Tuesday, January 11, 2011

In defence of the colony

Nobels Fredssenter, Oslo

A few days ago, a correspondent to the Guardian, flushed with the unaccustomed success of the English cricket team, decided to grind the collective face of Australians a little further into the mud by claiming that England had produced more Nobel Prize winners than Australia, ‘per capita’:

“...unfortunately, with just under three times the population, the UK can boast more than 10 times that number of recipients. An innings defeat and then some.”

Granted, he (I am assuming it was a ‘he’) was provoked by a slightly silly piece by Sydney Morning Herald journalist Malcolm Knox which had appeared earlier, and which attempted to sooth the broken Aussies by pointing out that we may have lost The Ashes, but we had lots of success in other spheres of which to be proud (an argument which, true as it is, and mature as it would be, has never helped at times of sporting tragedy). In the course of this, Knox mentioned our “11 Nobel Prize winners”.

The Englishman chortles that this is a poor showing. Is it? For a small group of his compatriots dumped on the other side of the world, left to build not only houses and farms and universities from nothing, but to do so as a huge prison camp, not much more than 200 years ago, is our showing so shabby? Australians have long and famously (or infamously) had a kind of infantile need to prove to Mother England that her far-flung children have been able to make good. We have sought the pat on the head. In its absence, we like to win the cricket. We think we’re proving something. Indulge me on the subject of the Nobel Prizes.

The Nobel Prize was first awarded in 1901 (Economics was added in 1968). In 1915 Lawrence and William Bragg received Australia’s first Nobel, for their work in x-ray crystallography. They are the only father and son team to have won a Nobel. Lawrence was 25 at the time and is still the youngest person to have been awarded the Prize. In 1915 the male population of Australia was less than 3 million, and 400,000 of them had volunteered to fight with Mother Britain in the Great War then raging in Europe (64% of them became casualties). It was 127 years since the First Fleet had landed in a completely undeveloped country (in a European sense) with no buildings or farms at all. It was only 14 years since Australia had become a country in its own right: strictly speaking, there had only been ‘Australians’ for 14 years. Before that, we were, er, British.

(It's the Law School, my old alma mater, but you get the drift)
In 1915 Australia had 6 universities, some of which had only been established for a few years (Sydney University was established in 1850, the University of Western Australia in 1911. Australia’s research university, the Australian National University, was not established until 1946).  In 1915 there were, in total, about 4,000 university students in Australia and 76 professors.

In 1915, England had a population of around 40 million and 21 universities, the oldest of which (Oxford) had been founded since 1096. England boasted a scientific tradition with luminaries the like of Isaac Newton, the Father of Classical Physics, and lots more besides, and a rich seam of talented scientists had worked in research centres throughout the Victorian era, producing - along with their Continental colleagues with whom they had frequent exchanges - some of the greatest breakthroughs in modern science. The Cavendish Research Centre at Cambridge was established in 1873.

But full disclosure: William Bragg, Australia’s first (joint) Nobel Prize winner, was born in England, and educated at Cambridge, including working at the prestigious Cavendish laboratory. He immigrated in 1885. Lawrence, his son, who was born in Australia, also went on to work in England, and in fact became Cavendish Professor at Cambridge. Can we still count them as ‘ours’?

Collaboration with British colleagues was a feature of the next Australian Nobel awarded – Howard Florey received the prize in 1945 along with Alexander Fleming and Ernest Chain (both British) for their work on the medicinal properties of penicillin. It was Florey who later turned penicillin into the practical drug which was has been estimated to have saved 80 million of lives worldwide. Florey was born and educated in Australia, then, like many of Australia’s most promising, he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and continued his studies in England, and received his PhD from Cambridge. Can we still count him as ‘ours’?

Macfarlane Burnett received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1960. His work was in immunology. He was born and educated, and worked, in Australia, but also studied at the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine at the University of London.

Neurophysiological monitoring
John Eccles received the Nobel Prize in 1963 along with Andrew Huxley and Alan Hodgkin (both British) for their work on nerve cells. Eccles was a neurophysiologist who was born and educated in Australia, and again became a Rhodes Scholar. He received his doctorate from Oxford, and returned to work in Australia. His work for the Nobel was done in Australia. (Incidentally, he was a fan of the philosophy of Karl Popper and his ‘Three Worlds Theory’, but I don’t have time for that interesting digression).

Bernard Katz was a colleague of John Eccles, and received the prize in 1970 for Physiology and Medicine. The prize was shared (as these collaborative scientific efforts often are), this time with Julius Axelrod and Ulf von Euler. Katz was in fact born in Leipzig, Germany to a Jewish family. He began his education at the University of Leipzig, but in 1934 fled to Britain. He obtained hi PhD at University College London, and won a scholarship to study with John Eccles at Sydney University. He became a naturalised Australian in 1941 (and spent the duration of WWII in the Australian Air Force), so I guess we can claim him as one of ‘ours’.

