Australia’s Nobel Prize winners

By Natsumi Penberthy 4 August 2015
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From discovering the universe is expanding increasingly rapidly to experimenting on themselves with bacteria cocktails, these are our Nobel Laureates

THE NOBEL PRIZES are among the world’s most prestigious awards. They are the creation of wealthy Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel. Nobel invented dynamite among other things, and, desiring to leave a more positive legacy, left the bulk of his estate to establish the awards in recognition of academic, cultural and/or scientific advances.

The first was handed out in 1901 and since then 15 people who have spent significant parts of their life in Australia have been awarded the honour.

All of them have been in the sciences except the 1973 winner, novelist Patrick White. These brainy Aussies have done everything from changing our fundamental understanding of the universe to discovering usable penicillin.  

2011 Prof Brian P Schmidt (1967– )

For discovering the universe is expanding faster than we thought 

Nobel Prize for Physics; awarded with Professor Adam G Riess and Professor Saul Perlmutter

Australian Prof Brian P Schmidt and Americans Dr Adam G Riess and Professor Saul Perlmutter, discovered that the expansion of the universe is speeding up rather than slowing down, as scientists had previously thought. 

They had all been looking at the seemingly tiny measurable movements of distant supernovae and both teams found these were accelerating as they moved away from the centre of the Big Bang (at the edge of the universe). 

Before this, popular wisdom held that the pulling force of gravity would slow their trajectory, as well as the universe’s growth. “It was being pushed, which means that gravity is working differently than we expected,” Brian said just after he won the award

Scientists now think that something called ‘dark energy’ may be pulling the universe apart.

2009 Prof Elizabeth Helen Blackburn (1948– )

For figuring out how our DNA ages

Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine; awarded with Americans Dr Jack W Szostak and Professor Carol W Greider 

In the 1970s Elizabeth and her colleagues made a discovery that explained how DNA eventually begins to deteriorate and how that ages us. They found out that young DNA is protected by little ‘caps’, called telomeres, at the end of our chromosomes.

These caps, with the help of an enzyme called telomerase, stop our chromosomes from deteriorating. Every time a cell divides, the telomeres are worn down a little bit and the enzyme’s job is to partially rebuild them. When the telomeres are worn beyond repair, cell death is triggered. This eventual wear and tear on our chromosomes is one of the reasons our bodies age.

If we can stop telomeres from deteriorating, some suggest that we may be able to slow the ageing process to extend normal lifespans by between five and 30 years. Telomeres also thought to play a key role in cancers, such as pancreatic, bone, prostate, bladder, lung, kidney, and head and neck cancer. If telomerase can be controlled these cancers may be preventable in the future. 


2005 Dr J Robin Warren (1937– ) and Prof Barry Marshall (1951– )

For finding the true cause of stomach ulcers

Nobel Prize in the Physiology or Medicine 

In the early-1980s DR J Robin Warren (MBBS) and Professor Barry Marshall proved that stress wasn’t responsible for causing stomach ulcers in millions of people worldwide, as was commonly believed, but instead it was caused by a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori.

Prior to this discovery, peptic ulcers, which affect nearly one in 10 adults, were thought to be brought on by psychological stress, and specialised stomach ulcer medications were the world’s biggest-selling prescription drugs. Today, stomach ulcers are treated with simple antibiotics.

The bacteria itself is actually very common and two-thirds of the world’s population has it living in their guts, ingesting it through food, water or via cookingware.For most people it’s not a problem. For those who develop ulcers, however, the bacteria creates painful sores in the stomach walls.

The scientific community didn’t believe Robin and Barry at first. To prove their point, they experimented on themselves; in 1984 Barry drank a glass of the bacteria and quickly developed the beginnings of gastritis. 

After announcing their finding, the evidence to support their findings began mounting internationally. (See more in #122, p 121).

1996 Prof Peter Doherty (1940– )

For discovering how the body knows which cells are its own 

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; awarded with Swedish Professor Rolf M Zinkernagel

Peter Doherty and his Swedish colleague discovered a mechanism the immune system (via killer T cells) uses to know if an infected cell is one of its own or if it’s from another organism, such as a cell infected by a virus. 

This knowledge helped scientists invent new vaccines, deal with tissue rejection in organ transplant recipients and the treat auto-immune diseases, such as rheumatic conditions, multiple sclerosis and diabetes.

Peter is the first person with a veterinary qualification to win a Nobel Prize and has authored several books, including A Light History of Hot AirThe Beginners Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize, Sentinel Chickens: What birds tell us about our health and the world and The Knowledge Wars.

1975 Prof John Cornforth (1917–2013)

For finding the key to treating the world’s biggest killer, heart disease 

Nobel Prize in Chemistry 

Professor John Warcup Cornforth unravelled how enzymes create cholesterol in the body. Today, we know heart disease largely develops when cholesterol builds up in the heart’s arteries. 

Because of John’s work in the 1940s, by the late 1970s scientists were able to find a way to slow the formation of cholesterol in the body. And, that is how we treat heart disease today. As a result, Australian deaths due to cardiovascular disease have dropped by 78 per cent since 1968, although it is still the leading killer both in Australia and the across the word.

Adding to this impressive achievement is John’s own personal challenge; as a young child he was diagnosed with otosclerosis, leaving him completely deaf by the age of 20. He nonetheless graduated from the University of Sydney with first-class honours and went on to complete a doctorate at the University of Oxford in the UK. 

Cornforth often credited his wife, fellow scientist Rita Harradence, as his most important collaborator and acknowledged her part in much of the work behind the discoveries. Rita died in November 2012 and John passed a little over a year later, in December 2013. 


