FEATURE — Summer 2003


Bringing Distinction and Honor to the University

Over the years, 22 Nobel laureates have been associated with Washington University. Many served as distinguished faculty members while doing their award-winning work; some were graduate students; and one was the grandson of a University co-founder.

By C.B. Adams

When a place like Washington University dedicates itself to fostering vibrant and vital academic, creative, and scientific endeavors, the resulting work is sure to garner attention. And when an institution like the Nobel Foundation recognizes world-class accomplishments in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, economic sciences, and peace, the name Washington University is sure to appear regularly.

That is exactly what has happened.

In a world that seems to have an award for virtually any accomplishment, from the sublime to the silly, the Nobel Prize stands above and apart. Its high standards for selection make it the gold standard. That is why the number of Nobel laureates a university has nurtured is one way to measure its own academic standing.

In 1967, an article in Scientific American compared the number of Nobel laureates at American institutions. At the time, Washington University ranked seventh among the top 10 with six laureates. The magazine was meticulous in its choices and matched the institutions' laureates in four ways: where the individuals received their doctoral degrees; where they did the prize-winning work; where they were working when they received the prize; and their current affiliation. Based on these criteria, the magazine identified the scholars who completed their prize-winning research at Washington University from 1927 to 1959 as Arthur Holly Compton, Joseph Erlanger, Herbert S. Gasser, Carl F. Cori, Gerty T. Cori, and Arthur Kornberg.

Impressive? Yes. But this academic A-list has continued to lengthen from 1927 to the present. Above all, the men and women of Washington University who have been recognized with a Nobel should be remembered for their very real and important accomplishments that have earned them a place in history.

1927 — Arthur Holly Compton

Arthur Holly Compton was a man whose illustrious career was filled with successes—from academic to scientific to leadership. In 1960, his biography in Who's Who in America filled half a column. At Washington University, it fills an entire chapter of its history. He was the Wayman Crow Professor of Physics from 1920 to 1923. From his laboratory in Eads Hall—quite modest by today's standards—Compton investigated the dual nature of X-rays. He noticed that an X-ray, or radiation, which has the same wave properties as visible light, also behaves like a particle. This became known as the "Compton effect." His work later earned him the 1927 Nobel Prize for Physics. Compton left the University in 1923 for the University of Chicago. During World War II, he was instrumental in the creation of the first nuclear chain reaction, which led to the development of the first atomic bomb. Compton returned to Washington University as chancellor in 1945, serving in that capacity until 1953. He then assumed the title "Distinguished Service Professor of Natural Philosophy," a title he held until his retirement in 1961. He was also known as an excellent educator, philosopher, humanitarian, and, by some accounts, a virtuoso on the banjo.

1943 — Edward A. Doisy
Edward A. Doisy was a member of the Washington University School of Medicine from 1919 to 1923. He shared the 1943 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with a Danish scientist "for their discovery of the chemical nature of vitamin K."

1944 — Joseph Erlanger and Herbert S. Gasser
Joseph Erlanger Herbert S. Gasser

The teamwork of Joseph Erlanger and Herbert Spencer Gasser earned them the 1944 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. These men studied, among other interests, the electrophysiology of the nerves. Using the then-new low-voltage cathode-ray oscillograph, they investigated the conductivity rates of different groups of nerves. According to Gasser's Nobel Foundation biography, "The work led to advances in our knowledge of the mechanism of pain and of reflex action and has inspired a large school of neurophysiologists."

Erlanger was the chair of the Department of Physiology from 1910 to 1946. Gasser was a member of the medical school faculty from 1916 to 1931.

1947 — Carl F. Cori and Gerty T. Cori
Carl F. Cori and his wife Gerty T. Cori received a Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their isolation of phosphorylase, an enzyme that starts the body's conversion of glucose into glycogen, or animal starch into sugar. Their combined work furthered understanding of human metabolism, including metabolic disorders, such as diabetes. Their lab also furthered the research of Arthur Kornberg, Severo Ochoa, and Luis F. Leloir—all Nobel laureates—as well as William H. Danforth, chancellor emeritus of the University.
Gerty T. Cori and Carl F. Cori

Carl Cori was a member of the School of Medicine faculty from 1931 to 1964. He served as professor of pharmacology and, later, head of biochemistry. Gerty Cori was a member of the School of Medicine faculty from 1931 until her death in 1957.

1959 — Arthur Kornberg and Severo Ochoa
Much of the work being done today in how genetic information is duplicated and then passed on to the next generation owes more than a nod to the research conducted by Arthur Kornberg and Severo Ochoa. These associates at the School of Medicine were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1959 "for their discovery of the mechanisms in the biological synthesis of ribonucleic acid and deoxyribonucleic acid [DNA]." They performed some of their research in conjunction with Carl and Gerty Cori. Kornberg was chair of the Department of Microbiology from 1952 to 1959. Ochoa was on the medical school faculty from 1941 to 1942.

