Jews & The Nobel Prize – The Statistics, A Brief History, and an Exploration of Why So Many Laureates are of Jewish Heritage:

The five Nobel Prizes are awarded each year to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind. They are, as you may well know, widely regarded to be the most highly revered of academic awards. The prize includes a gold medal, around one million dollars, and certainly the fanciest proverbial feather an academic could wish to have in their cap. Since its inception in 1901, 989 men and women (till Jan 2023) have been crowned as Nobel Laureates in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, Peace and later on, Economics.

What may surprise you is that 212 of these people were Jews. That is, 21% of the total number of Nobel Prize winners were of at least half-Jewish ancestry. Equally mind-blowing is that over a third of all U.S. winners were Jewish.

Jews account for just 0.2% of the world’s population. If we were to calculate 0.2% of the 962 awards, we would see that common sense would tell us that Jews should have only one or two prizes. Instead, for reasons that may be hard to parse, they have won 40% of all economics prizes, 30% of all medicine, 25% of all physics, 20% of all chemistry, 15% of all literature and 10% of all peace prizes.

Let me drive this some further. If you were to take a country with a similar population to that of the global Jewish population, such as the Netherlands – a country with an esteemed academic tradition and long-term economic success – you would see that Jews have still won almost ten times as many prizes.

Further, the rate of Jewish prize winners only seems to be growing by the decade. Since the turn of the century, Jews have been awarded a quarter of all Nobel Prizes.

Despite being half a century late to the game, Israel too has enjoyed unprecedented representation amongst the Laureates. Twelve Israeli nationals have been awarded the Nobel Prize: more prizes per capita than the United States, Germany and France.

Notable Jewish Recipients:

The first Jew to win the Prize was Adolf von Baeyer, for his breakthrough achievements in Chemistry in 1905. Two years later, physicist Albert Michelson, the first American to win, was the son of a Jewish merchant.

Of course, in 1921 Albert Einstein, one of the most famous Jews to have lived, was awarded the Prize for Physics – not for his theory of relativity, mind you, but his explanation of the photoelectric effect

Adolf von Baeyer
Albert Michelson portrait - Nobel prize winner
Albert Michelson
Albert Einstein
Bob Dylan

For his essential work in the development of the world-changing drug Penicillin, the first antibiotic, Ernst Chain was awarded the 1945 Prize for Medicine. Chain was a proud and vocal Jew of mixed Sephardic and Ashkenazi heritage as well as an enthusiastic Zionist.

Bob Dylan, born Bob Zimmerman, received the Prize for Literature in 2016 for the poetry in his music. He is the descendant of Lithuanian Jews, and, though converting to Christianity and back again, Bar Mitzvahed his sons, visited Israel, and supports the Chabad Lubavitch community.

Other notable Jewish winners include U.S. politician and negotiator of the Vietnamese ceasefire, Henry Kissinger; champion of Israeli-Palistian peace treaties, Yizthak Rabbin; thought-leading economist Milton Friedman; and best-selling author and psychologist Daniel Kahneman.

Whilst the above-mentioned earned their place in the public eye aside from their Nobel Laureate status, many more Jews would have garnered our attention and praise if only their achievements were decipherable without a Ph.D. in their subject. Here we will discuss a few of those wonderful stories that have been neglected by history.

Born in 1885 to parents of Jewish-Hungarian heritage in Budapest, de Hevesy began his interest in Chemistry from a very young age. He went on to study at the University of Budapest and did his doctorate at Freiberg.

After co-discovering the element Hafnium early in his career, he started experimenting with using radioactive materials to observe and better understand the organic processes of plants and animals. It was this work that earned him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. We have de Hevesy to thank for the inception of radioactive tracers’, which are now commonly used for imaging in PET scan, if you are unlucky enough to be familiar with these.

Upon Germany’s invasion of Denmark in World War II, the Hungarian chemist dissolved a colleague’s gold Nobel Prize into the acid, aqua regia, one of the few chemicals that can dissolve gold, to stop the Nazis from confiscating it.

He hid the inconspicuous solution in plain sight in a jar on a shelf in his lab amongst all the other common chemicals. Post-war, de Hevesy came back to find the jar untouched and reformed the Gold out of the acid.

The very same gold was later officially recast as the Nobel medal and re-presented to his colleagues. I think this makes for a great metaphor for the Jewish experience.

George de Hevesy portrait - Nobel prize winner
George de Hevesy

Born into a working-class Jewish family in Germany, in 1872, Willstätter was the 1915 Prize recipient for Chemistry. Despite exhortations from academic seniors to get baptized in the Christian faith, ensuring a smoother career progression, Willstatter remained proudly Jewish throughout his life.

His prize-winning work furthered our understanding of the green plant pigment Chlorophyll, particularly in identifying that magnesium was a necessary mineral for plants. This indirectly facilitated mankind’s ability to produce flourishing crops.

