Examining the roster of Nobel laureates in science and their national origin is like engaging in an archaeological dig. At the shallowest level, the United States, with 253 winners—the largest number by a wide margin, more than Great Britain and Germany combined—appears to have been fulfilling its manifest destiny to lead the world in science right from the outset of the 20th century. But dig deeper, and a different picture emerges. The nation that led the world in research and scientific discovery in the early decades of the last century was not the United States, but Germany.
Harnessing the power of the greatest research universities in the world, Germans took home 21 of the 63 science Nobels awarded in the 20 years after 1901, when the prize was born. Their names represent the history of scientific advancement in the 20th century: Röntgen, Behring, Baeyer, Koch, Ehrlich, Planck, Einstein. The first American to win a science Nobel—Albert Michelson, who took the physics award in 1907—was born in Germany. He spent his early years in the United States and returned to the universities of Berlin and Heidelberg for his research degrees.
The American research university got a late start in the 1870s and looked to Germany for its model. It took almost half a century for the American research establishment to get some traction. Even after the resounding German defeat in World War I and the general despair in the Weimar Republic, German research remained the world’s best, and the Nobel Prizes kept coming.
In America, we closed the doors to immigrants and tried to keep their children out of colleges and universities with quotas. Meritocracy was still off in our distant future, and until the approach of World War II, our academic institutions were mostly mediocre.
But then came Adolf Hitler, who would be responsible for 50 million deaths—and the eventual triumph of the American research enterprise. By 1945, the vaunted German research university lay in physical and intellectual ruins. Jewish physicists had been driven out, as had Jewish medical researchers (see “A Way Out of Germany”) and non-Jewish scientists who had Jewish spouses. America had opened its immigration doors just wide enough to let in, among others, Einstein, Fermi, Wigner and Bohr—and we built the atom bomb instead of Germany.
In postwar America, immigration policy remained unwelcoming—except for one lesson learned: some of the smartest people in the world wanted to come here, and we had to figure out a way to let them in. At the same time, with Europe in tatters, the United States finally had the opportunity to excel. The government poured money into the newly established National Science Foundation and into the National Institutes of Health. College admissions exploded as hundreds of thousands of returning G.I.s benefited from one of the best pieces of social legislation ever passed by our Congress: the G.I. Bill. Eventually the restrictions, quotas and closed doors in college admissions disappeared.
The results have been phenomenal. To date, 91 American Nobel laureates in science have been born outside the United States. In the 2013 round of science awards, all except the two in physics went to Americans or hyphenated Americans, most of them immigrants. Of the three Nobel winners in chemistry, Michael Levitt was born in South Africa, Arieh Warshel in Palestine, and the third, Martin Karplus, reaches all the way back to Hitler’s monstrous role in all of this: Karplus was born in Vienna in 1930, and at the age of eight fled Austria with his family just as Nazi troops were marching in. Of the three recipients in physiology or medicine, Thomas Südhof was born in Göttingen, Germany, in 1955; Randy Schekman and James Rothman were the American-born children of Jewish families who made it to America. Tufts’ own 2013 laureate—Eugene Fama, A60, H02, who won for economics—is the grandson of Sicilian immigrants (see “Fama’s Market”).
The United States took advantage of the scientific exodus from Europe to build an academic research enterprise that today is the envy of the world. The country remains a safe haven for scientists from all over. The Nobel Prizes won for the United States since the 1940s tell the story better than anyone can. We learned what it takes to be great: an open door.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Tufts Magazine.
Sol Gittleman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor, has been a professor of German, Judaic studies and biblical literature and is a former provost of the university.