The Nobel Prize is the prize of a lifetime, and it’s awarded only to the very best minds in society.

It’s a recognition of immeasurable talent, but specifically, it is given out to those who have made significant contributions to their academic field and more broadly, to humankind as a whole.

There are five Nobel Prize categories, and chemistry is one of them.

To receive the chemistry Nobel Prize, it’s usually the case that you’d need to invest in a new scientific method to advance research, discover a new element or concept, or make a groundbreaking realisation that shatters our current understanding of how things work.

To give you some examples of what might qualify you for a Nobel Prize in chemistry, previous winners have discovered the element radon, they’ve expanded the periodic table, and more recently the chemistry Nobel Prize 2020 was awarded to a pair of scientists who developed a genetic tool. This tool could massively impact our ability to develop cancer therapies and understand the inner workings of various life forms. While there was a chemistry Nobel Prize 2020 controversy, it was a discovery worthy of celebration.

As a result, it isn’t your average Joe that wins the Nobel Prize, but some of the sharpest minds the world has ever seen.

After all, some of the most famous names to win the Nobel Prize include the likes of Albert Einstein and Marie Curie who are unanimously considered to have dedicated their whole lives to the pursuit of something worthwhile and changed the world as a result of their gargantuan efforts.

With all that said, we’d like to take you back to the early days of the Nobel Prize.

We want to first explore what the Nobel Prize in chemistry is and how it came about, before taking you down the rabbit hole of the earliest winners of the prize and which countries they belonged to.

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What is the Nobel Prize in Chemistry?

gene structure
Chemistry is an important field of science that deals with all forms of life and natural processes. Unsplash.

The Nobel Prize was first established by the man whose name it adopted, Alfred Noble.

The first chemistry Nobel Prize winner was Jacobus Henricus Van’t Hoff in 1901. Since then, there has been an award ceremony every year on the 10th of December which marks the anniversary of Alfred Noble’s passing.

To give you a brief background of the man who gave his name to the prestigious award, Alfred Noble was a Swedish genius

Genius because he not only invented dynamite but he also made several important discoveries and conducted countless studies. He was a relentless scientist but was also considered an entrepreneur, inventor, and more.

As such, he had a huge impact on science and before his death, he contributed his large fortune to the Nobel Prize Foundation which was the catalyst for the annual award ceremony that still goes strong to this day. In his will, he wanted there to be a series of prizes that were awarded only to those who could provide the ‘greatest benefit to mankind’ across several important academic disciplines.

This noble act by Nobel was backed to the tune of what today would be around $198 million, so this huge cash injection kickstarted the Nobel Prize awards which first began a few years after his death.

His legacy in the field of science and the world at large is hard to understate.

The winner of the chemistry Nobel Prize is determined by a five-member committee elected by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. After chemistry Nobel Prize candidates are put forward by colleagues and others, the committee sets to work scrutinising and deliberating over the proposed nominees until a winner slowly emerges.

Those who make it past the thorough examination are known as laureates, and those who have been nominated aren’t revealed for fifty years which gives the award ceremony an air of mystery and intrigue. However, as you might imagine, journalists put forward potential nominee’s names and others slip through the cracks at times. Still, it’s a noble tradition befitting the prestigious award.

Who was the First Chemistry Nobel Prize Winner?

Queen Victoria statue
The first winner took home the Nobel Prize for chemistry the same year Queen Victoria died. Unsplash.

The very first chemist to get their hands on a Nobel Prize in the field was Jacobus Henricus Van’t Hoff who hailed from the Netherlands.

The explanation for his award may go over your head if you’re not a science whizz, so bear with us:

The award was given for Jacobus’ ‘discovery of the laws of chemical dynamics and osmotic pressure in solutions’.

Still with us?

Ok, so to simplify his accomplishment - but not to diminish from it - the Dutch chemist won the award for establishing the modern theory of chemical equilibrium, as well as making progress in chemical kinetics, chemical thermodynamics, and chemical affinity.

To simplify even further, the chemist moved the science of chemistry forward by laying the groundwork for further research into various fields such as those mentioned above.

