What is the Nobel Prize?

The Nobel Prize is reserved for the recognition of extraordinary talent.

It acknowledges and celebrates academics and researchers who have paved the way for further insights in their field, discovered new concepts, or come up with technology or methods that revolutionise our understanding of a topic.

As such, to earn a Nobel Prize is to justify a lifetime of hard work.

The Nobel Prize tradition all began at the end of the 19th century when Swede chemist and all-around entrepreneur Alfred Nobel - who invented dynamite - donated his large fortune to the Nobel Prize Foundation before his passing in 1896.

The sum, thought to be close to $200 million in current-day terms, was intended to be used to honour outstanding scientists and other academics for their work in their respective fields.

The first-ever chemistry Nobel Prize was awarded to Jacobus Henricus Van’t Hoff at the very first ceremony in 1901. Van’t Hoff won the prize for the discovery of laws in chemical dynamics and osmotic pressure in solutions.

Since then, the Nobel Prize has been awarded to one or more chemists every year on the 10th of December, which is the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death.

Before we get to the 2020 chemistry Nobel Prize winners, who will be the main focus of this article, let’s take a look back through time at some of the most famous winners since the prize’s inception.

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Chemistry Nobel Prize Winners

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Ah, the beaker. A familiar sight for anyone who's ever set foot in a chemistry lab before. Unsplash.

Over the years, many famous figures have laid claim to Nobel Prizes across different disciplines.

The most obvious of which is perhaps Albert Einstein, who is often brought up in conversations about those who have contributed immensely to humankind in the past hundred years or so.

What about within the science of chemistry, though?

Who was responsible for the greatest leap forward in chemistry?

Well, that’s a tough question to answer, as every Nobel Prize winner’s contribution to humankind is unquestionable.

Some would even argue that 2020’s winners have pushed the field forward immeasurably, but we’ll get to that later.

One of the earliest winners of note was Sir William Ramsay. Ramsay was the first Brit to claim the award in chemistry, and he more than justified his selection.

Ramsay was responsible for discovering noble gases, and their placement in the periodic table. Essentially he discovered argon - which would later win him the Nobel Prize for physics - and other elements which expanded the knowledge at the time of the periodic table.

Another famous figure is of course Marie Curie, who was notable not only for one Nobel Prize but two - in both physics and chemistry.

She was given the award in chemistry ‘in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium’.

In recent years, there have been awards given to acknowledge everything from the discovery of quasicrystals by Dan Shectman to the design of molecular machines by Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Bernard L. Feringa, and Sir J. Fraser Stoddart. But the most recent Nobel Prize in chemistry went to two scientists in 2020, and if you don’t know what they won it for yet, you’re in for a treat!

Who Won In 2020?

gene editing
Gene editing took centre stage for the 2020 chemistry Nobel Prize ceremony. Unsplash.

The chemistry Nobel Prize 2020 was awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier of France and Jennifer A. Doudna of the US for ‘the development of a method for genome editing’.

Genome editing is a fascinating area of exploration in chemistry, in which scientists attempt to rearrange and modify the genes of various life forms and microorganisms.

Genes are the lifeblood of a living being’s DNA, so being able to go in there and essentially edit them opens up many possibilities for curative treatments and scientific breakthroughs.

In 2020, scientists Charpentier and Doudna paired up to develop a methodology that allows us to make changes to genes with a much higher degree of precision than before. Using bacteria’s immune defences, they were able to find a way to disarm viruses through a process of removing parts of their DNA.

The tool they developed is often described as a pair of genetic scissors, which can cut through any DNA molecule.

What’s most exciting about this breakthrough is that now we will be able to more quickly modify genes - in a matter of just weeks - which could lead to more discoveries and even push forward the search for cancer treatment therapies.

The tool is known as the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors, though here is where the controversy lies.

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Chemistry Nobel Prize 2020 Controversy

There will always be some level of debate over who the worthy winner of a Nobel Prize is, but this wasn’t necessarily the case in 2020.

