Written by 14:39 Quotes & Facts

Top 7 Nobel Prize Winners Who Aren’t What They Seem

The Nobel Prize is rich with scandal. The prestigious awards are known to divide opinion, and the winner’s list is often clouded in controversy.

The Nobel Prize is rich with scandal. The prestigious awards are known to divide opinion, and the winner’s list is often clouded in controversy. So here are 7 of the most controversial Nobel prize winners.

1. Aung San Suu Kyi, Apologist for Ethnic Cleansing

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The Nobel Peace Prize has a long history of controversial recipients: Henry Kissinger, Barack Obama, and the European Union to name a few. In recent years, a debate has been sparked around Aung San Suu Kyi—the Myanmar politician who became a Peace Prize laureate in 1991.

In 2018, the United Nations published a damning report detailing some of the atrocities committed by Myanmar’s military. UN investigators found that soldiers are brutally persecuting an ethnic group known as the Rohingya Muslims. Their heinous actions include mass killings and gang rapes. The army’s extreme crackdown on the state of Rakhine has left tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims dead. A further 700,000 have fled the violence, most of them sheltering as refugees in Bangladesh.

As the leader of the Myanmar government, Aung San Suu Kyi has faced criticism for supporting this vicious regime of ethnic cleansing. Nonetheless, the Nobel committee refuses to revoke her prize.

2. Soviet Repression

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Boris Pasternak, the Russian author behind Doctor Zhivago, was announced as the winner of the 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature. Originally his novel had been rejected by Soviet publishers for spreading “malicious libel of the USSR”, however, it soon found popularity outside of the country. The US, who were locked in a battle with Stalin’s government, seized Pasternak’s book as an opportunity for anti-Soviet propaganda. The CIA bought and circulated copies across the globe as a cultural weapon against the socialist state.

While Pasternak was overjoyed at his accolade from the Nobel committee, the Soviet Union took a very different view. Newspaper articles denounced Pasternak as a “literary weed”. The Soviet government, now under the rule of Nikita Khrushchev, pressured his contemporaries into shunning him. When he was threatened with being banished from the USSR if he accepted, Pasternak was forced to turn down the prize.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn faced similar repression when he was awarded the 1970 Prize in Literature. The Russian writer, a staunch critic of the Soviet Union, was denied travel to Oslo to receive his award and expelled for treason four years later.


3. Sexual Assault and Financial Misconduct

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In 2018, Jean-Claude Arnault was hit by a barrage of serious accusations relating to sexual assault and financial misconduct. The 72-year-old, one of Sweden’s leading cultural figures, faced charges of assault, abuse, and sexual harassment. Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published accusations from eighteen women against Arnault. Further evidence emerged that he and his wife Katarina, a member of the Swedish Academy board, had leaked the names of several prize winners in advance.

The scandal around Arnault became so severe that the Nobel committee was forced to cancel that year’s literature prize. Prior to the scandal, Arnault had arrogantly boasted of being the unofficial “nineteenth member” of the academy board. He was convicted of rape in October 2018 and is currently serving a two-year prison sentence.

4. Alexis Carrel, Surgeon and Eugenicist

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Alexis Carrel was a remarkable biologist. The Frenchman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1912 for his groundbreaking research into transplant surgery. Just three years later, in the midst of World War I, he developed an innovative method for treating wounds with antiseptic.

But in the decades that followed, Carrel’s research took a dark and sinister turn. In 1935 Carrel published the book Man, The Unknown in which he explains his support for eugenics. He was of the opinion that women with “desirable” characteristics should focus exclusively on reproducing with “desirable” men, and then mothering their “desirable” children. He also believed that “undesirable” people should be discouraged from reproducing and that criminals deserved to be “humanely and economically disposed of” in gas chambers.

[Read More: 12 of the Wisest Quotes by George Carlin]

5. Carleton Gajdusek, Perverse Criminal

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Born in New York, Daniel Carleton Gajdusek shared the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work into the spread of infectious disease. The esteemed physician was a leading figure in the study of degenerate brain disorders. While researching the Fore tribe in New Guinea, Gajdusek was the first to attribute a local nervous system disease to a ghastly ritual of eating human brains. He was also praised for his bountiful generosity. Gajdusek adopted around fifty impoverished children from the Pacific Islands and personally funded their education in the US.

However, in 1997, Gajdusek’s cherished reputation crashed suddenly to Earth. The Nobel Prize-winning physician faced allegations of sexually abusing underage boys. Two of the students sponsored by Gajdusek, a young man from Micronesia and another too young to be identified, claimed they were assaulted while in the researcher’s care. When brought to trial, Gajdusek pleaded guilty to abuse and molestation and was imprisoned for a year.

6. Egas Moniz, Inventor of the Lobotomy

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By modern standards, the lobotomy is an obsolete medical practice that feels more like a medieval torture method than a form of psychiatric treatment. However, in the early half of the 20th century, the procedure was celebrated as a state-of-the-art “treatment” for mental illness. In the US around 20,000 people underwent the operation, in which the prefrontal cortex is cut to sever connections in the brain.

Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz first introduced the technique in the mid-1930s. Following preliminary tests on a group of schizophrenia sufferers, he remarked that it was “simple operation, always safe.” He was soon proven wrong. A number of patients suffered irrevocable personality damage after undergoing the procedure. Some were reduced to listless, childlike beings; a handful fell into a vegetative state. In light of the high-risk side effects, lobotomies are now widely viewed as highly amoral.

Moniz was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1949 for developing the controversial procedure. At that point, very little scientific research had been conducted into lobotomies. The side effects were relatively unknown.

Some historians argue that Moniz’s receipt of the Nobel Prize legitimized the procedure. They believe that the prestigious award helped bolster the popularity of lobotomies. A number of appeals have been made to the Nobel committee to rescind his award, but they refuse to do so. Instead, the committee argues that there is “no reason for indignation at what was done in the 1940s as at that time there were no other alternatives.”

7. William Shockley, White Supremacist

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William Shockley revolutionized the world of technology. In 1956, the American physicist set up the first silicon semiconductor laboratory in Mountain View, California, the area now known as Silicon Valley. That same year, Shockley was awarded the Nobel Prize for his role in the invention of the transistor – arguably the most important scientific breakthrough of the last century. Transistors are one of the key components of computers and mobile phones; without them, the Internet would be unable to function.

Shockley’s enormous scientific impact is undeniable. But, despite his genius, he was also a fervent white supremacist. In his later years, Shockley was obsessed with the idea of a disparity in IQ between different races and decided to turn his hand to eugenics. Believing white people to be intellectually superior, he proposed that “genetically disadvantaged” (i.e. black) people should be given financial incentives to persuade them to be sterilized.

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