In 1915 he was asked to work on the creation of poison gases for war. Willstätter nobly refused but did agree to work on protection against them. Along with his colleagues, he invented a triple-layer filter that could safely absorb all of the enemy’s weaponized gases. By 1917, Germany had manufactured 30 million of his masks, for which this innocent plant-lover was given an Iron Cross.

In 1924, in protest to mounting antisemitism forewarning Hitler’s Germany, Willstätter retired. He fled Germany in 1939 and lived the rest of his life in Switzerland.

Richard Willstätter

At the age of 96, for his work in physics, Ashkin became the second oldest recipient of a Nobel Prize ever. He was born in New York to Ukranian-Jewish parents.

He was awarded for the development of optical tweezers that can literally hold microscopic objects such as cells, viruses and even atoms, and manipulate them with great precision. The invention uses a tiny amount of pressure created by laser beams. Whilst it sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel, and many of its implications are too academic to understand, Ashkin’s invention has significant real-world application. These include manipulating DNA and working with sperm and egg cells, thus increasing the effectiveness of the in-vitro fertilization (IVF) process – a process many depend on to have children.

Arthur Ashkin portrait - Nobel prize winner
Arthur Ashkin

So...Why have so many Jews won the Nobel Prize?

The statistics above would be surprising even if Jews lived in a bubble of safety and prosperity for the last few centuries. However, as we know all too well, this certainly isn’t the case. In fact, in Britain, it wasn’t until the 19th century was well underway that the Jews were even permitted to go to university. Even beyond that, well into the 20th century, there were quotas on how many Jews could enroll in each course. In America, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Yale University lifted its restrictions that ensured the school’s Jewish student body didn’t exceed 10%. Canada’s McGill University was a similar story, as were others around Europe.

The British Medical Association, unconcealed in their antisemitism as recently as the 1950s, were writing job advertisements that were not for Jews or men of color. And yet the Jewish people have won 59 Nobel Prizes for their achievements in Medicine.

Because of the persecution, not despite it?

Perhaps, it was because of the centuries of persecution, rather than despite it, that Jews have succeeded. Indeed, temporarily shifting all the way back to around 70 BC, the destruction of the second Jewish temple facilitated a delocalization of power within Judaism from the all-authoritative high priests in the temple to the many scattered rabbis and scholars who could read and study scripture. Thus, knowledge became more democratized in the wake of terrible persecution. The tradition continued in such a way that all Jewish families would value literacy as an essential part of life and religion. Down the centuries, Jews incidentally transformed themselves into very marketable people for businesses and schools in a world which was largely illiterate. Thus, the Jews cemented their position as some of the stalwarts of society.

Perhaps also being a target for discrimination throughout the ages, forced to the margins of societies, created a unique racial identity. As seen in many minority groups, creativity, resilience and individuality can flourish in certain ways when one faces oppression. Many of the world’s great movements and creative breakthroughs – just look at the ubiquity of Black Americans and LGBTQ people in the creative industries – were borne under the weight of oppression. To survive, one learns to be wary and even distrustful of mainstream societal conventions. This weariness, whilst no doubt producing that infamous brand of Jewish neuroticism, surely also catalyzed the freedom of thought, curiosity and intellectual rebelliousness needed to make the major shifts in thinking that Nobel Prizes are awarded for. This would also explain the famous Jewish sense of humor and existential angst.

Perhaps more simply speaking, in order to surmount great resistance, one has to try harder. Likely all of these factors were bred into Jews, both genetically and environmentally over time.

Indeed, it seems this aspect of Jewish life held a significant place in the lives of many Jewish laureates. To name just a few, Kertész Imre and Eliezer Wiesel survived the Nazi concentration camps, whilst François Englert stayed safe from the Nazis in Belgium only by being hidden amongst non-Jews in orphanages. Other laureates including the above-mentioned Richard Willstätter, Martin Karplus, Otto Stern, Sir Hans Krebs and even Albert Einstein (who temporarily took refuge in Japan) had to hastily flee from Nazi Germany to avoid the fate so many suffered. Otto Fritz Meyerhof fled Nazi Germany in 1938 to Paris only to flee again to the US two years later upon the occupation of France. Ernst Chain left Germany and moved to England, arriving with no more than £10 in his pocket. Many others including Arthur Kornberg, Herbert A. Hauptman, Robert F. Furchgott, and Rita Montalcini were the victims of considerable antisemitic prejudice throughout their careers.

Walter Kohn vividly remembers his childhood in Nazi-occupied Austria. The memory of his murdered parents, relatives and teachers remained deeply painful, and was a fierce motivator for both his strong Jewish identity and his success in science. Daniel Kahneman’s childhood encounter with a compassionate, confused Nazi officer who didn’t realise Kahneman was a Jew sparked his fascination with human psychology. Perhaps even in the cases where Jewish laureates didn’t directly attribute their hardships as Jews as particularly formative, no doubt these experiences will have forged sharp, starkly individual minds. Minds capable of seeing things – threat and opportunity – that many could not.