Who are some of the Earliest Chemistry Nobel Prize Winners?

Along with the original chemistry Nobel Prize winner Jacobus Henricus Van’t Hoff, who else claimed the prestigious prize within the first years of its inception?

Well, over the next five years there were recognitions for the advancement of everything from research into sugar and proteins to the expansion of the periodic table.

Here’s a brief breakdown of the Nobel Prize in chemistry winners from 1902-1906:

1902 - Hermann Emil Fischer (Germany)

A year after the first Nobel Prize in chemistry was given out, Emil Fischer took the prize for his work with sugar and the implications that had for research into proteins.

Specifically, the German chemist worked alongside Fourneau to discover the synthesis of dipeptide which deepened our understanding of proteins.

1903 - Svante August Arrhenius (Sweden)

The first Swede to win the chemistry Nobel Prize was Svante August Arrhenius, who brought great pride to the birthplace of Alfred Nobel in 1903 when he advanced the field through his electrolytic theory of dissociation.

The Swedish chemist published a book three years prior to receiving the award called ‘Textbook of theoretical electrochemistry’, and he took a keen interest in physics and the climate as well as various elements of chemistry.

1904 - Sir William Ramsay (Britain)

Sir William Ramsay is considered to be one of the most esteemed Brits to win the chemistry Nobel Prize award, primarily because he was the first to do so.

The Scottish chemist Ramsay is responsible for expanding the periodic table as we knew it back in 1904, discovering the noble gases.

What’s more, with his partner in crime John William Strutt, he did the unthinkable and went on to win another Nobel Prize later that year in a different category. The two won the physics Nobel Prize for their discovery of the element argon.

1905 - Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Adolf Von Baeyer (Germany)

Adolf Von Baeyer received the Nobel Prize for his ‘advancement of organic chemistry and the chemical industry’.

The chemist made significant developments through his research and work on organic dyes and hydroaromatic compounds.

The German scientist built a reputation as one of the most famous teachers of organic chemistry at the time, which is no mean feat.

1906 - Henri Moissan (France)

Henri Moissan picked up the award in 1906 as a result of his ‘investigation and isolation of the element fluorine, and for the adoption in the service of the science of the electric furnace called after him’.

The French chemist carried out research on different minerals and salts, which eventually led him to a discovery that proved elusive for many - that of the element fluoride.

He then went on to develop a furnace that used an electric arc as its heat source, which was subsequently named after him.

Early Chemistry Nobel Prize Winners by Country

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Don't miss out on the opportunity to pick up some interesting world Nobel Prize winner trivia! Unsplash.

It’s always nice to go to parties and pub quiz nights equipped with all sorts of interesting trivia tidbits. Do you know how many UK Nobel Prize winners there are for example?

Why not go to your next quiz armed with fascinating facts about chemistry Nobel Prize winners according to their country of birth?

We’ll start by saying it’s the United States that has the most Nobel Prizes in total, with around 388 to date. The UK comes in at second with an impressive 133 Nobel laureates, closely followed by Germany with 109 - which includes the brilliant mind of Albert Einstein!

After that, there’s France, Sweden, Russia, Japan, and Switzerland all with around 30 Nobel Prizes each.

In terms of chemistry, it’s still the United States that comes out on top with 72 Nobel Prizes in the field.

After that, you have a tie between Germany and the United Kingdom, with both countries boasting 33 awards in science.

Beyond the top three, France has 10 awards in chemistry, Japan has 8, and Switzerland has 7.

If you’re inspired to brush up on your chemistry knowledge and follow in the footsteps of some of the greatest minds of the past 100+ years, why not hire a private chemistry tutor and get the specific guidance you need to excel?

With Superprof you can find a tutor near you or take online classes to indulge your curiosities within the field of chemistry or any of the other sciences.

You should also brush up on the physics Nobel Prize winners since you're on a roll, a list which features the man who left a great legacy in the world of science: Albert Einstein.

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Samuel

Sam is an English teaching assistant and freelance writer based in southern Spain. He enjoys exploring new places and cultures, and picking up languages along the way.