Who Was the First American Scientist to Win the Nobel Prize?

by Rita Kennedy Google
Arthur Compton's work on X-ray's earned him a Nobel Prize for Physics.

Arthur Compton's work on X-ray's earned him a Nobel Prize for Physics.

First awarded in 1901, the Nobel Prize recognizes international excellence in six different fields: physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, peace and economics. Between 1901 and 2013, the Nobel committee awarded a total of 561 Nobel Prizes. In the Prize’s early years, the vast majority of winners came from European backgrounds. It was not until 1933 that American-born scientists became recipients of the three major science prizes.


As early as 1907, Albert Michelson became the first American scientist to receive a Nobel Prize. His award was in the field of physics, for his work in optical physics and electro-magnetism, which involved inventing and utilizing precision instruments such as the interferometer, which measured the speed of light. Michelson had been born in Prussia but emigrated to the United States when he was just two years old. He went on to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy, and later worked at the University of Chicago and the Mount Wilson Observatory, Pasadena.


In 1914, a chemistry professor at Harvard University, Theodore W. Richards, became the second American scientist to receive a Nobel Prize, and the first to receive the award for chemistry. Richards's research examined ways of determining the atomic weight of elements, and by 1912 he had recalculated the weights of 30 important elements with much greater accuracy than had previously been possible. Richards also worked on molecular and atomic volume and published more than 300 research papers during his career.


The Nobel Prize for Medicine was the last to be awarded to an American. In 1933, Thomas Hunt Morgan received the prize for his work in genetics. He conducted experiments with fruit flies, breeding them to investigate how genes functioned during the reproductive process. This research, which involved analyzing millions of individual flies, led to the realization that genes within chromosomes are arranged in a linear pattern. In addition to this genetic work, Morgan also undertook research in embryology which determined that gravity played no important role in the development of a fertilized egg.

Most Famous American Winner?

Perhaps the most famous American Nobel winner was not an American citizen at the time of his award. German-born Albert Einstein received his award in 1922 for his ground-breaking work in theoretical physics, when he was working at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in Berlin. Einstein left Germany for political reasons in 1933, taking refuge in the United States. Einstein took American citizenship in 1940 and died in Princeton, N.J., in 1955.

About the Author

Rita Kennedy is a writer and researcher based in the United Kingdom. She began writing in 2002 and her work has appeared in several academic journals including "Memory Studies," the "Journal of Historical Geography" and the "Local Historian." She holds a Ph.D. in history and an honours degree in geography from the University of Ulster.

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