Canadian Nobel Prize in Science Laureates
Bert Brockhouse
Michael Smith
Rudolph Marcus
Richard Taylor
Sid Altman
John Polanyi
Henry Taube
David Hubel
Gerhard Herzberg
Fredrick Banting

History of the Nobel Prize

         The Nobel Prizes were first handed out in 1901 by Alfred Nobel, the Swedish Chemist who made a fortune by inventing dynamite. In his later years Nobel was horrified to see his invention and variations of it used mainly in guns and bombs to kill millions of people. To rectify this, he willed his vast fortune to be used to fund six annual cash prizes to men and women who made outstanding contributions that enriched human life in the fields of chemistry, physics, medicine, literature, economics, and peace. The Nobel Prize Laureates each receive about one million dollars. There have been ten Canadians to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences. (Another site with an excellent background on many Canadian Scientists: Great Canadian Scientists)


Altman, Sid (Molecular Biologist)

        "Has been awarded the 1989 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for
        the discovery of catalytic properties of RNA"

Birthdate:     May 8, 1939
Birthplace:    Montreal, Quebec
Residence:    New Haven Connecticut
Degrees:       B.Sc. (Physics), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 1960
                       Ph.D. (Biophysics), University of Colorado, Boulder, 1967

        As a youngster growing up in the Notre Dame de Grace suburb of Montreal, Altman had a love of books. He spent countless hours reading about everything he could get his hands on. At the age of twelve he was given a book entitled "Explaining the Atom" by Selig Hecht. This book showed Altman the power science had in making predictions, and from that point on he was a confirmed scientist. After gaining acceptance to MIT, Altman flourished in the highly academic environment. While completing his Ph.D. he met Leonard Lernman who was instrumental in Altman’s winning a fellowship at Crick and Brenner’s lab in England. It was here that he began his Nobel prize winning research into catalytic RNA.
        Altman specializes in chemical processes involved in copying information from DNA and using it to make proteins, the building blocks of cells. Information is copied from DNA by a molecule called RNA. About six different types of RNA are involved in this transcription process. Altman discovered an enzyme called RNase P that chops a little tail off the end of an intermediate molecule of RNA called precursor-tRNA. After searching for nearly a decade Altman discovered that the enzyme he was looking for wasn’t the usual protein enzyme but a pair consisting of a protein and a strand of RNA. In fact it was the RNA piece that provided the catalysis for the reaction. Since RNA molecules are much more primitive than protein molecules, this was an important discovery. The viruses responsible for the common cold are made of RNA. It is hoped that one day catalytic RNA vaccines can end humankind’s constant struggle with the common cold.


Banting, Sir Fredrick (Medical Doctor)

         "Has been awarded the 1923 Nobel Prize in Medicine for
        the discovery of insulin."

Birthdate:     November 14, 1891
Birthplace:    Alliston, Ontario
Died:             February 21, 1941
Degrees:       Medical degree 1916

         As a youth Banting worked on the family farm. He and his brothers under their father’s encouragement always investigated the deaths of any of the farm animals. It was here that Banting may have gotten some of his ideas later used in the discovery of insulin. While lecturing in London Ontario at the University of Western Ontario, at 2:00 am on October 31, 1920, Banting had the idea of isolating in dogs a hormone that diabetic patients seemed to be missing. This single idea was to save the lives of millions of people world-wide. The next summer after convincing a reluctant McLeod, Banting was given a small laboratory to conduct research in at the university of Toronto. Here together with Charles Best the historic experiments were undertaken. Using the pancreas of dogs they were able to extract a substance that quickly reversed the effect of diabetes in diabetic dogs. Over the next year with the aid of the biochemist J. B. Collip the extract was refined and purified. The major problem was the small quantities in which insulin were being produced. Again an insight by Banting probably related to his early days on the farm solved the problem. Using the much larger pancreas of calves, and later full grown cows instead of dogs to extract insulin provided a larger supply of the insulin extract..
        During that famous summer Banting and Best received very little support and no financial support. They conducted their experiments funded by the sale of Banting’s Ford motorcar. Things radically changed when people realized the importance of what they had discovered. After the first successful clinical tests on humans in 1922 the Eli Lilly Pharmaceutical company began to help mass produce a purified, stable product in large quantities available to all patients of diabetes. After receiving Canada’s first Nobel prize, which he shared equally with his unnamed co-worker Best, Banting was granted a lifetime annuity from the Canadian government, had his own research institute at the university and was knighted in 1934. But, Banting never liked the spotlight, and after only a couple of years left the research field of diabetes altogether. Banting’s life ended abruptly in 1941 when his plane crashed over Newfoundland. Banting may have been a humble quiet man, but his discovery of insulin is the single greatest contribution any Canadian has made to the entire World.


