Nobel Prize winning stories from Australian and New Zealand Universities

Ever since the first university was established in Australia and New Zealand in the middle of the 19th century, the countries have developed a reputation for producing world-class researchers, including these 14 Nobel prize winners whose cutting-edge research has changed the course of our global understanding in their subjects.  Jump to a particular story using the quick links below:

ANU looks to the stars – Professor Brian P. Schmidt - Nobel Prize in Physics 2011

Professor Brian Schmidt. Photo credit: The Conversation Australia

Originally from Montana, Professor Brian Schmidt is now based at the Australian National University’s College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences after moving to Australia in 1994.  At this time he formed the High-Z Supernova Search Team to measure the expected deceleration of the universe, only to release a paper in 1998 with the first evidence the Universe’s expansion rate was accelerating.  The same result was discovered simultaneously by the Supernova Cosmology Project led by Saul Perlmutter, which corroborated the findings and led to Professor Schmidt receiving the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2011.

Professor Schmidt continues his research from ANU’s Mount Stromlo Observatory and has recently taught a series of MOOCs for the University, this series of free courses can be found on the edX website.

UWA Professor discovers cause of peptic ulcers – Professor Barry Marshall and John Warren – Nobel Prize in Physiology 2005

Professor Barry Marshall and John Warren. Photo credit: Australia Unlimited

Barry James Marshall is Professor of Clinical Microbiology at the University of Western Australia.  He jointly won the Nobel Prize in 2005 with fellow Australian and University of Adelaide graduate, John Warren.  Marshall and Warren met whilst on a training fellowship at the Royal Perth Hospital and developed their first hypothesis relating to the bacterium H.Pylori in 1982.  After failing to infect piglets with the bacterium, Marshall drank a petri dish containing the cultured bacteria, and sure enough 8 days later was able to prove that it caused gastritis in humans!  Marshall and Warren’s research into the H.Pylori bacterium continued, and their breakthrough in proving that is could also cause peptic ulcers gained them the Nobel Prize in 2005.  Professor Marshall now runs the H.Pylori Research Laboratory at UWA.

Adelaide’s Family first – Sir William Henry and William Lawrence Bragg – Nobel Prize in Physics 1915

Sir William Henry and William Lawrence Bragg. Photo credit: Leeds University

Sir William Henry Bragg was born in Cumberland, England, but moved to Australia at the age of 23 to take up the position of Elder professor of Mathematics and Experimental Physics at the University of Adelaide.  He married a local woman, and they had a son named William Lawrence Bragg.  William Lawrence, studied at the University of Adelaide, taught be his father, and together they invented the X-Ray spectrometer. The family left Adelaide in 1909 as the elder Bragg took up a new position at the University of Leeds, but their research together continued founding the new science of X-Ray Crystallography.  Father and son were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1915 for their studies, using the X-ray spectrometer, of X-ray spectra, X-ray diffraction, and of crystal structure.

Part-time student to Nobel Prize Winner – John Harsanyi – Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics 1994

John Harsanyi. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Harsányi János Károly was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1920.  He studied at the University of Budapest for his PhD and then spent one academic year on the faculty in the Institute of Sociology, however he was forced to resign for openly expressing anti-Marxist opinions in the then communist country.  Eventually Harsanyi, his fiance and his parents fled the country in 1950, crossing into Austria before heading to Australia.  At the time, Harsanyi’s Hungarian qualifications were not recognised in Australia, but he was able to apply for credit towards a Master’s degree at the University of Sydney, which he studied part time in the evenings.  He finished his degree in 1953, and in 1954 was offered a teaching position at the University of Queensland. He was awarded the Rockefeller scholarship in 1956, and so he and his wife spent the next 2 years studying at Stanford University, with Harsanyi earning his second PhD in economics., with a dissertation on game theory.  When his student visa expired, the couple went back to Australia for a time, when Harsanyi taught at the Australian National University.  However he stayed only for a couple more years before moving back to the USA.  He worked at the University of California, Berkeley from 1968 until retiring in 1990, and during this time conducted extensive research into game theory, for which he eventually received the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics in 1994.

The Adelaide graduate responsible for penicillin – Howard Walter Florey – Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1945

Howard Walter Florey. Photo credit: Biografias y Vidas

Most people will recognize the name of Alexander Fleming, but did you know that he shared his Nobel Prize with two others, one of whom was Howard Walter Florey.  Florey was born in Adelaide in 1898, a third generation Australian, he earned his first medicine degree at the University of Adelaide from 1917 to 1921.  A Rhodes scholar, he went on to continue his studies at Oxford and Cambridge.   He didn’t return to Australia, but took up a position as Professor of Pathology and Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford.  In 1938, Howard Florey and colleagues Ernst Boris Chain and Norman Heatley read Fleming’s paper about the antibacterial effects of Penicillin, and set about turning his research into a useful treatment.  In 1941, they treated their first patient (who unfortunately relapsed and died as there wasn’t enough penicillin to fully treat him), and by 1945 Florey’s research team had succeeded in finding a way to efficiently extract the active ingredient and industrially produce the mould on a large scale for use by the Allies during World War II.  The Nobel Prize was awarded jointly to Alexander Fleming, Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain.  Florey became chancellor of ANU from 1965 until his death in 1968, and now lends his name to a lecture theatre at ANU, a research institute at the University of Melbourne and the medical school at the University of Adelaide.

