The Nobel Prize is a set of annual awards given to people who have made excellent contributions to society. The fields covered by these awards include Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, Peace, and Economics. These prizes are among the most prestigious in the world. They are also among the oldest. Since 1901, the Nobel Prizes have been awarded annually except in a few circumstances (e.g., war or crisis). Each prize is worth around $1 million and must be returned if not used within seven years of winning it. The award for Chemistry was first given in 1901 also. It has been a category of its own since 1969 when it was split from Physics and Physiology or Medicine as its own stand-alone category. There have been many worthy candidates over the years but only 243 winners have been recorded.
1900-1930: The Dark Ages for Chemistry
1900-1930: The first 20 years of the 20th century were not an ideal time for the field. The work of chemists was overshadowed by discoveries in physics and other sciences, which seemed more important or practical at the time. Some chemistry-related discoveries were made during this time, but they were not recognized as worthy of Nobel Prizes. Some developments in organic chemistry (the branch of chemistry that concerns carbon-containing compounds) happened during this period. This included the first use of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy in organic chemistry and the creation of the first synthetic anti-malarial drug. Other types of chemistry were less productive. Traditional synthetic methods (sin by hand, if you will) were used at the time. Many of these methods were not scalable beyond laboratory-sized operations and were too slow to be of much industrial use. This limited the impact of synthetic chemistry as a whole. Dyes (which are a type of synthetic compound used for coloring things) were a notable exception. They were in high demand for the production of fabrics and other types of industrial goods.
1931-1940: New Elements and the Synthesis of Urea
The first notable discoveries in chemistry in this period were the creation of elements with new characteristics. These discoveries allowed for further experimentation with atomic theory and helped to increase understanding of the nature of matter. The Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Carl Friedrich (or, Friedrich) and Otto Hahn for their discovery of nuclear fission (the breaking apart of an atomic nucleus). The discovery of new elements also happened in this period. The discovery of transuranic elements was particularly notable. Similarly, the creation of new elements with new properties can be considered an important discovery in chemistry. These discoveries were made possible by new methods in synthetic chemistry. New materials were created with many of these methods. This was particularly notable with organic synthesis, which yielded new synthetic materials with high chemical stability. These discoveries also led to new applications of chemistry. The synthetic materials that were created could be used to produce new products.
1941-1950: More Organic Chemistry and Nucleic Acids
The discoveries in this period were characterized by synthetic organic chemistry. This included the first synthesis of any natural product in a laboratory, the organic substance prochlorophylline. This was done by Wendell Gilman. Others made important discoveries about natural products. Roald Hoffman, for example, discovered the structure of vitamin B12. The discovery of a new means of chemical bonding also happened during this time. This was known as the pi bond, and it was first encountered in certain types of organic molecules. These included certain carbohydrates and nucleic acids (a type of compound that includes DNA and RNA). The structure of nucleic acids was also determined in this period. The first accurate DNA structure was proposed by James Watson and Francis Crick. The structural and synthetic methods of chemistry were also improved. These allowed for more advanced applications of chemistry.
1951-1960: Polymers, Proteins, and Enzymes
Many notable discoveries in this period were related to proteins. This included the structure of hemoglobin and the molecular structures of insulin and silk. New synthetic methods also helped to push the field forward. The first use of chemical synthesis to create proteins occurred in this period. The rights and wrongs of chemistry were also explored in this period. The Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Hermann Staudinger for the discovery of macromolecules (polymers). Macromolecules are large molecules (higher in molecular weight than a few hundred) that are composed of multiple chemical units. Staudinger was the first to theorize that many chemical compounds would be composed of macromolecules. Staudinger’s most notable contribution was his discovery of the chemical structure of polymers. These are large, multi-unit compounds that are very important in chemistry and materials science.
1961-1970: Reaction Mechanisms, Electron Transfer, and Molecular Structure
The Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Robert Burns Woodward and Roald Hoffman for their work in reaction mechanisms. Wendell Gilman, meanwhile, was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the synthetic method known as the dynamic combinatorial method. This method was used to determine the structure of complex macromolecules. The Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Melvin Calvin for his research on photosynthesis. His research yielded insights into how photosynthesis works. Photosynthesis is the process by which green plants and some other organisms use sunlight to create energy. Calvin’s research helped to explain how this process is possible.
1971-1980: Bioorganic Chemistry and Solid-State Chemistry
The Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Paul Berg and Frederick Sanger for their work in biochemistry. Berg was awarded the prize for his work in recombinant DNA research, while Sanger was awarded the prize for his work in determining the structure of proteins. Investigations into the crystalline materials of solid-state chemistry were also done during this period. These materials play important roles in a variety of applications. These include information processing, computer components, and lasers. These discoveries and innovations have had a lasting impact. The field is still expanding and being explored by chemists. The Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Sir John Cornforth and Vladimir Markov for their work in biochemical cycles.
2001-Present: Materials Science, Colloidal Chemistry & Structured Fluids, and Chemistry in Space
The Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Ahmed Zewail for his work in materials science. The work of Dr Zewail focused on the very fast reactions that occur in molecules. These reactions are so fast that they are normally unobservable. Zewail used special techniques to observe these reactions, which allowed for a better understanding of chemical reactions in general. We are still exploring the possibilities of colloidal chemistry. Colloids are mixtures of two substances that are not soluble in each other but are not completely separate, either. The work of these scientists in colloidal chemistry has been very important. It has helped to explain the properties of materials on very small scales. The work of chemists in structured fluids has also been important. Structured fluids are substances that form unusual structures under certain conditions. These structures can be very complex, and they may change over time. The work of these scientists has helped us to understand these materials.