded between 1901 and 2021 in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, peace and economics. According to the statutes, a maximum of three individuals can share one prize, with organizations being an exception. On as many as 26 occasions, the Nobel Peace Prize went to an organization, most recently, in 2021, to the World Food Program of the United Nations. That’s another example reflecting the effectiveness of teamwork. 

Among the natural sciences, chemistry is the only category in which the largest number of Nobel Prizes have been awarded to a sole laureate: 63 times the prize went to one person, 24 times it was shared by two people and 25 times by three. However, since the nineteen-eighties, there has been a clear trend toward teamwork in this category as well. In physics (47 sole laureates versus 68 prizes shared by two or three winners) and even more clearly in physiology or medicine (39 vs. 73) the teams are already in front today. 

And the winner is … the team©

The members of some of these teams were even related to each other, such as Lawrence Bragg: In 1915, at the age of 25, he was honored as then youngest Nobel laureate in physics – together with his father, William. The two scientists analyzed the structures of crystals by means of X-rays. 

The youngest Nobel laureate in chemistry earned the award together with his spouse: Frédéric Joliot was 35 years old when he was awarded the prize together with his wife, Irène Joliot-Curie, for their joint radioactivity research in 1935. Family business had a tradition with the Curies: Irène’s parents, Pierre and Marie Curie, had jointly received the Nobel prize in physics in 1903, together with Antoine Henri Becquerel. Other married couples recognized with the prize as a team were Gerty and Carl Cori (1947, physiology and medicine), May-Britt and Edvard Moser (2014, physiology or medicine, together with John O’Keefe) as well as Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee (2009, economics, together with Michael Kremer). 

And the winner is … the team©

The length of the collaboration between some of the Nobel Prize winning teams is another astonishing fact. The top spot has been held by Michael S. Brown and Joseph L. Goldstein, who have been performing their research together for 40 years now. In 1985, they jointly received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their discoveries concerning the regulation of cholesterol metabolism. 

Teamwork is not always a Nobel success story, though. Here are three examples begging to be filmed in which a female team member came away empty-handed: 
  • In 1938 German chemist Otto Hahn and his assistant Fritz Strassmann experimented ...

    In 1938 German chemist Otto Hahn and his assistant Fritz Strassmann experimented with uranium 239, causing it to “burst,” as Hahn described their observation. Unable to really interpret it, he wrote to his friend, physicist Elise Meitner, who was living in exile, asking for help. And help she did: In February 1939, together with her nephew, Otto Frisch, and based on Hahn’s observations, she provided the first explanation of nuclear fission based on theoretical physics. That makes it particularly hard to understand that Otto Hahn, in 1945, was solely honored with the Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery of nuclear fission. Stranger yet is the fact that Elise Meitner was nominated for a Nobel Prize for her research in chemistry and physics a total of 48 times, on seven occasions by theoretical physicist and 1918 Nobel laureate Max Planck, and always came away empty-handed. She died in 1968, shortly before her 90th birthday. © Gemeinfrei
  • In 1958 British biophysicist and X-ray expert Rosalind Franklin, who had won acc ...
    In 1958 British biophysicist and X-ray expert Rosalind Franklin, who had won acclaim for her groundbreaking investigations of the structure of DNA, died. One of her laboratory partners was Maurice Wilkins but the chemistry between them was not good. Franklin, Wilkins complained, was an obstinate know-it-all. Unbeknownst to her, he – unethically – showed X-ray images clearly showing the double helix structure of DNA produced by Franklin to two other fellow scientists engaged in the same research. The two cribbers’ names were James Watson and Francis Crick – “two clowns,” as the famous DNA researcher Erwin Chargaff once disparagingly called them. Chargaff unintentionally supplied them with knowledge as well, namely the conclusion that DNA is made up of four bases. Using Franklin’s structure and Chargaff’s rules, Watson and Crick put together proof of the double helix structure of DNA and were awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine together with Wilkins in 1962. In their acceptance speech, they failed to make any mention of the decisive preliminary work done by Rosalind Franklin, who had already passed away by that time. Perhaps out of embarrassment about the knowledge theft?  © Gemeinfrei
  • In 1967 Joycelyn Bell Burnell, a young Northern Irish astrophysics student, made ...

    In 1967 Joycelyn Bell Burnell, a young Northern Irish astrophysics student, made one of the most important discoveries in astronomy of the 20th century when she was the first to qualify special beams of radio waves as signals emitted by a pulsar, a neutron star that rotates at extremely high speed. Seven years later, that discovery was recognized with the Nobel Prize in physics – albeit not for Burnell but for her PhD supervisor, Antony Hewish, and for Martin Ryle, another astronomer engaged in the research. The omission provoked a scandal. © Getty Images