New Zealand’s Father of Nuclear Physics – Ernest Rutherford – Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1908

Ernest Rutherford. Photo credit: Wikispaces

To anyone who’s studied Physics at A-Level, the name Rutherford may well ring a bell… Ernest Rutherford was born and educated in Nelson on the South Island.  After school he earned a scholarship to study at Canterbury College, which was then part of the University of New Zealand, now the University of Canterbury.  He left with three degrees (a BA, a MSc and a BSc) in 1895 at the age of 24, to pursue postgraduate study at the University of Cambridge.  Rutherford started at Cambridge studying electromagnetic waves, and briefly held the record for the longest distance over which radio waves could be detected, however discovered when he came to present it that he had been outdone by Marconi (who won the Nobel Prize for this discovery in 1909).   After a few years at Cambridge, Rutherford was offered a new position at McGill University in Canada, where he discovered the concept of radioactive half-life.  It was for this work that he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908, although by this time he had already moved to the University of Manchester where he performed his most famous work - pioneering the Rutherford model of the atom, Rutherford scattering (gold foil experiment) and progressed onto splitting the first atom in a nuclear reaction of nitrogen and alpha particles in 1917, it was in the last experiement that he both discovered and named the proton.  Ernest Rutherford died in 1837 at the age of 66 after suffering from a strangulated hernia, and is buried in Westminster Abbey alongside Isaac Newton and other prominent scientists.

The girls can do it too! – Professor Elizabeth Blackburn – Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2009

Professor Elizabeth Blackburn. Photo credit:

Elizabeth Blackburn was born in Hobart, Tasmania, although her family relocated to Melbourne and she finished high school in the city.  She studied at the University of Melbourne for 5 years, completing her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science, but went on to earn her PhD at the University of Cambridge.  After studying at Cambridge she moved to the USA, where she is still resident, and carried out postdoctoral work at Yale. She has now worked at the University of California since 1981, starting with a stint at Berkeley, but is now the Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology and Physiology at the University of California, San Francisco.  Her work in molecular biology led her to co-discover an enzyme called telomerase that replenishes the telomere (short sections found in DNA), it was for this discovery that Professor Blackburn won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009.  She continues to investigate the effect of stress on telomerase and telomeres now at UCSF and is also president-elect of the American Association for Cancer Research.  

Studying the synapse – Sir John Carew Eccles – Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1963

John Carew Eccles. Photo credit: Wikipedia

John Carew Eccles was born in Melbourne and went on to study Medicine at the University.  He graduated in 1925 and went on to study a PhD at Oxford University.  He returned to Australia in 1937, working on military research during World War II and presenting research lectures at the University of Sydney.  For a period after the war, he became a professor at the University of Otago in New Zealand, eventually moving to the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National University in 1952.  It was during this period in the early 50’s when he conducted his prize-winning research.  Eccles and his team studied the synapses in the peripheral nervous system, using the stretch reflex mechanism.  His work helped along many further developments in the field of neuroscience, and so it was in 1963 he jointly won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and was named Australian of the Year.  He left ANU in 1962 to work in the USA, but in 2012, the University opened the Eccles Institute of Neuroscience at the John Curtin School of Medical Research.

Immunology – Peter Doherty – Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1996

Peter Doherty. Photo credit: Superstars of Science

Peter Doherty is a native of Brisbane and studied both his bachelors and masters degrees in veterinary science at the University of Queensland.  He studied his PhD at the University of Edinburgh, before returning to Australia in 1970 to work at the John Curtin School of Medical Research (part of ANU).  It was here that he met Rolf Zinkernagel, a PhD student at the time and joint-winner of the Nobel prize, and carried out his prize-winning research.  Doherty and Zinkernagel’s research described how the body’s immune cells protect against viruses.  They discovered how T-cells recognize the infected cells; they recognize two molecules on the surface of the cell, that of the virus antigen, and the MHC protein.  They also found that the MHC protein had a crucial role in fighting meningitis viruses too.  Doherty and Zinkernagel won their Nobel Prize in 1996 for the work on MHC (Major Histocompatibility Complex).  Professor Doherty now works in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Melbourne – for 9 months a year, and spends the rest of the time at St. Judes Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

Wellington’s polymer chemist – Alan MacDiarmid – Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2000

