How Not to Win the Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prize is a symbol of great achievement in science and literature, but the history of this sought-after award says that the best man (or woman) does not always win. The tale of one American physical chemist illustrates why.

Gilbert Lewis began his career in the early 1900s. He might have the most famous name in chemistry: every chemistry student learns to draw Lewis structures—the chemical bond diagrams that show how molecules large and small fit together. The Lewis Acid-Base is among the important definitions every chemistry student learns. Lewis, among his many other achievements, is also credited with building the chemistry department at Berkeley to one of the greatest in the nation. But Lewis was also truculent, abrasive, and unforgiving.

Still, his peers recognized the value of his work: Lewis received his first nomination for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1922, then was nominated again in 1924 and 1925 for his work on chemical bonds and thermodynamics. But no prize.

In 1925 Lewis’ nomination was blocked by an unfavorable report by Svante Arrhenius, who won the 1903 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The next year, 1926, Lewis was nominated again and got a more favorable report from another Swedish chemist, Theodor Svedberg, suggesting that Lewis should get the prize in the future based on further work on thermodynamics and the chemical bond. But by 1926, Lewis had effectively left thermodynamics and the chemical bond behind for new fields. And Svedberg, who suggested Lewis could wait, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry—in 1926.

In the years that followed nominations of piled up. In 1929 alone, Lewis received six nominations. In 1932, he received four. However, a life-long grudge against German scientist Walther Nernst effectively barred him from the prize for life. Lewis studied with Nernst in 1901 and nursed a dislike of him throughout his career. He published Nernst’s errors whenever possible in the two decades that followed, and in his 1923 book on thermodynamics Lewis cited many of what he believed were Nernst’s errors, calling Nernst’s effort to make his heat theorem predictive “a regrettable episode in the history of chemistry.”

Lewis’ criticisms did not sit well with Nernst’s friends, one of whom served on the Nobel Prize chemistry committee; despite another nomination in the 1940s, Lewis never got that call. He died in 1946 in his own lab in circumstances that led to speculation that he committed suicide. The coroner ruled that his death was caused by coronary artery disease, but the speculation continues to this day that it was staged. Others believe that Lewis’ death was an accident.

Lewis received a total of 41 nominations for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and is widely considered one of the greatest chemists who ever lived. But his choices, personal and professional, are a lesson in how not to win.

Neil Gussman is Strategic Communications and Media Relations Manager at CHF. Much of the research for this post comes from the delightful book The Cathedrals of Science by Patrick Coffey.

Posted In: History

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