Nobel Prize Winners (1947-1995)

Whether in literature, economics, humanitarianism, or the sciences, the Nobel Prize is an international hallmark of excellence. Although both the Peace and Literature Prizes have been earned by many individuals throughout the developing world, the award in the sciences (physics, chemistry, and medicine) have remained largely the domain of scientists from Western Europe and the United States. This may seem understandable for several reasons, including the cutting-edge technology, abundant funding, and established scientific institutions in these regions.

Since the introduction of the Nobel Prize in 1901, five Latin Americans have received an award for science. Bernardo Houssay (physiology, 1947), Luis F. Leloir (chemistry, 1970), and Cesar Milstein (physiology, 1984) are all from Argentina, a country that began developing its own unique and efficacious laboratory style in the early twentieth century. Historian of medicine Marcos Cueto noted how, in the 1920s, Bernardo Houssay established ways to conduct physiological research on a low budget and without the benefits of advanced technology or elite experimental scientists. The institutions he established helped to train a new generation of Argentinean physiologists in laboratory research, including future Nobel winner Leloir. Although laboratory styles, imported equipment, and pure intelligence contributed to the findings of these two, a large part of their success was in focusing on topics that were being ignored in the world's more prominent research centers (Cueto 1994). Only two Latin Americans from countries other than Argentina have received Nobels: Baruj Benacerraf (physiology, 1980) is Venezuelan and Mario J. Molina (chemistry, 1995) is a Mexican.

While these examples of excellence were well deserving of international recognition, it is noteworthy that the scientific emphasis in Latin America since at least the late eighteenth century has been on the practical application of scientific work, not pure experimentation and the discovery of novelties. Metallurgy, agriculture, mining, engineering, pharmacology, and other sciences that could directly benefit the fledgling nations of Latin America were given preference over pure laboratory sciences, such as physics. Compared with the medical institutions of other regions, Latin American universities have often underemphasized medical research in the training of physicians. Faculty members at medical schools had full-time medical practices, leaving only a few hours a week for teaching and even less for research.

With the exception of Houssay and Leloir, all other Latin Americans who have received science Nobels did their advanced training and made their most noteworthy discoveries in either the United States (Benacerraf and Molina) or England (Milstein). As long as funding and institutions remain inadequate for conducting cutting edge research, many Latin American scientists interested in experimentation and pure research will continue to seek Ph.D.s and employment abroad.

Questions for further exploration:

1. As international communication and travel become more common, Latin America's place among the lesser known regions to practice science may be reconstrued. Will the new opportunities for interaction amongst scientists throughout the world bring the less adequately funded regions into the scientific mainstream, or might it serve to further relegate people working on the geographical fringes of science?

2. Examine the work of any two of the Latin Americans to win Nobel Prizes for science. Are there elements of their chosen topic, research methods, or emphases that are distinctly Latin American? Or were their styles in keeping with those of the U.S. or England? Or a hybrid of both?

3. Consider prize-winning work done by each of these scientists. Whose research has had the greatest effect on science at the international level? Why?

4. The new research methods that Houssay introduced to Argentina were instrumental in changing how scientific work was conducted in that country. Considering that Leloir is the only other Latin American to receive the Nobel for work done in Latin America, what specific roles did Houssay's style of research play in Leloir's discoveries?

Further reading: 

Cueto, Marcos. "Laboratory Styles in Argentine Physiology." In Isis, vol. 85, no. 2. (June, 1994), p. 228-246.

B A Houssay

Date: 17 Nov 1947
Owner: Archivo General de la Nacion, Mexico
Source Type: Images


Bernardo Alberto Houssay (1887-1971) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering the role of the anterior hypophysis (or, pituitary gland) in the metabolism of sugar. He was born in Buenos Aires where he excelled in medicine at a very young age, graduating from the pharmacy school of the University of Buenos Aires when he was only seventeen years old. After earning his MD from the University's medical school in 1911, he founded the university's Institute of Physiology eight years later and served as its director until the authoritarian government removed him in 1943 for signing a manifesto demanding real democracy in Argentina.