Alan MacDiarmid. Photo credit: University of Pennsylvania Archives

Alan MacDiarmid was born and raised in Masterton, New Zealand during the Great Depression.  Life was difficult in rural New Zealand at this time, and so his family moved closer to the city of Wellington, and it was there that Alan MacDiarmid was educated.  He passed the University of New Zealand’s entrance exam in 1943 and took up a part-time job as “lab-boy” to support his BSc studies.  The University is now Victoria University of Wellington, and it was here that Alan MacDiarmid stayed to study a Masters and worked for a time as an assistant in the chemistry department.  He had his first publication printed in the magazine Nature in 1949, and eventually left VUW with a first class honours degree and a Fulbright Fellowship in hand in 1951.  He continued studying at university in the USA and Cambridge, gaining another Masters degree and two PhDs.  In 1964 he became a full professor at the University of Pennsylvania and it was here that he began working with Hideki Shiarkawa and Alan Heeger (the co-winners of his Nobel prize) on research that led to the discovery of conductive polymers – plastic materials that conduct electricity.  Alan MacDiarmid sadly died in a fall at his home in Pennsylvania in 2007, never making back to New Zealand as he planned, but his work has been recognised in many ways – the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology is a leading research network based at Victoria University of Wellington, that leverages the skills of scientists from across New Zealand.

Organic chemistry – Sir John Warcup Cornforth Jr. – Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1975

John Cornforth. Photo credit: The Famous People

John Cornforth was born in Sydney in 1917, at the age of 10 he was diagnosed with otosclerosis, a disease of the inner ear, which left him completely deaf at the age of 20.  Cornforth excelled academically in many subjects, but he was inspired by his high school chemistry teacher to study further in the subject, instead of in law.  Cornforth went on to study his first degree at the University of Sydney. He graduated with Bachelor of Science with First-Class Honours and the University Medal in 1937 despite the fact that his hearing had deteriorated so much that listening to lectures was extremely difficult for him.  It was during his time at the University of Sydney that he met his future wife and fellow organic chemist – Rita Harradence. In 1939, Cornforth and Harradence, independently of each other, each won one of two Science Research Scholarships (the 1851 Research Fellowship) from the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, tenable overseas for two years.  They began studying for their PhDs at the University of Oxford, collaborating with Sir Robert Robinson (a British organic chemist who coincidentally had also taught at the University of Sydney and won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1947) – a working relationship that lasted some 14 years.  During World War II, Cornforth significantly influenced the work on pencillin, building upon Howard Florey’s work on the drug, to purify and concentrate it.   After the war, both Cornforth and his wife joined the Medical Research Council; it was here that they began to work towards the first total-synthesis of a non-aromatic steroid.  Cornforth investigated enzymes that catalyse changes in organic compounds, the substrates, by taking the place of hydrogen atoms in a substrate's chains and rings.  His research led him to be able to detail the biosynthesis of cholesterol, and it was for this discovery that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1975. Two years later in 1977, he received both a knighthood and an honorary doctorate from the University of Sydney for his work, and was a professor at the University of Sussex until his death in 2013.

Helping immunity – Sir Frank MacFarlane Burnet – Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1960

Frank Burnet in his lab. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Frank MacFarlane Burnet was born and raised in Victoria, the second of seven children.  Frank (or Mac as he was known) however took an early interest in biology, collecting beetles and observing and recording the behaviour of wildlife.  He attended a Sunday School where the priest spotted his passion and encourage Frank’s father to support him through his education - Mac won a full scholarship and board at Geelong College, an exclusive private school.   Although he was the only student with a full scholarship, he also excelled academically and was placed first in his school on graduating in 1916.  He went on to win a place at the University of Melbourne with a residential scholarship at Ormond College, he emerged from the first three years of studying Physiology as one of 12 students selected for further tuition, and went on to graduate with a Bachelor of Medicine and a Bachelor of Surgery in 1922 at the end of his fifth year (the length of Medical training had been reduced to five years to train doctors faster during the war).  Burnet worked in Melbourne Hospital for a time after graduation where he qualified as Doctor of Medicine and did some work in the research laboratories at the hospital.  In 1925, he went off to London and after winning a fellowship, was able to study his PhD at the University of London.  He met his wife, a fellow Australian, in London, but the couple returned to Australia after Burnet had graduated, he went back to work at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute at Melbourne Hospital.  By this time he was more heavily involved in research rather than clinical practise, his interest being in immunology.  His work touched many different areas of the subject, contributing to developments on viruses such as influenza, canary pox, diphtheria and scrub typhus. From 1944 he worked both as director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and as a University of Melbourne professor – as part of a cooperative programme allowing students to conduct research there as part of their studies.  Burnet was working on a hypothesis of his, about the situation where the body failed to make antibodies to its own components (autoimmunity) and by extension the idea of immune tolerance.  Although he published his hypothesis in 1941, he was unable to prove it experimentally, it was not until 1953 that another scientist Peter Medawar and his team were able find support for the hypothesis by experiment, Burnet and Medawar were then able to work together to solidify the discovery.  It was for this that they were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1960.  Frank Burnet eventually left the Institute in 1965, but was offered an office at the University of Melbourne’s school of Microbiology. At the University he wrote 13 books on topics including immunology, ageing and cancer, and human biology, before retiring in 1978. He died in 1985 after a short but painful illness, but left a large legacy to the field of immunology.

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