In 2020, there was a controversy not over who won the award, but over what exactly they did to get it. Before you jump to conclusions, we’re not detracting from the scientists’ work in any way, as they absolutely did deserve to win the Nobel Prize, it’s just that it came to light that they didn’t develop CRISPR.

CRISPR has in fact been around for many years, first detected by Yohizumo Ishino in 1987, and then by Francisco Mojica in 1993.

However, what nobody had been able to do until Douda and Charpentier came along is turn the discovery into a tool that scientists can use to aid their research efforts and studies.

What Charpentier did discover for the first time, is tracrRNA in bacteria back in 2011. Doudna and Charpentier were then able to further their research by combining tracRNA with crRNA in order to develop one RNA guide which accelerated progress in the field.

Chemistry Nobel Prize Candidates

To complete the tale of controversy that surrounded the 2020 chemical Nobel Prize, we must also address the patent battle that threatened to overshadow the accomplishment of the two worthy winners.

In 2013, there were two other scientists that were locked into a patent battle over the CRISPR technology. The scientists in question were geneticist George Church and bioengineer Feng Zhang, who made the case that such a system would be suitable for editing mammal DNA.

However, the arguments of these scientists perhaps fell on deaf ears, since they weren’t considered to be at the cutting edge of their fields which makes all the difference in some academic spheres.

There’s also another controversy surrounding 2020 according to some, which is that there wasn’t a male recipient of the Prize for the first time. This in itself is something to be celebrated, but the issue for some people is that Virginijus Šikšnys, a male biochemist from Lithuania, perhaps should have also been credited.

Šikšnys dedicated much of his academic career to the study of organic chemistry before settling on his position as chief scientist and head of the Department of Protein-DNA Interactions at the Vilnius University Institute of Biotechnology. He then went on to other things, but what we’re interested in here is his role in the study of the CRISPR system.

Ever since 2007, the biochemist had a one-track focus, giving all of his attention to CRISPR-Cas. Unfortunately, his findings that he laid out in a report didn’t make it to publication in time, which meant Doudna and Charpentier beat him to it.

Other Nobel Prize Controversies

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Chemistry discoveries often occur as a result of many chemists' work, and the Nobel Prize is only awarded to 3 scientists, so you can see how it can get controversial. Unsplash.

Everybody loves a bit of drama from time to time, so with that in mind we thought we’d go over some of the biggest controversies the Nobel Prize has experienced over the years in the field of chemistry

Pre-1950

Before 1950, there was one major controversy that was on everybody’s lips regarding the chemistry Nobel Prize.

Specifically, it was between the years of 1922 and 1946, when Gilbert N. Lewis who was known for his work on electron pairs, covalent bonds, and Lewis structure was overlooked for the prize despite being nominated as many as 41 times during those years.

How is this possible?

Well, there are rumours to suggest that Wilhelm Palmaer, who was a friend of Lewis’ dubious teacher Walther Nernst, denied him the Prize by exploiting his power as a committee member.

Post-1950

Since 1950, there have been several controversies that have plagued the chemistry Nobel Prize, including the 2020 controversy we’ve already mentioned.

The other notable cases all include instances of one or more scientists who made significant contributions to the research that won the Nobel Prize, missing out for one reason or another.

While you might think it’s enough just to have contributed something so meaningful to science, without the Nobel Prize credit, the contribution can seem empty and won’t necessarily advance your career to the same degree it would those that did have their names listed.

If you want to brush up on your science skills, head to the Superprof website where you can hire a private chemistry tutor to take you through your paces.

With a tutor, you should notice that your progress speeds up as they can identify your mistakes and help you course-correct when necessary.

It’s also worth checking out the Nobel Prize by country, as you’d be surprised how many UK Nobel Prize winners there are. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry winners aren’t always controversial as in the case of 2020, so we recommend you go through them starting with the first chemistry Nobel Prize winner to celebrate the huge advances in chemistry over the years.

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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.