- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

STOCKHOLM — Genius runs in the family, at least if the Nobel Prize is the benchmark. The illustrious gallery of Nobel laureates includes plenty of fathers and sons, husbands and wives and a set of brothers.

Roger D. Kornberg became the latest to start a Nobel family tradition by winning the prize for chemistry yesterday — nearly a half-century after his father, Arthur Kornberg, won for medicine.

Mr. Kornberg, 59, a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, won the prize for his groundbreaking research into how cells read their genes, fundamental work that could help lead to new therapies. His discoveries have helped set the stage for developing drugs to fight cancer, heart disease and other illnesses, scientists said.

Mr. Kornberg’s $1.4 million award, after the Nobels for medicine and physics earlier this week, completes the first American sweep of the Nobel science prizes since 1983.

Americans have won or shared in all the chemistry Nobels since 1992. The last time the chemistry prize was given to just one person was in 1999.

Mr. Kornberg was 12 when he went with his father to receive the award.

“I can recall vividly traveling to Stockholm in 1959 at the time of my father’s award. I have always been an admirer of his work and that of many others preceding me,” Mr. Kornberg said.

No one beats the Curie family of France.

Marie Curie became the first female laureate when she shared the physics prize in 1903 with her husband, Pierre. Mrs. Curie went on to win a second Nobel eight years later, in chemistry.

Their daughter Irene Joliot-Curie followed suit, sharing the 1935 chemistry prize with her husband, Frederic Joliot, for their synthesis of radioactive elements.

They remain the only family to have won husband-wife awards through two generations.

Six pairs of fathers and sons, four married couples and two brothers have won Nobels since the first awards were presented in 1901.

But only one father-son duo has been honored for the same Nobel Prize. In 1915, Briton William Bragg shared the physics award with his 25-year-old son, Lawrence Bragg — the Nobels’ youngest laureate.

Danish scientist Niels Bohr won the Nobel physics prize in 1922 and his son, Aage Bohr, repeated the feat in 1975. Other father-son laureates are Swedes Hans von Euler-Chelpin (chemistry, 1929) and Ulf von Euler (medicine, 1970); Manne Siegbahn (physics, 1924) and Kai Siegbahn (physics, 1981); and Briton Joseph John Thomson (physics, 1906) and his son George Thomson (physics, 1937).

The only siblings to bask in Nobel glory are Jan and Nikolaas Tinbergen of the Netherlands. Jan Tinbergen won the first award in economics in 1969, and Nikolaas Tinbergen won the medicine prize in 1973.

In a 2004 article, Dutch economist Auke R. Leen examined why both brothers won Nobels despite having divergent personalities and interests.

“They did share several factors: genes and family upbringing that encouraged intellectual curiosity and independent thinking,” Mr. Leen wrote.

One married couple won prizes in separate categories: Swede Gunnar Myrdal won the economics award in 1974 and his wife, Alva, won the Nobel Peace Prize eight years later.

The only Nobel Prize free of family traditions is the literature award. No direct relative of a literature prize winner is among the Nobel laureates.

“It’s not unusual for artistic talent to be inherited, but it is very rare for genius to do so, at least in the field of literature,” said Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which presents the literature award.

“Several great authors had writing fathers, but most often they were involved in work of a more modest kind,” he said. “One example is [2001 literature laureate] V.S. Naipaul, whose father was a journalist.”

In science, however, family ties to a Nobel laureate appear to be a boost for budding researchers.

Hakan Wennerstrom, chairman of the chemistry prize committee, noted that Roger Kornberg was allowed to conduct his research for more than a decade before producing a single major publication of his results. That is a rare luxury in the world of science, where financial backers often want instant results.

“I guess it helps to have a father who is a Nobel laureate,” Mr. Wennerstrom said.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide