Scientists and Intellectuals are supposed to be above petty politics and popularity contests, right? Nope. Here are a few bright bulbs that never got the fancy Nobel gold medallion (or the millions of Swedish krona that go with it). And you thought the Oscars were bad.
1. Joan Robinson, Economics
Great Britain’s Joan Robinson may be one of the most exciting figures in the history of “the Dismal Science.” An acolyte of the great John Maynard Keynes, her work covered a wide range of economic topics, from neoclassicism to Keynes’s general theory to Marxian theory. Not to mention, her notion of imperfect competition still shows up in every Econ 101 class. Add to that the fact that Robinson’s greatest work, The Accumulation of Capital, was published way back in 1956 but is still widely used as an economics textbook. So why no Nobel? Some say it’s because she’s a female, and no female has ever won the Nobel in Economics. Others say that Robinson’s work over her career was too eclectic, rather than hyperfocused like that of so many other laureates. Still others claim that she was undesirable as a laureate because of her vocal praise for the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a fairly anti-intellectual enterprise.
2. Dmitri Mendeleev, Chemistry
Why would this guy deserve a Nobel Prize for chemistry? After all, his only achievement was to devise the entire periodic table of elements, the miracle of organization and inference on which all of modern chemistry is based. Mendeleev’s table was so good, it even predicted the existence of elements that hadn’t yet been discovered. But here’s where politics rears its ugly head. In 1906, Mendeleev was selected by the prize committee to win the honor, but the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences stepped in and overturned the decision. Why? The intervention was spearheaded by Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius, who had himself won the prize in 1903 for his theory of electrolytic dissociation. Mendeleev had been an outspoken critic of the theory, and Arrhenius seized the opportunity as the perfect chance to squeeze a few sour grapes.
3. Mahatma Gandhi, Peace
The Susan Lucci of Nobel Peace Prize contenders, Mohandas “Mahatma” (Great-Souled) Gandhi was nominated like crazy: 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947, and 1948.
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He certainly deserved it, as his nonviolent methods helped kick the British out of India and became the model for future Peace Prize laureates like Martin Luther King Jr. Gandhi’s final nomination came in 1948, and he was the odds-on favorite to win it that year. However, the “Mahatma” was assassinated just a few days before the deadline. Since the Nobel Prize is never awarded posthumously, the prize for peace went unawarded that year on the grounds that there was “no suitable living candidate.” The decision was also motivated by the fact that Gandhi left no heirs or foundations to which his prize money could go.
4. James Joyce and 5. Marcel Proust, Literature
One wrote Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, almost universally regarded as two of the most brilliant works of the 20th century (in the case of Ulysses, the most brilliant). And the other is, well, Marcel Proust. Proust’s towering work, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time, or, sometimes, Remembrance of Things Past) is considered one of the greatest literary achievements ever, combining seven novels and 2,000 characters for a celebration of life, consciousness, and sexuality spanning 3,200 pages. James Joyce’s works and stream-of- consciousness style are the basis of countless college courses, doctoral theses, and poetic ruminations. But the writings of Proust and Joyce were probably just too controversial and “out there” for the more conservative Nobel committees of their day. And Nobel’s stricture against posthumous awards hasn’t exactly helped, especially since the influence of these two artists has continued to grow long after their deaths. Most ironic, Proust and Joyce have been major influences on many writers who went on to win Nobels themselves, like Saul Bellow, Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Hermann Hesse. Other literary giants who have gotten the Nobel shaft? Evelyn Waugh, Jorge Luis Borges, Bertold Brecht, Graham Greene, Henry James, Vladimir Nabokov, and Simone de Beauvoir, to name a few.
6. Jules-Henri Poincaré, Physics
Although Poincaré was a mathematician, his genius was too universal to be confined to one category. Sure, he came up with all sorts of mathematical theories with crazy names: algebraic topology, abelian functions, and Diophantine equations. But he was into physics, too. Poincaré laid the foundation for modern chaos theory and even beat Einstein to the punch on certain facets of the theory of special relativity. And one of his math problems, the Poincaré conjecture, even remained unsolved for nearly 100 years! So why was Henri overlooked for the Big One? Due to Alfred Nobel’s stipulation that his prizes go to those whose discoveries have been of practical benefit to mankind, the Nobel committees have often been accused of rewarding experimental discoveries over purely theoretical advances. Poincaré’s work in physics seems to be a victim of that prejudice.
7. Raymond Damadian, Medicine
Lots of deserving folks have been passed over for the Nobel, but few were as vocal about it as 2003 runner-up Raymond V. Damadian. He was the brain behind the science of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a technique that completely revolutionized the detection and treatment of cancer. But the 2003 Prize for Medicine went to Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield, two scientists who expanded on Damadian’s discovery. Enraged at the slight, Damadian ran full-page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post featuring a photo of the Nobel Prize medal upside down and the headline “The Shameful Wrong That Must Be Righted.” The ad featured quotes from other scientists backing up Damadian’s claim, even a letter of protest to be cut out, signed, and mailed to the Nobel Committee. Some claim Damadian was slighted because his fundamentalist Christian belief in creationism made him anathema to the scientific community. Others say it was because his discovery wasn’t really useful in medicine until Lauterbur and Mansfield improved upon it. Either way, 2003 left the poor scientist Nobel-less.
8. Oh, and Anybody in Mathematics
When dynamite inventor (that’s not a comment on his abilities; he really did invent dynamite) Alfred Nobel stipulated in his will that his fortune be used to establish a fund to award five annual prizes, he famously left out mathematics. All kinds of theories have popped up to explain the omission, the most salacious of which claim that Nobel hated all mathematicians because his wife was schtupping one on the side. Nope. The most likely reasons for Nobel’s ditching math are (1) He simply didn’t like math all that much, and (2) Sweden already had a big, fancy prize for mathematics, bestowed by the journal Acta Mathematica. Although math is still a Nobel bridesmaid, a prize for economics was added in 1968, thereby giving the extremely boring sciences their due.