Brockhouse, Bert (Nuclear Physicist)

        "Has been awarded the 1994 Nobel Prize in Physics for
        pioneering contributions to the development of neutron
        scattering techniques for studies of condensed matter."

Birthdate:     July 15, 1918
Birthplace:    Lethbridge, Alberta
Residence:    Ancaster, Ontario
Degrees:        B.A. (Physics and Mathematics), University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 1947
                       Ph.D. (Physics), University of Toronto, Ontario, 1950

        Brockhouse grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia where his hobbies included constructing home-made radios. After high school, Brockhouse worked as a radio repairman until the Second World War. During the war he put his skills to work as an electronics technician for the Canadian Naval Reserve. After the war and the completion of his degrees Brockhouse started working at Chalk River Ontario, home of Canada’s Atomic Energy Project, as a researcher. It didn’t take him long to realize the potential of the newly discovered neutron that was being produced in large quantities by the radioactive nuclear pile located at Chalk River. By harnessing and focusing the power of the neutron, Brockhouse was able to probe deep into the structure of solids such as metals and crystals.
        Brockhouse spent his entire working career at Chalk River perfecting his design of the triple-axis neutron spectroscope, and their application. He solved problems in controlling the source of the neutron beam; limited the beam to neutrons of only one energy; got rid of back- ground radiation; and solved problems with the sensitivity of the detectors. Using the neutron beam such solid state physics properties as distance between atoms (bond length); the angle of bonds between atoms (bond angle); and the strength and energy of atomic bonds holding the atoms of the solid together can be measured.

Herzberg, Gerhard (Spectroscopist)

        "Has been awarded the 1971 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for
        his contributions to the knowledge of electronic structure
        and geometry of molecules, particularly free radicals."

Birthdate:      December 25, 1904
Birthplace:     Hamburg, Germany
Residence:     Ottawa, Ontario
Degrees:        Diplom Ingenieur, Darmstadt Institute of Technology, Germany, 1927
                        Ph.D., Darmstadt Institute of Technology, Germany, 1928
                        Privatdozent (post Doctorate), University of Goettingen, Germany, 1929

        Herzberg grew up in Hamburg Germany where he was intrigued by Space. As a youth he built telescopes, constructing each piece by hand. In 1933 he was forced to leave Germany with his wife and took a position at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. Here he taught physics, wrote his book, Molecular Spectra, and started his family with the birth of his two children. To try to prove the emerging theories about atomic and molecular structure Herzberg became a pioneer in molecular spectroscopy. Once the line spectrum of a molecule is identified astronomers can characterize the make up of distant stars and nebulae by observing their emission spectra. Here Herzberg was able to unite his adult research with his boyhood passion.
    In 1949, Herzberg accepted the position of Director of Physics with Canada’s National Research Council in Ottawa. It was while working here that he was able to capture the spectra of methylene free radicals (CH2) for the first time. Free radicals are highly reactive and exist for extremely short periods of time before reacting with molecules around them to form new molecules. By analyzing the height of the spectral lines, the spacing between lines and the thickness of the lines, Herzberg was able to calculate the energy levels and the probable location of electrons in the molecules. By matching the experimental spectral lines with internal vibrational and rotational energy levels he developed a more complete picture of the electronic structure of the molecule.

Hubel, David (Medical Doctor)

        "Has been awarded the 1981 Nobel Prize in Medicine for
        his discoveries concerning information processing in the visual system. "

Birthdate:     1926
Birthplace:    Windsor, Ontario
Residence:    Boston, Massachusetts
Degrees:       B.Sc. (Mathematics and Physics) McGill University, Montreal, 1947
                       MD McGill University, 1954

