Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

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The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine ( Swedish Nobelpriset i fysiologi eller medicin ) is one of the prizes donated in his will by the Swedish chemist and inventor Alfred Nobel (1833-1896), who had become very wealthy through the development of dynamite became. The prize has been awarded annually since 1901 by the Nobel Assembly of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm according to Nobel's stipulations to someone who "made the most important discovery in the domain of physiology or medicine" in the past year.

award criteria

"Physiology or Medicine"

The prize is often abbreviated as the Nobel Prize in Medicine . This is incorrect because Alfred Nobel's last will, written in 1895, explicitly includes physiology . At that time, however, physiology covered a much larger area than medical physiology - namely also areas that would today be attributed primarily to biology , biochemistry or biophysics . The Karolinska Institutet , the Swedish medical university near Stockholm, has always had a lot of leeway in the selection of applicants. The 1973 prize for Konrad Lorenz , Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch belongs to e.g. B. in the field of zoology ( behavioral research ).

"The Greatest Benefit to Mankind"

According to Alfred Nobel, the prize should be awarded to the person who has brought the greatest benefit to mankind with his discovery in the last year . The condition of "discovery" favors the research-based basic subjects in medicine over the applied subjects. Indeed , far more awards have gone to researchers in immunology , genetics , or neurobiology than to those in pharmacy , diagnosis , or even therapeutics .

Which discovery brought the greatest benefit to mankind is still the subject of much debate. The development of DDT by the Swiss chemist and Nobel Prize winner 1948 Paul Hermann Müller is often criticized from today's point of view. The use of DDT is now banned because of its toxicity to humans and animals, but according to WHO estimates, around 25 million lives have been saved through its use. In addition, neither the inventor nor the Nobel Assembly was aware of the extent of the substance's toxicity, which is known today, at the time the prize was awarded. For this reason, it may make more sense to consider the criteria for awarding the prize in isolation from their respective historical context, rather than adopting them unchanged for the present.



Alfred Nobel specified in his will that the Karolinska Institute would award the prize in either physiology or medicine. In 1901, all 19 professors in the medical school were selected from the nominations. They elected from among themselves a Nobel Committee chaired by the President of Karolinska. In 1918, Göran Liljestrand was elected Secretary of the Nobel Committee, a position he held for 42 years.

In 1977 the Nobel Assembly was set up at the Caroline Institute because the number of lecturers had increased significantly in the meantime. A change in the law in Sweden, which made all papers from state institutions public according to the principle of publicity , would also have threatened the secrecy of the selection process. The Nobel Assembly is completely independent from the state, it is funded solely by the Nobel Foundation, although all 50 members are professors from Karolinska. They retire at the age of 65, new members are elected by the assembly.

The Nobel Committee is elected by the Nobel Assembly and consists of five members and a secretary. Each member can be elected twice for a period of three years, the managing director three times for a period of four years. In order to ensure continuity of work, only some of the members are elected each year, one of the members becomes chairman for three years.

Once the nominations have been reviewed by the committee, an ad hoc committee of ten members will be appointed to review the nominations for a period of nine months. The members of the ad hoc committee need not be members of the Nobel Assembly.

Time schedule

The schedule has remained the same since 1901: in September of the previous year, 2,500 to 3,500 scientists from medical faculties outside Scandinavia are selected according to a rotating system and asked to propose their candidates for the next year.

The Committee and Assembly hold several meetings throughout the year to keep the Assembly well informed at the time of voting on the selection process and the scientific merits of the candidates. The decision of the Nobel Assembly will be made at the beginning of October, a simple majority is sufficient.

The physiology or medicine award winners are traditionally announced first, usually on the first Monday in October.

right of proposal

All Nobel Prize winners in Physiology or Medicine and all professors of medicine in Scandinavian countries have a regular nomination right. The closing date for nominations is January 31st. In the spring there is a joint meeting with the Nobel Committee for Chemistry to avoid that one laureate receives two prizes.


The first prizewinner was the German Emil von Behring , other famous prizewinners were Robert Koch , Paul Ehrlich , Otto Loewi and the discoverers of the DNA structure James Watson and Francis Crick .

So far (as of 2018), the prize has been awarded to 216 people, twelve of whom are women. It was first awarded to a woman in 1947, the last of all five original Nobel Prizes. Today the proportion of women is higher than for the other scientific Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry. It can be given to up to three people at the same time. From 1915 to 1918, in the years 1921 and 1925 and from 1940 to 1942 there were no awards, the prize money was returned to the fund.

Canadian Ralph M. Steinman 's posthumous award in 2011 set a precedent. Under the original statutes of the Nobel Prize, a nominee who died after the end of the nomination period was allowed to be considered. In 1974 the provision was changed; since then, the prize may only be awarded if the nominee lived to see the announcement. However, Steinman was awarded the prize despite passing away shortly before the announcement. It was decided to give the prize to Steinman nonetheless, as the Nobel Foundation believed the purpose of the regulation was to prevent an intentional posthumous award. In this case, since the committee had not been informed of Steinman's death at the time the decision was made, it could be ruled out that it intended to award the prize posthumously.

web links

Commons : Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine  - Collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. Nomination and Selection of Medicine Laureates: How Are the Nobel Laureates Selected? At: , accessed 22 June 2016.
  2. The Saddest Nobel Prize Ever ,, October 3, 2011.
  3. Ralph Steinman Remains Nobel Laureate. , press release of October 3, 2011; accessed November 1, 2017.