Houssay and his institute were supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, which hoped to spread the practices and values of university laboratories in the United States to research centers in Latin America. Yet Houssay maintained a distinctly Latin American style of research that allowed him to achieve excellence despite adverse conditions. His laboratory work resembled an efficient assembly line, in which large numbers of student-assistants (called monitores) worked assiduously with low-budget technology. Their research focused on endocrinology, especially the hypophysis, which they discovered played a key role in the onset of diabetes, a disease previously considered to stem only from the pancreas.

Houssay won the Nobel Prize in 1947 for this discovery, the first Latin American scientist to earn the award. Despite several offers for positions in the U.S. and elsewhere, Houssay was fiercely patriotic and insisted on working in and for Argentina. Houssay and his disciples (including future Nobel winner Luis Leloir) gave Argentinean physiology international renown.

Reference: Cueto, Marcos. "Laboratory Styles in Argentine Physiology." In Isis, vol. 85, no. 2. (June, 1994), p. 228-246.

CITATION: B A Houssay. Collection of the Archivo General de la Nación, México.



Baruj Benacceraf, Venezuelan physiologist

Date: 1980
Owner: Newswise
Source Type: Images


Baruj Benacerraf (1920- ), won the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1980 for his discovery of immune response (Ir) genes that determine structures on the cell surface that allow the immune system to distinguish between self and non-self. He was born in Caracas, Venezuela, of Spanish and Jewish heritage, and spent much of his youth in France. He studied medicine in the United States and conducted his landmark studies in immunology and pathology while working at the New York University School of Medicine in the early 1960s.

Benacerraf realized that the dominant Ir genes in mammals determine whether or not the body's immune system will mistakenly attack something that it actually should be defending, processes known as autoimmune responses. This research was especially pertinent to understanding why transplants are either accepted or rejected by various persons. In 1970, Baruj Benacerraf was given the Chair of Pathology at the Harvard medical school and served as the president of the American Association of Immunologists (1973), president of the American Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine (1974), and president of the International Union of Immunological Societies (1980). He was also president of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the organization to which he donated his Nobel Prize money. His work has proven critical to the scientific understanding of various cancers and autoimmune diseases, like multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. To date, Benacerraf is the only Venezuelan to win a Nobel Prize.

CITATION: Baruj Benacerraf. Steve Gilbert for Newswise.



Dr. Cesar Milstein

Date: 10 Dec 1984
Owner: Tres Puntos
Source Type: Images


Cesar Milstein (1927-2002), an Argentine Jew, won the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine in 1984 for his theories about specificity in the immune system and discovering methods for the unlimited production of monoclonal antibodies. He was born in Bahia Blanca, Argentina, and completed a degree in chemical science before moving to England to earn his Ph.D. from Cambridge in 1960. Although he took a position in Argentina, he soon returned to Cambridge because liberal scientists and intellectuals were being persecuted by the Argentine government.

He decided to change the primary focus of his research from enzymes to antibodies and, in 1975, Milstein and his colleague Georges Kohler developed the hybridoma technique for producing monoclonal antibodies. By fusing cells that produce antibodies with tumor cells, they created immortal cells that continuously generated identical daughter cells also capable of producing antibodies. Hybridoma makes it possible to produce virtually infinite quantities of monoclonal antibodies with predetermined traits that can be used to make several medications.

CITATION: Dr. Cesar Milstein. Portrait originally published in Tres Puntos.



Dr. Mario Molina

Date: 11 Oct 1995
Owner: Heinz Awards
Source Type: Images


In 1995, Mario Molina (1943- ) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work concerning the depletion of ozone in the stratosphere. Born in Mexico City, Molina is the only Mexican to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences and one of only three Nobel laureates to hail from Mexico. After receiving his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, Molina became a post-doctoral fellow at UC Irvine, where, out of sheer curiosity, he began to study the effects of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, on the atmosphere. At the time, CFCs were not considered to be dangerous chemicals, yet Molina showed that CFCs were immune to removal in the troposphere (close to the earth's surface) but could decompose in the stratosphere, releasing dangerous chlorine atoms. It is these chlorine atoms that catalyze the destruction of the ozone layer, reducing the amount of reflected UV radiation from the sun. Shocked by his findings, Molina and F. Sherwood Rowland (his mentor with whom he shared the Nobel award) began a multi-year effort to inform both scientists and policy makers of the environmental danger posed by CFCs.

