Bertram Brockhouse’s Nobel medal for physics | CSTM Collection 2005.0001

As you may have heard recently, this year’s Nobel Prize for physics went to Canadian Arthur McDonald for his work showing that sub-atomic particles called neutrinos have mass. So I thought it was a good time to look at Canada’s spirit of innovation from the perspective of Canada’s Nobel Prizes – the highest international scientific acclaim possible.

Perhaps not widely known is that Canadians have shone brightly in the Nobel Prize universe since the first ones were awarded in 1901. Canadians have earned Nobels in all six prize categories: physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, peace, and economic sciences.

And Canada, with its historically small population, has won 24 Nobel Prizes – the same number as much more populous Russia. But if Canada’s total of two dozen Nobel Prizes sounds like a lot for a small country, we actually stand 24th in Nobels per capita, just behind New Zealand, and immediately ahead of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

At 32 years of age in 1923, Sir Frederick Banting, born near Alliston, Ontario, was then the second youngest Nobel laureate ever when he received his prize in medicine for his early 1920s work at the University of Toronto, where he invented insulin. Willard Boyle from Amherst, Nova Scotia, is among the oldest to receive a Nobel Prize. He was 85 when he was honoured with his physics prize in 2009—40 years after he and his American research partner George E. Smith did their award winning work inventing digital camera technology.

Canadians often won Nobels for their work outside of Canada, almost always in the U.S. Boyle, for instance, did his ground breaking digital camera technology work at the Bell Labs in New Jersey. Several Nobels attributed to Canada were won by people who did their work in Canada but who were not born here. Gerhard Herzberg (chemistry, 1971) was born in Germany and did his Nobel Prize winning work in the labs of the National Research Council Canada (NRC) in Ottawa.

Herzberg won his chemistry Nobel for his contributions to the knowledge of electronic structure and geometry of molecules, particularly free radicals. Interestingly, he considered himself a physicist, not a chemist, but, as he said, physics and chemistry often overlap to a large degree in many areas.

Herzberg worked at NRC’s Sussex Drive building in Ottawa. The NRC has honoured Herzberg in its own way by preserving his NRC office exactly as he left it when he died in 1999.

As mentioned, Dr Arthur McDonald from Sydney, Nova Scotia, is the 2015 co-winner of the Nobel Prize in physics. His pioneering work, in parallel with the research of Takaaki Kajita of Japan, has helped us to better understand neutrinos and it has changed the laws of physics and our understanding of the universe.

Dr McDonald, as do several Nobel Prize winners, has connections to the Canada Science and Technology Museum.

Starting in 2005, the Museum displayed for several years an exhibition called MegaScience: A celebration of the International Year of Physics that featured displays and information about Dr McDonald’s Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNOLAB).

The Museum’s collection houses scientific apparatuses and other items from winners’ laboratories, such as a spectrograph from Dr Herzberg and a reaction cell from Dr John Polanyi (chemistry, 1986).

We are fortunate also to have in our collection Bertram Brockhouse’s Nobel medal for physics that he received in 1994 with American Clifford Shull of MIT for developing neutron scattering techniques for studying condensed matter. Dr Brockhouse, who was from Lethbridge, Alberta, passed away in 2003 and his family donated his medal to the Museum two years later. The collection also has his triple-axis spectrometer that was fundamental to his prizewinning work.

Several Canadian Nobel Prize winners in the sciences are highlighted in the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame travelling exhibition: Sir Frederick Banting, Willard Boyle, Bertram Brockhouse, Arthur McDonald, John Polanyi, Michael Smith, and Richard E. Taylor. And of course, all of Canada’s Nobel Prize winners in all disciplines are on the Nobel Prize website: www.nobelprize.org.

They are:

  1. Arthur B. McDonald, Physics, 2015
  2. Alice Munro, Literature, 2013
  3. Ralph M. Steinman, Physiology or Medicine, 2011
  4. Willard S. Boyle, Physics, 2009
  5. Jack W. Szostak, born in the United Kingdom, Physiology or Medicine, 2009
  6. Robert Mundell, Economics, 1999
  7. Myron Scholes, Economics, 1997
  8. William Vickrey, Economics, 1996
  9. Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, Peace, 1995
  10. Bertram N. Brockhouse, Physics, 1994
  11. Michael Smith, born in the United Kingdom, Chemistry, 1993
  12. Rudolph A. Marcus, Chemistry, 1992
  13. Richard E. Taylor, Physics, 1990
  14. Sidney Altman, Chemistry, 1989
  15. John C. Polányi, born in Germany, Chemistry, 1986
  16. Henry Taube, Chemistry, 1983
  17. David H. Hubel, Physiology or Medicine, 1981
  18. Saul Bellow, Literature, 1976
  19. Gerhard Herzberg, born in Germany, Chemistry, 1971
  20. Charles B. Huggins, Physiology or Medicine, 1966
  21. Lester B. Pearson, Peace, 1957
  22. William Giauque, Chemistry, 1949
  23. Frederick G. Banting, Physiology or Medicine, 1923
  24. Ernest Rutherford, born in New Zealand, Chemistry, 1908

Through the 20th century, and into the 21st, Canada’s Nobel laureates – regardless of the category of their work – are proof that our spirit of innovation thrives to advance knowledge and understanding.

This topic, and others of this blog series, show that the spirit of innovation is everywhere in Canada. We all know a story of a person, place, or innovation that has contributed to Canadian breakthrough or invention. To mark Canada’s upcoming 150th birthday, we have created a digital storybook to capture your stories of Canadian innovation, from before or after Confederation, or even new innovations that are on the drawing board today. Canada’s history of innovation is worth celebrating. Please go to InnovationCanada150.ca to contribute your story. And encourage your friends, family, and colleagues also to get involved.