In the 1980’s virologists Luc Montagnier, then at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and Robert Gallo, from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in the United States disputed primacy (and royalty rights) of the discovery of the virus that causes Aids, an achievement announced almost simultaneously by both of them in 1984. Three years later it became known that Gallo’s virus samples came from those of Montagnier – the two had exchanged material while they were trying to identify the virus of the mysterious and lethal disease that destroyed its victims’ immune systems. Gallo said that his samples had been inadvertently “contaminated” by those of his colleague, who in turn not only accepted the excuse but never avoided taking part in debates and conferences alongside his former rival. The dispute ended diplomatically with the merit and royalties being shared by both.
This dispute was remembered in great style 21 years after it had been settled when the winners of the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology for 2008 were announced: Luc Montagnier and his colleague, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, with whom he isolated the Aids virus a quarter of a century ago, and German Harald zur Hausen, who discovered the relationship between the human papillomavirus (HPV) and cancer of the cervix. For Robert Gallo, there was nothing. “There’s no doubt about who made the fundamental discoveries”, said Maria Masucci, a member of the Nobel Committee. Montagnier and Barré-Sinoussi, graciously gave credit to Gallo. “It’s a conflict to be forgotten. It’s also true that North American teams were important in the discovery of the virus and this should be recognized”, said Barré-Sinoussi.
Gallo published a note that bore no resentment. “I’m happy that my old friend and colleague, Dr. Luc Montagnier, as well as his colleague Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, have just received this honor”, he said. “I was grateful to read Dr. Montagnier’s kind declaration this morning stating that I also merited it.” But John Niederhuber, director of the National Cancer Institute recalled that Gallo and Montagnier had received joint credit for the discovery. “I’m extremely disappointed that the INC and all the funds it collected to discover the Aids virus (along with the technology to make blood banks safe and the drugs that made Aids a chronic illness) have not been recognized”, he stated.
The complaints of those treated unjustly by the Nobel Prize committee are as old as the prize itself, which was created in 1901 by reason of the will of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. But as the selection process carried out by the Swedish Royal Academy of Science and the Karolinska Institute is secret it is difficult to assess the reasons that led to the choice of one researcher as opposed to another. Analysis of the exclusions shows that they are related to the restricted number of prizes awarded (at the most three per category), the difficulty of identifying who made the most important contribution to a certain piece of research and the lack of experience or reputation of a researcher within his community.
Robert Gallo is in honorable company on the list of those barred by Nobel. Austrian physicist Lise Meitner (1878-1968) is an example. In 1944 she was ignored by Nobel, which awarded Otto Hahn the Chemistry prize for his research into nuclear fission. Meitner and Hahn had worked together for 30 years at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. They split up in 1938 when Jewish Meitner transferred to Sweden to flee from Nazism. The two continued to exchange letters on their experiments and even met up secretly in Copenhagen in 1938. The letters indicate that Meitner guided Hahn in the research that led to the discovery of nuclear fission, as shown in the book Lise Meitner: a life in physics, by Ruth Lewin Sime. In 1939, Hahn published the evidence of nuclear fission but gave no credit for the discovery to his colleague, a fact explained by the climate of Nazi persecution. This lapse is attributed to an injustice committed by the Nobel Committee.
Albert Schatz (1922-2005) had a legal dispute with microbiologist Selman Waksman, whose pupil he was at Rutgers University. The young Schatz, who was then 23, was attributed with having discovered an antibiotic, streptomycin. Waksman and Schatz published the findings together but when it came to patenting it the professor secured for himself most of the royalties. Schatz succeeded in getting the Courts to declare that he was the co-author of the discovery and entitled to half the royalties. Even so the Nobel Committee gave the Medicine and Physiology prize in 1952 to Waksman only.
Another famous case, in which the youth of the candidate weighed negatively against her, was that of Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who was excluded from the Nobel prize for Physics in 1974, which recognized the discovery of pulsars. She was a postgraduate student at Cambridge University when she detected the first pulsar. In 1968 she published her results in Nature with Professor Anthony Hewish, the research coordinator, as her co-author. In 1974, the Nobel committee excluded her from the Physics Prize that was awarded to Hewish and his colleague, Martin Ryle.
The list of those excluded contains a famous Brazilian. Although physicist César Lattes (1924-2005) was responsible for the experiment and was the first author of the article in Nature that described a new atomic particle called the pi meson, in 1950 he was excluded from the Physics prize which recognized the discovery. The winner was the head of the laboratory in which Lattes was working at Bristol University, Cecil Powell (1903-1969). In an interview with the Unicamp Journal in 2001, Lattes provided a pragmatic explanation for his exclusion. He said that Powell was more renowned due to his work on the production of positrons and took the 1950 Nobel prize not only because of the discovery of the meson, but also because he had photographed atomic nuclei.
In the 2008 Nobel prizes the chorus of those treated harshly was not only restricted to colleagues of Robert Gallo. Friends of Italian physicist Nicola Cabibbo claimed his inspiring participation in the research of Japanese Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa, two of the winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics, and two winners of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, Roger Tsien and Martin Chalfie, declared that they could not have done their work without the collaboration of Douglas Prasher. He was the one who cloned the fluorescent protein gene that led to the prize. Prasher, 57, lives in a town in Alabama and works as a taxi-driver. He is a depressive and became disinterested in academic life after the North American government denied him funding to study the fluorescent protein.Republish