In 1989, Molina joined the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he and his wife, Dr. Luisa Tan Molina, continue to do research in atmospheric chemistry. Mario is currently working on methods for reducing urban air pollution, using his hometown of Mexico City as a case study. Luisa Tan recently received the Women in Science Recognition award for her work on global warming. 
CITATION: Dr. Mario Molina. Heinz Award for Environment Recipient press release.



Luis Federico Leloir

Date: 1970
Owner: Nobel Foundation
Source Type: Images


Argentinean chemist and medical doctor Luis Federico Leloir (1906-1987) won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1970 for discovering sugar nucleotides that synthesize carbohydrates in mammals. Born in Paris to Argentine parents, Leloir moved to Argentina when he was two and earned his MD from the University of Buenos Aires in 1932. After a few years practicing medicine at a hospital, he began working on the role of adrenaline carbohydrate metabolism at the Institute of Physiology under Bernardo Houssay (1947 Nobel Prize winner for Physiology or Medicine). In the early 1950s, Leloir was able to isolate the sugar nucleotides, naturally produced molecules that allow the body to store various sugars and then convert them into energy. Among other sugar nucleotides, he identified uridine diphosphate glucose, which donates glucose in order to synthesize sucrose, and adenosine diphosphate glucose, which synthesizes starch. Leloir served as president of the Pan-American Association of Bio-Chemical Studies and is the only Latin American scientist to be the sole recipient of the Nobel Prize in a given year.
CITATION: Luis F. Leloir. Copyright The Nobel Foundation.



Source References

Web Sites

Nobel Prize (Nobel Foundation)

Biblioteca Central Dr. Luis F. Leloir (Universidad de Buenos Aires)

BreakThrough (PBS)

Bernardo Alberto Houssay (Ariel Barrios Medina)


Benacerraf, Baruj. From Caracas to Stockholm: A Life in Medical Science. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998.

Benacerraf, Baruj. Texbook of Immunology. Philadelphia: Williams & Wilkins, 1979.

Burgan, Michael and Deborah Kent. Mario Molina: Chemist and Nobel Prize Winner. Chanassen, MN: Child's World, 2004.

Cereijido, Marcelino. La Nuca de Houssay: La Ciencia Argentina Entre Billiken y El Exilio. Los Angeles: Fondo de Cultura Economica USA, 1993. 

Cueto, Marcos. "Laboratory Styles in Argentine Physiology." Isis. 85: 2 (June 1994): 228-246.

Fenn, Mark E. and L.I. de Bauer, Tomas Hernandez-Tejeda. Urban Air Pollution and Forests: Resources at Risk in the Mexico City Air Basin. New York: Springer, 2002.

Guidici, Cynthia. Mario Molina. Chicago: Raintree, 2005.

Houssay, Bernardo A.  and Juan Lewis, Oscar Orias, Eduardo Braun Menendez, Enrique Hug, Virgilio Foglia, Luis F. Leloir. Fisiologia Humana. Buenos Aires: El Libreria Ateneo Editorial, 1952.

Houssay, Bernardo A. Escritos y discursos del Dr. Bernardo A. Houssay. Buenos Aires: Editorial Universitaria de Buenos Aires, 1989.

Houssay, Bernardo A. The role of the universities in face of the material and moral changes brought about in contemporary society by scientific and technological progress. Nice, France: International Universities Bureau, 1952.

Molina, Mario Alberto. Hemos Visto Su Gloria: Ensayo De Teologia De La Revelacion. Mexico, D.F.: Ediciones Paulinas, 2002.