Patrick White – Australia’s only Nobel Laureate in Literature – was deservedly awarded the Prize in 1973. But wait – Patrick was born in Knightsbridge in London. However, his family moved to Australia when he was 6 months old. His work is, if I may say, intensely Australian. During his life he had a stint as a boy at boarding school in England, which he described as “a four-year prison sentence”; and a few university years at Cambridge. He also lived in the USA in the 1930s, and served in the Royal Air Force in WWII. He was a brilliant and cantankerous character, and his writing is superlative (if you haven’t tried him, I recommend you start with ‘The Tree of Man’, and take it slowly and savour it).  In 1974, they made him Australian of the year, to which he reacted:

"Something terrible happened to me last week. There is an organisation which chooses an Australian of the Year who has to appear at an official lunch in Melbourne Town Hall on Australia Day. This year I was picked on as they had run through all the swimmers, tennis players, yachtsmen".

John Warcup ‘Kappa’ Cornforth received the Prize in 1975 for chemistry, shared with Vladimir Prelog, for their work on stereochemistry. He is 93 years old, and has been deaf since his teens. His work on penicillin was particularly important. He studied organic chemistry at the University of Sydney, then went on to study and work in England, at Oxford. Can we claim him as one of ours?

John Harsanyi  is a Hungarian-Australian (Harsányi János Károly), born in Budapest in 1920 who received the prize in 1994 for his mathematical contributions to economics – ‘game theory’ and ‘utilitarian ethics’. He suffered during WWII, including spending time in a Nazi enforced labour unit, and later joined the lay ranks of the Dominican order. In 1950, fleeing the oppressive regime in Hungary, he fled to Australia, where he studied Economics at the University of Sydney. Hs later lived, studied and worked in the USA – where, it must be said, most of the work which led to the award o the Nobel was done. I hope we can claim his as one of ours – he sounds a very interesting person.

Mostly scientists....
Peter Doherty (Australian) and Rolf M. Zinkernagel (Swiss) received the prize in 1996 for their work in immunology. As is to be expected in modern times, Doherty has lived and worked around the world, co-operating with colleagues in different research institutions. He was born and educated in Queensland, originally in veterinary science. He received his PhD from the University of Edinburgh.

Barry Marshall and Robin Warren received the prize in 2005 for their discovery in 1982 of the Helicobacter pylori bacterium which causes stomach ulcers and gastritis. (We might digress here and ask why it took so long for general acceptance that ulcers are caused by bacterium, not stress, but that would be straying from the subject at hand). The work was done at Royal Perth Hospital.

Elizabeth Blackburn
Elizabeth Blackburn (who is a dual Australian/American citizen) became Australia's first female Nobel Prize winner for her work in chemistry and genetics in 2009, sharing the prize with her US-based colleagues Carol Greider and Jack Szostak. She was one of Time magazine’s 100 “Most Influential People in the World” in 2007, and in 2004 famously got herself fired from the President's Council on Bioethics after objecting to the council's call for a moratorium on stem cell research and protesting the suppression of relevant scientific evidence in its final report. She received her M.Sc. from the University of Melbourne, and was born and originally educated in...Tasmania! So we will definitely claim her as one of ours.

Just in case you were wondering, the Nobel Prize has been awarded 765 times to men and 41 times to women (there have also been 23 awards to organizations).

I’ve taken this list from this website.  As the list-makers themselves concede, the inclusion of some of these Nobel recipients on a list of ‘Australians’ is perhaps at times a little tenuous. Not on the  list is Aleksandr Prokhorov who won the Nobel Prize in 1964 for Physics. Although he was Australian born, he left Australia at the age of seven and did all his major work in Russia. Similarly Robert Robinson, Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Sydney during the 1910s, who received a Nobel Prize in 1947, was born in the UK and did most of his work there so he is not included on the list.

The theme that emerges?  The ‘Eleven’ of the Australian Nobel Prize Team is at least as 'Australian' as the ‘Eleven’ of England’s cricket team is 'English'. As one news item noted in January 2010, when England was playing South Africa, on the three occasions in which the South Africans Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott batted together for England, there were no Englishmen on the field of play.’ Of the current squad, six players are South-African-born but qualify through British parentage (though they still had to fulfil residency requirements), and one is an Irish citizen.


I don’t quite know what I’ve proved here, but I rest my case.


1 comment:

  1. SBS had a documentary a while back which included a look at Elizabeth Blackburn's work. More about her at