Intellectualism Within the Jewish Tradition

Supposedly, on his death-bed Albert Einstein was asked how he would use his life could he do it over again. His reply was that he would study the Talmud. Whilst it may surprise some that a man so dedicated to science and the pursuit of truth would speak so highly of a religious text, it is indeed known that the Talmud, the book of Jewish Law, is highly complex and academic in it’s content.

The Talmud isn’t merely instructive – not just a list of commandments without explanation. Often, there is more explanation than instruction, and then there is debate about the explanation, and then debate about the style of debating and on ad infinitum. It is highly self-reflective, with different pages occupied by the differing views of various rabbis and scholars throughout the ages, all building on or critiquing the work of their predecessors. This is called the Mishnah and Gemara. Such work continued indefinitely, and Jewish communities across the diaspora cultivated a culture that taught them to think for themselves about the doctrines and laws. They were also taught to discuss them, and see how they apply to their own lives.

In the past, Talmudic discussion was the cornerstone of all Jewish life. Modernity has seen its importance fall away slightly. However, in the 21st century, Jewish Economics Laureate Robert Aumann used modern mathematical theory to analyse problems in the Talmud. And Shmuel Agnon, winner of the Literature prize had formal Talmudic training until his adolescence – proving it is still relevant and worthy of thought. Even today, though it is commonplace for Jews to be raised more or less atheistic, some still attend Talmud learning centers, learning the fundamentals of the Talmud. Many modern Jewish children (mainly in the US) are also taught Hebrew to some extent, making them partially bilingual. Reading in Hebrew from the Torah for one’s Bar Mitzvah at the young age of thirteen is a formative intellectual challenge for many young Jews.

This high regard for analysis is perhaps in contrast to the more dogmatic Western religion of Christianity, wherein there is an emphasis on accepting truth – faith being the key to salvation. This subtle conditioning of the majority of the western population may have put them at a disadvantage in terms of rational and creative thinking compared to the Talmudically-trained Jewish populace. In this respect, Judaism bears more resemblance to the eastern religious tradition of Buddhism, operating more like science than dogma.

Whilst many argue that Jews had an economic advantage given the ban of Christians charging interest on loans, some historians dispute how central a role this played. There is evidence of successful Jewish involvement in trade long before the ban came into place. This can be attributed to the guiding wisdom of the Talmud and the culture of debate and independent thought.

Though perhaps less Talmud-orientated, this culture of high intellectual achievement is certainly still visible in modern Jewish families. For many, higher education is a necessity rather than an option. The older generations’ hard-fought success and academic achievement places pressure on younger generations and thus the cycle goes on. The pressure, expectation and guilt weighs heavy but is ultimately a boon to most. This momentum likely plays a part in Jewish Nobel success. This cycle may bear resemblance to stereotypes of Asian families in the West. You may be surprised to learn that the Talmud is in fact a classic book amongst the Japanese and South Koreans – purportedly, many even have a translated copy in their own home. It seems that similar value systems are at play. This brings me to my next point.

The Role of Family Life

This momentum of expectation and achievement discussed above is carried by the strong generational currents of close-knit family life. Honouring one’s parents is after all one of the Ten Commandments – the most foundational of Jewish laws. What better way to honour one’s parents than to be grateful for their hard work, work hard oneself and achieve success? That is how one becomes a mensch’.

Jewish family life comes with strict responsibilities that must be upheld, instilling an ethos of care and duty from a young age. Children caring for the elders in the family is commonplace, marriage is strongly encouraged and divorces among orthodox Jews are few and far, Although among secular Jews the numbers are quite high. Fathers bless their children on the Sabbath. The dead are given thorough respect through extensive ritual and routine, namely sitting Shiva for seven days of uninterrupted mourning. All this serves to create a tight unit that can rely on each other and prevail through difficulties in the community and society with love and respect for each other. It goes without saying that a harmonious family home provides the support necessary for children to develop their natural curiosities and talent. The strong family roles within Judaism, honed by centuries of Talmudic refinement, may well play a role in supporting young Jews in their education.

Physics Prize recipient Serge Haroche recalls his childhood growing up in a Sephardic Jewish family in Morocco. Despite having to immigrate from Russia, his family kept strong links with previous generations. Haroche remembers large meetings of his family and the extended Jewish community in his Grandparents house.

The advantages of being a targeted population, the Talmudic practice of intellectual excellence, and the strong, supportive bonds of the Jewish family home – these factors together, and likely many others, have surely played some role in creating many of the greatest minds over the centuries. Of course, factors like these have been a part of many lives, but their invariable presence in the lives of Jews at least goes some of the way in explaining how almost a quarter of all Nobel laureates have been of Jewish heritage.

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