Dr. Yellapragada Subba Row (1895–1948) was worth not just one, but arguably 4 Nobel Prizes. His work includes:
- Discovery of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) as the primary source of energy in the cell
- Based on Lucy Wills’ work, he synthesized Folic acid (Vitamin B9)
- He synthesized Methotrexate – still used as a chemotherapy agent for Cancer (with Sidney Farber)
- Hetrazan for Filariasis, and
- A broad spectrum tetracycline antibiotic Aureomycin (with Benjamin Duggar)
Each one of the aforementioned is Nobel-worthy and he might very well have won it for Aureomycin, had he not died young (at 53). He was also well known for his humility in not claiming intellectual rights, even as others would claim credit and went onto win the Nobel.
Dr. Subba Rao is a remarkable human being as Doron Antrim writes “You’ve probably never heard of Dr. Yellapragada Subbarao. Yet because he lived, you may be alive and are well today. Because he lived, you may live longer.“
Personal Note: I am especially proud of this man’s achievements as he is my maternal grand-uncle.
In physics, Nobel Prizes are viewed as impacting people’s legacies to science rather than any financial rewards. Most physicists aren’t particularly concerned with money — they’re paid fairly and have a good life. They care more about their research funding than their take home pay. Most physicists care about their legacies at some level and so the impact of being “robbed” of a Nobel Prize should be viewed as having their legacies being diminished.
At the same time, no one expects a Nobel Prize — one can make a lifetime of important contributions and never have the stars align for it be “Nobel”-worthy.
There are two famous examples in the Physics Nobel Prize:
Lise Meitner is the worse example. She was arguably the intellectual leader of the group that discovered Uranium fission. Because she was a Jewish woman in Nazi Germany, she suffered immense discrimination. The Nobel Committee opened the deliberations into the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and determined that her exclusion from Otto Hahn’s prize was “unjust.” See this Physics Today article for additional details:
Meitner’s exclusion, however, points to other flaws in the decision process, and to four factors in particular: the difficulty of evaluating an interdisciplinary discovery, a lack of expertise in theoretical physics, Sweden’s scientific and political isolation during the war, and a general failure of the evaluation committees to appreciate the extent to which German persecution of Jews skewed the published scientific record.
Vera Rubin measured the galactic rotation curves of galaxies and discovered that there was not enough visible matter to correspond to the implied gravity. This became the first basis for existence of dark matter (there is so much more now). It is completely baffling why by the late 1990s or early 2000s this wasn’t considered minimally a discovery that requires gravity to change its behavior (arguably a more radical discovery) or a new form of gravitating matter that makes up the majority of the mass in the Universe. The discovery of dark energy was awarded the Nobel Prize before Vera Rubin’s death, even though it is no more significant and arguably less established (though still deserving of a Nobel Prize).
Another less clear and less known example is Erick Weinberg — he was a precocious graduate student at Harvard working on tons of important work in Quantum Field Theory in the 1970s. Politzer, his fellow student, was given a problem by their graduate advisor, Sydney Coleman. Erick Weinberg didn’t have bandwidth to do the problem himself, but he helped David Politzer. The lore is that Erick ended up doing the whole problem — though didn’t realize that lasting impact that -11/3 (the result of the calculation) would be (is arguably the most important result in theoretical physics in the second half of the 20th century). That result became known as asymptotic freedom and discovered the origin of the Strong Force. Politzer shared the Nobel Prize with Frank Wilczek and David Gross in 2004. Amusingly Wilczek and Gross initially got the sign wrong and no one believed Politzer’s results. Politzer doggedly convinced Coleman that he was right and Wilczek and Gross found their mistake. This account is contested: Politzer claims that he never saw Weinberg’s result, Weinberg claims it was in his thesis. Weinberg put his thesis online in 2005(after the Nobel speech by Politzer called the Dilemma of Attribution in 2004 ) which had the result — I personally haven’t gone to the Harvard Library to confirm Erick Weinberg’s thesis hasn’t been altered, but he has always seemed very honest and he would have more to lose (he’s editor of Physical Review D and would lose his standing in the field with a fabrication). This should be relegate to historians to figure out (it may already have been) — chances are both of these accounts are true and false.
All mathematicians, many theoretical physicists. There is no Nobel Prize in Mathematics. Why who knows? There is the Fields Medal, though that is arguably of a different nature. There are historical reasons for leaving off mathematics, but the list of prizes has grown over the years (notably medicine in 1901 and economics in 1968).
To win a Nobel Prize in Physics as a theoretical physicist, you must have your theory experimentally established. This has precluded many luminaries like Ed Witten and Steven Hawking from winning Nobel Prizes though their work is far more significant than many awarded Nobel Prizes. This has led to bizarre reasoning for some theoretical physicists winning the Nobel Prize — ’t Hooft and Veltman had to wait until the discovery of the top quark to come up with an “experimental” verification of their work that established broken gauge theories are renormalizable. This was stupid — there was zero, literally zero, doubt that their work was right and the experiment did nothing to convince anyone that their work was more right.