1973 Patrick White (1912–1990)

For writing books in a distinct, uncompromising voice 

Nobel Prize in Literature 

Patrick White was awarded a Nobel Prize for his fiction writing, in particular, his novels The Vivisector and The Eye of the Storm.

Despite doubts expressed across the years by the Australian media suggesting that his introspective topics and shifting narrative were too high-brow for Australian audiences (internationally he had more luck), his books have nonetheless become classics.

His writing style used humour, colourful prose, shifting narrative voices and a stream of consciousness techniques. His citation for the prize stated that it was awarded for his “epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent to literature”. 

1970 Sir Bernard Katz (1911–2003)

For figuring how our nerves tell our muscles to move 

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; awarded with Swedish Professor Ulf von Euler and American Dr Julius Axelrod 

German-born scientist Sir Bernard Katz was jointly awarded a Nobel Prize for explaining the chemicals at work, between nerves and also between nerves and muscles, and how this controls movement.  

Bernard discovered the chemical transmitters used by nerve cells to communicate. He worked closely with previous Australian Nobel Laureate Sir John Carew Eccles at the Sydney Medical School. This research has been fundamental to understanding how the human nervous system works, and underlies research around insect pesticides and nerve agents. 


1964 Prof Aleksandr Mikhailovich Prokhorov (1916–2002)

For providing the principals that led to the development of masers and lasers

Nobel Prize in Physics; awarded with Russian Dr Nicolai Gennadiyevich Basov and American Professor Charles Hard Townes 

Professor Aleksandr Mikhailovich Prokhorov was jointly awarded a Nobel Prize for discovering how to nudge electrons around atoms into higher energy states – which was the theory behind the creation of masers and laser devices (which produced highly focused energy waves). Lasers are now used in everything from your CD player to supermarket barcode scanners, to eye surgery. 

Born in Atherton, Queensland, Prokhorov later returned to Russia, with his family, where he began studying physics.

1963 Sir John Carew Eccles (1903–1997)

For figuring how our nerves tell muscles to move 

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; awarded with British professors Alan Lloyd Hodgkin and Andrew Fielding Huxley

Sir John Carew Eccles was jointly awarded a Nobel Prize revealing the basic processes behind nerve cell communication, which controls all of our sensations, feelings, thoughts, motor and emotional responses.

In the 1940s Eccles disproved his own theories about nerve impulses being transmitted between cells by electrical impulses, which many had believed to be the case. So he redirected his research to look into the idea that information passes between nerves via chemical synaptic transmission, which is how we understand how the neuro-muscular system functions today. 

Eccles moved to Australia in 1937, and in 1952 he was appointed Professor of Physiology at the Australian National University. 

1960 Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet (1899–1985)

For showing that you could make your immune system more tolerant

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; awarded with British Professor Peter Brian Medawar

Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet was jointly awarded a Nobel Prize for theorising that tolerance to a foreign materials (such as a tissue graft from another animal) could be created by introducing the material to an embryo or foetus before its immune system had matured.

The theory wasn’t confirmed until 1953 when (Sir) Peter Medawar, Rupert Billingham and Leslie Brent, who shared in the Nobel Prize, showed this to be true in mice. This led to the idea that you could acquire immune tolerances, a fact that underlies almost every breakthrough in infectious disease control and tissue transplant.

Born in Traralgon, Victoria, Burnet went on to become the director of the Hall Institute and a professor of experimental medicine at the University of Melbourne.

1947 Sir Robert Robinson (1886–1975)

For working out the molecular structures of morphine, penicillin and synthesising topinone (a precursor to cocaine)

Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Sir Robert Robinson was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work with plant alkaloids and dyestuffs that were historically used by humans for medicinal and recreational purposes.

He helped work out the molecular structures of morphine, penicillin and synthesising topinone (a precursor to cocaine) and contributed to the development of many medicinal compounds including antimalarial drugs, painkillers and antibiotics.

Early in his career Robert was appointed professor of pure and applied organic chemistry at the University of Sydney.

1945 Sir Howard Walter Florey (1898–1968)

For figuring out how to produce penicillin 

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; awarded with British Sirs Alexander Fleming and Ernest Boris Chain

Sir Howard Walter Florey was awarded a Nobel Prize for his part in discovering how to extract usable quantities of penicillin to cure infectious diseases. Penicillin’s antibacterial properties were noticed as far back as 1897 by French physician Ernest Duchesne, but its discovery is attributed to Scottish scientist and Nobel laureate Alexander Fleming in 1928.

However, it was Aussie scientist Howard Florey who found a way to harness its properties to treat large numbers of people. He began work on this project in 1939 and by 1941 experiments on human patients at the University of Oxford were proving fruitful, so much so that by 1943 the Allied Forces were distributing penicillin en mass to troops fighting in World War II.

1915 Sir William Henry Bragg (1862–1942) and Prof William Lawrence Bragg (1890–1971)

For providing the means to figuring out the structure of crystals

Nobel Prize in Physics

Sir William Henry Bragg and his son Professor William Lawrence Bragg were awarded the Nobel Prizes for their work on X-ray crystallography, a method of identifying the composition and arrangement of atoms within a crystal.

William Henry Bragg’s pioneering work developing X-ray spectrophotometers was built upon by his son William Lawrence Bragg, who used these techniques to study the atomic structure of crystals. They jointly received a Noble Prize. Lawrence Bragg remains one of the youngest-ever recipients of a Nobel Prize, having received the award at 25 years of age.