        Hubel was born in Windsor Ontario but grew up in Montreal as his family moved to Montreal when he was young. As a youth he tinkered in chemistry and electronics. Hubel got bored with electronics because nothing he ever built worked and his discovery of some interesting chemical explosions were far more rewarding. Hubel credits his love of science to his father whom he plagued with many questions as a youth. Hubel has always preferred to solve problems then to memorize facts. His choice of studying math and physics in his undergrad was partly to understand why his electronics creations never worked. Despite having never taken a biology course, Hubel enrolled in medical school at McGill. He found the first year difficult with all the memorization he had to do. Spending his summers at the Montreal Neurological Institute, Hubel continued to play with electronics and in the process discovered an interest in the nervous system and found out that he enjoyed clinical medicine.
        After three years of internship and residency, Hubel’s fascination with clinical work wore off and he began in earnest his research. Joining a neuropsychiatry group at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. In 1958 Hubel moved to John Hopkins University, where he teamed up with Torsten Wiesel. A year later they moved to Harvard Medical School where almost immediately they began to make significant discoveries in connections between vision and the visual cortex. Using micro electrodes and modern electronics, they were able to detect the firing of individual cells and have greatly aided in our understanding of the process of vision. Through the discoveries of Hubel and Wiesel we now know that behind the origin of the visual perception in the brain there is a considerably complicated course of events. By following the visual impulses along their path to the various cell layers of the optical cortex, Hubel and Wiesel have been able to demonstrate that the message about the image falling on the retina undergoes a step-wise analysis in a system of nerve cells stored in columns. In this system each cell has its specific function and is responsible for a specific detail in the pattern of the retinal image.
        The discoveries of Hubel and Wiesel represent a break-through in research into the ability of the brain to interpret the code of the impulse message from the eyes. Thanks to their investigations we now have a deeper insight into information analysis within the visual system and into the processes forming the basis for the origin of the visual impression.

Marcus, Rudolph (Chemist)

        "Has been awarded the 1992 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for
        his contributions to the theory of electron transfer reactions
        in chemical systems."

Birthdate:       July 21, 1923
Birthplace:     Montreal, Canada
Residence:     California
Degrees:         B.Sc. (Chemistry), McGill University, Montreal, Canada, 1943
                         Ph.D. (Chemistry), McGill University, 1946

        Although he had an early fascination with mathematics, Marcus majored in chemistry when he entered McGill in 1941 because it was the field in which he felt "most comfortable". After completion of his Ph.D. and many years of postdoctoral work, Marcus began to delve deeply into the theory of electron transfer reactions. Marcus combined his skill as an experimental chemist with his love of theory to develop what has become known as Marcus theory. In an intense period of activity during the late fifties and early sixties, he formed the basis of what became the "Marcus theory", extending his original concept to include intramolecular vibrational effects, numerically calculated rates of self-exchange and "cross-reactions", electrochemical electron-transfer reactions, chemiluminescent electron transfers, the relation between nonequilibrium and equilibrium solvation free energies for arbitrary geometries, and spectral charge-transfer processes. Marcus' work attracted immediate attention, serving as the basis for extension and application that he and many others still continue to explore. Slowly Marcus removed himself from his experimental research and focused the on theoretical. He has made many predictions which have been confirmed experimentally.
        Marcus’ passionate affair with theoretical chemistry is symbolized by some of the "miscellaneous" areas he considers "fun to study": reactions of solvated electrons, a two-site behaviour in photosynthesis, a unified approach to the electrochemical hydrogen evolution reaction, microcanonical transition-state theory and its consequences, Lie mechanics, microwave transients, complex isotopic exchange reactions, conformal electronic structures, and vibrational nonadiabaticity and curvilinearity in transition-state theory. Theories developed by Marcus have been highly influential and are in extensive use by other scientists. The electron-transfer work for which he was recognized by the Nobel committee is now being applied in various areas such as photosynthesis, electrically conducting polymers, chemiluminescence, and corrosion.

Polanyi, John (Physical Chemist)

        "Has been awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for
        his contributions concerning the dynamics of chemical
        elementary processes."

Birthdate:      January 23, 1929
Birthplace:     Berlin, Germany
Residence:     Toronto, Ontario
Degrees:         B.Sc. (Chemistry), University of Manchester, England, 1949
                         M.Sc.(Chemistry), University of Manchester, England, 1950
                         Ph.D. (Chemistry), University of Manchester, England, 1952

         When Polanyi was very young his father accepted a position as a professor of chemistry at the University of Manchester in England. To avoid being hurt during the bombings of the Second World War, young John was sent to live in Canada by his father. Never being one who liked to follow cook book experiments in science class, Polanyi always did poorly in school as he would ‘experiment’ around in the lab. His teachers often discouraged him from doing this as he wouldn’t end up with the ‘right’ answers. Luckily, Polanyi continued to tinker around and his love for science grew. After completing a doctorate in chemistry at the University of Manchester, Polanyi worked for a short while with Gerhard Herzberg at the National Research Council of Canada.
        In 1956, Polanyi accepted a lecturing position at the University of Toronto. Over the next thirty years Polanyi was to be a pioneer in a new branch of chemistry called Reaction Dynamics. His experiments have helped to create a picture of the transition state of reacting molecules. We now have a clearer picture of how the energy of reaction is divided up among the rotational, translational, and vibrational energy levels. From the first observation of the weak chemiluminescence of the hydrogen and chlorine reaction, to fine tuning of chemical reaction conditions to improve yields in chemical reactions, to the development of new very powerful lasers, Polanyi's work has greatly contributed to our understanding of chemical reactions.

