In 1895, Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel bequeathed 94% of his wealth towards the creation of five prizes to "those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind". In 1901, the first winners were announced and since then, 900 Nobel Laureates have been awarded.

Here we look at the most famous and significant 12 Nobel Laureates who were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine due to their contributions to our current state of knowledge in medicine.

1. Emil von Behring - 1901

In 1901, the first winner was the German physiologist who discovered a diphtheria antitoxin to combat diphtheria. He was afterwards widely known as a "saviour of children". However, sources have claimed that he cheated Paul Ehrlich out of recognition and financial reward for their collaborative work to develop a diphtheria serum by repeatedly injecting the deadly toxin into a horse. Ultimately, in 1908, a Nobel Prize was also awarded to Ehrlich -with Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov - for the discovery of phagocytes.

2. Robert Koch - 1905

Koch was titled the father of modern bacteriology as he identified many specific causative agents of tuberculosis, cholera and anthrax as well as giving experimental support for the concept of infectious disease. The German pioneering microbiologist created "Koch's postulates" - a series of four principles linking specific microorganisms to specific diseases that remain as the "gold standard" in medical microbiology.

3. Sir Frederick Grant Banting, John James Rickard Macleod - 1923

Type 2 diabetic individuals have to thank these two Canadian and British scientists respectively. Macleod's name will always be associated with his work on carbohydrate metabolism especially with his collaboration with Frederick Banting and Charles Best in the discovery of insulin in 1921. Macleod and Banting were jointly awarded the Prize in 1923. Banting then shared his prize money with Best who was working with him.

4. Karl Landsteiner - 1930

In 1901, Landsteiner discovered the different blood groups of humans but was not honoured until 1930. In 1909, he classified the four groups of bloods in human beings and showed that transfusions of different blood groups can cause catastrophic consequences.

5. Sir Alexander Fleming, Sir Ernst Boris Chain, Howard Walter Florey - 1945

Penicillin, enough said. Fleming famously discovered the antibiotic through a serendipitous incident and Chain and Florey then established the structure of penicillin and carried out the first clinical trials nine years later.

6. Hermann Muller - 1946

Muller was awarded the Prize in recognition for his work on the physiological and genetic effects of radiation - mutagenesis. Shortly after WWII, Muller frequently warned of the long-term dangers of radioactive fallout from the nuclear war and nuclear testing episodes, raising public awareness in the subject.

7. Francis Crick, James Watson, Maurice Wilkins - 1962

Crick, Watson and Wilkins were recognised "for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material". Unfortunately, Rosalind Franklin who contributed largely to the discovery through the X-ray diffraction images of DNA was not awarded the Prize as she passed away in 1958 and the Nobel Committee did not make posthumous nominations.

8. Joseph E. Murray, E. Donnall Thomas - 1990

Murray and Thomas shared the Prize in 1990 for their discoveries concerning "organ and cell transplantation in the treatment of human disease." In 1954, Murray performed the world's first successful renal transplant between identical twins. Thomas on the other hand, developed bone marrow transplantation as a treatment for leukemia.

9. Paul Lauterbur, Sir Peter Mansfield - 2003

Doctors have to thank Lauterbur and Mansfield for the development of magnetic resonance imaging. Lauterbur discovered the possibility to create a 2-D picture by introducing gradients in the magnetic field and Mansfield further developed it by showing how radio signals from MRI can be mathematically analysed to be interpreted into a useful image.

10. Barry J. Marshall, J. Robin Warren - 2005

Marshall and Warren were recognised for showing that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori is the culprit of most peptic ulcers, refuting decades of medical doctrine stating that ulcers were caused by stress, too much acid and spicy foods. Marshall even self-administered the bacterium to show that it causes acute gastritis and suggested that chronic colonisation directly leads to peptic ulceration. Warren helped develop a convenient diagnostic test to detect H. pylori infection in stomachs of patients.

11. Haraldzur Hausen, Francois Barre-Sinoussi, Luc Montagier - 2008

Montagier and Barre-Sinoussi were awarded the Prize for the discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which has led to the current understanding of the biology of the disease and the antiretroviral treatments available. Hausen, on the other hand, was awarded for the discovery of the papilloma viruses. His discovery led to the characterisation of the natural history of HPV infection, an understanding of the mechanisms of HPV and the development of prophylactic vaccines against the virus.

12. Satoshi Omura, Tu Youyou, William Campbell - 2015

Omura and Campbell were jointly awarded "for their discoveries concerning a novel therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites." Omura is known for the discovery and development of various pharmaceuticals originally occurring in microorganisms, whereas Campbell discovered a novel therapy against infections that were caused by roundworms. Youyou made a breakthrough in discovering artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin for treatment against malaria, saving millions of lives worldwide.

This year

This year, the Prize was awarded to Yoshinori Ohsumi for his work in discovering the mechanisms for autophagy.


See a pictorial representation of this timeline at: Infographic: Nobel Prize winners for medicine across 115 years MIMS


Read more:
Nobel Prize for medicine goes to Japanese gene researcher for autophagy work
Nobel Prize for Chemistry claimed by trio for breakthrough in nanotechnology
Does scientific recognition boil down to a race against time?

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