1969 — Alfred Day Hershey
Alfred Day Hershey spent the first 16 years of his career from 1934 to 1950 at the School of Medicine. He shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1969 with two researchers from other institutions. Together, they were cited "for their discoveries concerning the replication mechanism and the genetic structure of viruses."

1970 — Luis F. Leloir
Luis F. Leloir was a member of the School of Medicine faculty for one year—1944. But the work he accomplished at the University helped lay the foundation for research that led to the 1970 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He was chosen "for his discovery of sugar nucleotides and their role in the biosynthesis of carbohydrates."

The T.S. Eliot Connection
Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot and his groundbreaking poetry are not directly tied to Washington University, yet there is a strong connection that is important to note. Born in St. Louis, Eliot was the grandson of William Greenleaf Eliot (co-founder of Washington University), and he received his high school diploma from Smith Academy, a boys' college preparatory division of Washington University.

Transforming modern poetry with such works as The Waste Land and The Four Quartets, Eliot received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. He returned to St. Louis in 1953, from his adopted home in London, to deliver a lecture at the University in honor of its centennial. In 1988, the University sponsored an Eliot centenary conference, and today the University co-sponsors, with the Institute of United States Studies of the University of London, an annual T.S. Eliot Lecture.

1971— Earl Sutherland
Earl Sutherland, M.D. '42, received the 1971 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for his discoveries concerning the mechanisms of the action of hormones." At the time, he was the first recipient in 11 years who did not share the prize. Sutherland was a resident in internal medicine at the School of Medicine from 1943 to 1945 and was on the medical school faculty from 1945 to 1953.

1974 — Christian de Duve
Christian de Duve shared the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with two other scientists "for their discoveries concerning the structural and functional organization of the cell." Their accomplishments contributed to the creation of modern cell biology. He was a fellow in the medical school from 1946 to 1947.

1978 — Daniel Nathans and Hamilton O. Smith
Daniel Nathans, M.D. '54, and Hamilton O. Smith, a member of the Washington University Medical Service from 1956 to 1957, shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with a Swiss colleague. They received the prize "for their discovery of restriction enzymes that helped provide new tools for the detailed chemical analysis of the mechanism of gene action."

1980 — Paul Berg
Paul Berg won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry "for his fundamental studies of the biochemistry of nucleic acids, with particular regard to recombinant-DNA." He was a member of the medical school faculty from 1954 to 1959.

1980 — George D. Snell
George D. Snell shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with two other colleagues. Snell introduced the concept of H antigens and identified the genetic factors that relate to the transplantation of tissue from one individual to another. Snell was a member of the University's Arts & Sciences faculty from 1933 to 1934.

1986 —Stanley Cohen and Rita Levi-Montalcini
Stanley Cohen Rita Levi-Montalcini

Stanley Cohen and Rita Levi-Montalcini were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for discoveries of nerve growth factor and epidermal growth factor—both of fundamental importance to understanding the mechanisms that regulate cell and organ growth. Their discoveries brought about an increased understanding of many disease states and the development of new therapeutic agents. Cohen and Levi-Montalcini performed their research in the laboratory of friend and University colleague, Viktor Hamburger.

Cohen was a member of the Arts & Sciences faculty from 1953 to 1959. Levi-Montalcini was an Arts & Sciences faculty member from 1948 to her retirement in 1977, when she became professor emerita.

1992 — Edwin G. Krebs
Edwin G. Krebs, M.D. '43, was named a co-winner of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his work with cell proteins. From 1945 to 1948, he was a resident in internal medicine and a research fellow in biological chemistry for Carl and Gerty Cori in the area of enzymes.

1993 — Douglass C. North

Douglass C. North spent 50 years examining the complex questions of why some countries become rich while others remain poor. His efforts were rewarded when he was named a co-recipient of the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel "for having renewed research in economic history by applying economic theory and quantitative methods in order to explain economic and institutional change." North, the Spencer T. Olin Professor in Arts & Sciences, has been at the University since 1983. He created the Center in Political Economy, which, he has written, "continues to be a creative research center."

1998 — Robert F. Furchgott
Robert F. Furchgott shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with two other researchers "for their discoveries concerning nitric oxide as a signaling molecule in the cardiovascular system." He was on the Ph.D. Faculty of Medicine from 1946 to 1956.

C.B. Adams is a free-lance writer based in St. Charles, Missouri.