First published September 1, 2005 - More info
Some people associate the month of September with the end of summer or the start of a new academic year. But September is also the time of year when the process of selecting a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine begins.
It is during this month that the Nobel Assembly, composed of 50 elected members (all professors at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden), sends out nearly 3,000 invitations to nominate potential winners to a select group of individuals. The prizewinner is announced in October of the following year, and although the people involved and the events that transpire during these 13 months are not shrouded in secrecy, most of us are unfamiliar with exactly what goes on during this time.
The prize, according to the will of Alfred Nobel, is awarded for a discovery that has changed the scientific paradigm in an important area of life science, explained Goran Hansson, chairman of the Nobel Committee and a professor at Karolinska Institute.
“It is important to keep in mind that discovery is the paramount criterion,” Hansson told the JCI. “We make great efforts to identify the initial discoveries and the individuals who made them. Sometimes other scientists may dominate a field when the prize is awarded and those who are not aware of the ‘discovery criterion’ are surprised when the Nobel Prize goes to the initial discoverer rather than to those who are seen as leaders later on.”
The privileged few who may submit proposals for nominees of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine are chosen on the recommendation of the Nobel Committee, the 6-member working body of the larger Nobel Assembly.
Among those selected to make nominations are members of the Nobel Assembly and Nobel Committee at the Karolinska Institute; members of the medical class of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences; Physiology or Medicine Nobel laureates; established professors at the faculties of medicine in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Norway; established professors at no fewer than 6 other medical institutes selected by the assembly; and other scientists whom the assembly deems worthy of this opportunity.
Once this list is amassed, the Nobel Assembly sends out invitations, which are due back by February. In a typical year, 200 to 300 candidates are nominated. The members of the Nobel Committee sort through the nominees with the help of 10 expert advisers.
“We go through the hundreds of nominations, make brief written evaluations on every nominated candidate, and identify those candidates that need a more in-depth evaluation,” said Hansson. “Experts in house and around the world are asked to provide detailed, scholarly, and secret reports on the top candidates. These reports serve as a basis for the final part of the decision process, which takes place in September.” At this time, nearly one year later, the committee presents its choices to the Nobel Assembly.
Hansson told the JCI that a candidate or research field is often analyzed repeatedly over several years before a final decision is made. While some Nobel laureates are awarded the prize the first time they are nominated, many others are nominated several times before winning. Robert Koch was nominated 55 times before he received the prize in 1905 for his investigations of tuberculosis. Ferdinand Sauerbruch was not so lucky, being denied the prize despite 54 nominations over 14 years.
On the first Monday in October, the Nobel Assembly votes on 1, 2, or 3 candidates for that year’s prize, and their decision is final. The secretary of the Nobel Assembly calls the winners immediately afterward, and a press conference is held later that day.
The physical prizes — a medal, a personal diploma, and a financial award — are presented on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death. The new winners are invited to lecture in the Stockholm Concert Hall and partake of celebrations along with the king of Sweden and the royal family. By this time, a new round of potential Nobel Prize winners are being considered for the following year.