Smith, Michael (Biochemist, Molecular Biologist)

        "Has been awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for
        his fundamental contributions to the establishment of
        oligonucleotide-based, site-directed mutagenesis and its
        development for protein studies."

Birthdate:      April 26, 1932
Birthplace:     Blackpool, England
Residence:     Vancouver, British Columbia
Degrees:         B.Sc. (Honours Chemistry), University of Manchester, England, 1953
                         Ph.D. (Chemistry), University of Manchester, 1956

        Smith was born into a working class family in northern England. At the age of eleven he did exceptionally well on the Eleven-Plus national exam and was awarded a scholarship for a local private school. His time at the private school was not an enjoyable one as he lost most of his boyhood friends who had stayed in the public system of education, and he was teased a lot by his classmates. It wasn’t until his introduction to the World Wide Scouting Movement that Smith started to make friends and enjoy himself in the outdoors. In 1956, after completing his Ph.D. Smith went to work for a young scientist in Vancouver British Columbia on biologically important molecules. Here he learned a great deal about DNA. For years Smith worked at the Fisheries Research Board of Canada Laboratory, where he published many papers on crabs, salmon, and marine mullosks. During this time he managed to keep up his research on DNA with grants that he managed to get on his own not related to his fisheries work. His work had him collaborating so much with UBC professors of biochemistry and medicine, that in 1966 he was appointed a professor of biochemistry in the Faculty of Medicine where he remains today.
        Smith works in genomics the sequencing of the DNA of an organism to understand how it works. What Smith developed that won him fame and fortune was a new way of creating mutations in living organisms. He found a way to create a specific mutation by precisely changing any particular part of the DNA in an organism. This has allowed countless researchers around the world to develop special bacteria, plants and animals with new desirable qualities or abilities that either do not occur naturally of that would take years and years of trial and error breeding to achieve. It is hoped that with continued research in this area that one day scientists will be able to correct bad mutations caused by disease.

Taylor, Richard (Nuclear Physicist)

        "Has been awarded the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physics for
        his pioneering investigations concerning deep inelastic
        scattering of electrons on protons and bound neutrons,
        which have been of essential importance for the
        development of the quark model in particle physics."

Birthdate:     November 2, 1929
Birthplace:    Medicine Hat, Alberta
Residence:    Stanford, California
Degrees:        B.A. (Mathematics and Physics) University of Alberta, Edmonton
                        M.Sc. (Physics) University of Alberta
                        Ph.D. (Physics) Stanford University, Stanford, California

        Taylor became interested in experimental particle physics while completing his M.Sc. at the University of Alberta. With his strong background in mathematics and physics he became a key contributor in the High Energy Physics Laboratory building of a new linear accelerator. By the early 1960’s Taylor was designing experiments and participating in the electron scattering experiments that were occurring at the newly constructed Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre, (SLAC) Between 1967 and 1973 in collaboration with Jerome Friedman and Henry Kendall of MIT, Taylor conducted experiments that smashed high energy particles into neutrons and protons. They discovered that these once believed indestructible particles where actually being broken up into smaller particles, quarks. Today scientists readily accept the existence of a family of six quarks. The up and down quarks are what Taylor observed in the splitting of neutrons and protons. The remaining four are heavier and much less stable have been labelled strange, charmed, beauty (or bottom) and truth (or top) quark. Through experiments Taylor was able to prove the quark model of matter, and for this was awarded the Nobel prize.

Taube, Henry (Physical Chemist)

         "Has been awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for
        his work on the mechanisms of electron transfer reactions,
        especially in metal complexes."

Birthdate:      November 30, 1915
Birthplace:     Neudorf, Saskatchewan
Residence:     Stanford, California
Degrees:         B.Sc. (Chemistry) University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, 1935
                         M.Sc. (Chemistry) University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, 1937
                         Ph.D. (Chemistry) University of California, Berkeley, 1940

        He spent his life conducting experiments to understand the behaviour of ions in solution. his most famous work has been in electron transfer reaction, for the which he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1983. His current work continues in this area, and includes studying the reactivity of inorganic substances, mixed-valence molecules, and the systematic study of back-bonding.

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