Elizabeth Blackburn = Hugh Jackman?

I’m still pretty excited about Dr Elizabeth Blackburn’s Nobel Prize for Medicine – she’s one of only a dozen or so Australians to receive a Nobel Prize (more on this imprecise number below). The media are making a big thing out of her being the 34th female laureate – though some haven’t done a very progressive job of it – and I agree this is significant, though I also wish (as usual) that we were at a stage in our cultural evolution where such a detail could be considered trivial. What no-one seems to be talking about, though, is that following her career to its Nobel prize-winning zenith necessarily took Dr Blackburn overseas.

This isn’t an isolated case; it’s common to so many Australian scientists. Our government wants us to be a smart country, but they don’t want to pay for it; neither do private companies. If the science doesn’t involve soil, sheep or iron ore, there’s not a great deal of cash for it here, it seems. Things have improved a bit in the last few years, but it’s an old problem and one that won’t go away.

Looking at Australia’s Nobel laureates, it seems our scientists must seek success in the same way as our actors and fashion designers: on foreign soil. Here’s a run down of our Nobel history – and note that very few, if any, of these laureates worked alone; you’ll find their co-authors listed on the linked Nobel Prize pages.

Note: I left out a bunch in the first round, having based my initial research on an old list. I’ve now updated to include all thirteen laureates who appear on lists of Australian Nobel prize winners, though not all appear on all lists…

  • William Henry Bragg, along with his son William Lawrence Bragg – the youngest laureate ever, and together forming the first father-son Nobel team – are the first on most Aussie Nobel laureate lists. They won the Prize for Physics in 1915, for X-ray analysis of crystals. Genius stuff, no complaints there – but despite appearing on a variety of lists of Australian Nobel winners, Bragg Senior was actually British. William Lawrence was born in Adelaide, so he’s legit, and his Dad did some excellent work furthering the cause of Australasian science while at the University of Adelaide, but their Nobel work was done in the UK. (This might make William Senior the Mel Gibson or Nicole Kidman of the group.)
  • Howard Florey was an Adelaide-born son of an Englishman who studied medicine at the University of Adelaide before heading to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He lived there for many years, becoming the first Aussie President of the Royal Society – earning the nickname “The Bushranger President”. He won the Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1945 for the extraction of the antibiotic agent from penicillin – work he did in Oxford with English colleagues.
  • Frank Macfarlane Burnet is the first truly “local” success story. Born in Traralgon, Burnet did his 1960 Prize in Physiology or Medicine work – the theoretical half of determining acquired immune response – right here in Melbourne at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. The other half of the Prize went to the British scientists who conducted the experiment proposed by his theorising; he was very humble about his role in the whole thing.
  • John Carew Eccles, neurologist and 1963 winner of the Prize for Physiology or Medicine for work on the function of synapses, was another Rhodes scholar who studied at Oxford. He also shared his prize with two Englishmen, and seems to have done at least the beginnings of his Nobel work at Oxford, though he returned to Australia afterward and has been Australian of the Year.
  • Bernard Catz, winner of the 1970 Prize for Physiology or Medicine, for study of the function of neurotransmitters. Again, incredibly useful stuff, but Catz, though a naturalised Australian who served in our armed forces, was born, bred and eventually returned to work in England. He did his Nobel work at University College, London.
  • Patrick White is more or less alone in this list as a non-scientist; he won the 1973 Prize for Literature for a body of work which “introduced a new continent into literature”, to quote the Nobel prize givers. He wrote and published right here in Australia, though it is worth noting that he was born back in the UK.
  • John Warcup Cornforth, winner of the 1975 Prize for Chemistry, studied the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalyzed reactions. (That’s biochemistry, to do with the shape of enzymes, whose three-dimensional shape is vital to their working.) The Nobel site lists his country as “Australia and United Kingdom”, and his work was done at the University of Sussex, though he also had a scholarship to study at Oxford. Notably Prof Cornforth has been “profoundly deaf” for most of his life. He was born in Sydney.
  • John C. Harsanyi won the prize for Economics in 1994, and he’s one of my favourites in this list. While his first Ph.D. was in philosophy (with a little sociology and psychology thrown in), he also studied some pharmacy and later an MA in economics, so he’s something of a mathematician. Along with two other fellows he made a “pioneering analysis of equilibria in the theory of non-cooperative games” – yes, game theory! His personal story is gripping: a Hungarian Jew, he managed to escape his labour unit just before it was sent on a Nazi train to Austria. After the war, as Hungary was taken over by the Soviet Union, he emigrated to Australia, where his degree was not recognised; he worked in a factory and eventually earned his MA, becoming a lecturer, though he moved to the USA as game theory was (in his words) virtually unknown in Australia at the time. As a result, some of his early work was done here, but most of what formed the basis for his third of the prize was undertaken at Berkeley. He’s also written about utilitarian ethics…can you see yet why he’s maybe my favourite?
  • Peter Charles Doherty, 1996 winner of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, breaks the mould for straight scientists in this list by not having done his Nobel work in the United Kingdom. Instead, he was based at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee when working on the specificity of cell mediated immune defence. Born and bred in Brisbane.
  • Barry J. Marshal and J. Robin Warren were the two Australians to cause this amount of fuss last time, when they won the prize for Medicine back in 2005 for their discovery of Helicobacter pylori, a bacteria which can cause gastric ulcers and stomach cancer. I remember misunderstanding the importance of their research at the time, and writing that I thought it trivial; that seems such a stupid thing to say now. Even if all the bacteria caused was a bit of acid reflux, it’s identification and treatment bring a better quality of life to millions of people, so let me say publicly that I think they bloody well deserve their prize. They discovered H. pylori in the early 80s in Perth, and they’re both locals, bringing the laureates winning for research done in Australia up to three.
  • Elizabeth Helen Blackburn, winner of the 2009 Prize for Physiology or Medicine, is detailed in my previous post – but she has dual-citizenship, such that the New York Times sees fit to headline their article “Three Americans Share Nobel Prize for Medicine“. She works at the University of California, which is where she carried out the Nobel winning research. She’s a Taswegian.

If you’re counting, that’s one for Queensland, three (or four if you count both Braggs) for South Australia, one for New South Wales, two for Western Australia and one for Tasmania. Those Adelaideans are a bright lot!

I should be fair – it wasn’t necessarily vital to their success that all but one of our Nobel laureates worked overseas. Science is, after all, a global affair, even more so in the modern world where research is easily published and shared online; it’s only natural to wander across the world to places where the money is being spent on the research you are conducting (or, as was the case for so many of those listed here, where the money given for your education came from). But it goes to show how meaningless all this patriotism is. Why should we get more excited if someone born in Australia – or who lived in Australia, or emigrated to Australia – wins a prize? Surely we should be celebrating the research and the individual regardless of where they’re from. A woman’s work being recognised is much more worthy of celebration, though again, I hope one day people will find that just as pointless as getting exciting about where the winner is from.

In Australia, though, things are getting better – budget allocations for scientific research are going up, and our scientific organisations are frequently announcing exciting new research. Remember too that Nobel prizes are often awarded for work done many years, if not a decade or more, earlier, so even Dr Blackburn’s win from over the sea shouldn’t seem too gloomy. On the other hand, the reports I get do still seem to mainly be about crops, soil, sheep and iron ore…