The Nobel Prize is likely the most famous non-sporting award in the world. Each year, internationally renowned scholars, authors, and activists are honoured for their achievements in six different categories: physics, chemistry, physiology/medicine, literature, peace, and economics. Chosen by committees based in Sweden and Norway, the first five prizes have been awarded since 1901; the economics prize since 1968. As multiple people and/or organisations may share the prize each year, a total of 853 prizes have been awarded to date.
Despite its long and storied history, the scientific focus of most of the prizes meant that for most of the prizes’ early history, Nobel laureates tended to come exclusively from Europe and the United States, the homes of the most prominent and well-endowed universities and pre-World War II research facilities. Even today, there remains a disproportionate amount of winners from Western countries in the scientific prizes, while the most famous of the prizes, the Nobel Peace Prize and the prize in literature, tend to have wider ranges of distribution. But how widely distributed are they, really? Have other countries begun to make up ground on Europe and the US when it comes to receiving prizes?
To answer this question, we’ve mapped the distribution of all six prizes, as well as the overall total of Nobel laureates, from around the world since 1901. For those laureates holding dual or multiple citizenships, the country their work or residence is most associated with at the time of their award as listed on the laureates’ respective biographies on the Nobel Prize website is used.
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With the physics prize, we see a trend emerging that will carry through the other science and economic prizes: a disproportionate number of awards for the United States. 84 physics prizes have gone to US-based researchers with Germany and the United Kingdom far behind in second and third with 23 and 22, respectively. Only one other country, France, is even in double-digits. Only eight awards (Japan six, India one, and Hong Kong one) have been awarded to physicists based in non-Western countries (the award shown for Azerbaijan was given during the Soviet era to a researcher working out of Moscow), although a fair number have been awarded to academics born in Asia but long based elsewhere.
The disparity is not quite as large for the chemistry prize (US 70, Germany 27, UK 26), although American/European domination of the award is just as prevalent. An interesting outlier is Israel, which places in a tie for eighth with four chemistry laureates.
Of the 199 prizes in physiology or medicine, nearly half (95) have gone to US researchers, followed by the UK (25), Germany (13), and France (12). These four countries constitute the top four placing in all three science categories. There is a slightly more international flavour in the physiology or medicine category, with Switzerland (9) and Australia (6) placing in the top six, as well as three prizes awarded in South America (Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela).
The second most evenly-distributed prize by country is the prize in literature. Although the same four countries occupy the top four spots, the margin between them and other countries is small. France leads with 15, followed by the US (11), the UK (10), and Germany in a joint fourth with Sweden at eight. Authors representing 33 separate countries have the prize over the years, the most of any category. The only countries outside of Europe and North America with multiple literature laureates, however, are Chile, Japan, and South Africa. The literature prize is the only prize to have been awarded thus far to people from either Colombia or Turkey.
The most famous prize of all, the Nobel Peace Prize is the lone Nobel Prize to be awarded from Norway rather than Sweden. Although representatives from 39 countries have won the award since 1901 (more than any other of the prizes), once again the first three countries by win total are the US (21), the UK (13), and France (11). Most of the British and French wins, however, come from the first 70 years of the award’s existence; only once before 1973 was the prize awarded to someone outside of Europe or North America (Argentina’s Carlos Saavedra Lamas in 1936). The past four decades have seen a rather diverse roster of countries represented; the award would reach Asia in 1973 (North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho in 1973, who declined the award), Africa in 1979 (Egypt’s Anwar Al-Sadat), and Oceania in 1999 (East Timor’s Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and José Ramos-Horta).
The only award added to the Nobel Prize roster since 1901, the economics prize has been thoroughly dominated by the United States with an astounding 49 of 69 prizes going to US-based economists. The United Kingdom is a very distant second with six; Norway is the only other country with even three. Although four non-North Americans/non-Europeans have won, the prize, only once has the award gone to an economist not based on either of those continents at the time of the award.
Total Nobel Laureates by Country
In total, 330 of the 853 prizes have been awarded to persons or groups based in the United States, followed by the United Kingdom (102), Germany (74), and France (59). Rounding out the top ten are Sweden (29), Switzerland (25), Russia (18), the Netherlands (17), Italy (16), and Japan, the top (entirely) Asian country with 15. Israel is the only Middle Eastern country in double digits (11). Australia leads Oceania with nine (East Timor is the only other country of Oceania to even garner a prize), South Africa leads Africa with seven, and Argentina leads Latin America with five. In total, 56 countries and territories (or 57, depending on how you view the status of Hong Kong) have been home to Nobel Prize laureates.
Nobel Media AB (2012). Nobelprize.org. Available at http://www.nobelprize.org/. Accessed 31 July 2012.