15 Questions and Answers about the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Göran K. Hansson, Secretary of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine 2009-2014, answers frequently asked questions about the Medicine Prize.

How do you work to select a new Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine?
We invite experts around the world to nominate candidates for the Nobel Prize. They include former Nobel Laureates, professors of medicine at universities on all continents (except Antarctic), academy members, and others. This year (2013), we received 380 nominations.
More about the nomination process

Who selects the Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine?

The decision is made by the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet, which consists of 50 professors working at the Institute. The Assembly itself is legally independent of Karolinska Institutet but we have our home on the Karolinska Campus. All the evaluations are made by the Nobel Committee, which is elected by the Nobel Assembly, and with the assistance of external experts who prepare reports on the top candidates.
The Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine

Can you choose anyone for the Medicine Prize?
The award goes for discovery, therefore you must be a discoverer. Apart from that, there are no limitations. You can work anywhere and you need not have any particular academic degree.

How do you know if a person deserves to be awarded a Medicine Prize? Do you always agree? What happens if you do not agree? 
We live in a time when many great discoveries are made and many great discoverers are nominated for the Nobel Prize. Our biggest problem is to chose among all the highly qualified candidates. The one who is finally awarded the Prize has made a discovery that has changed the paradigm in an area of physiology or medicine, one who has changed our understanding of life or the practice of medicine.

At the start of our discussions, we never agree, but we often reach consensus when we have evaluated and discussed all the candidates in depth.

In the end, the Nobel Assembly votes by ballot to decide who will receive the Prize. This year, the decision is made on October 7th at 9 AM at Nobel Forum, our office building on the Karolinska Institutet Campus.

Can you mention a Medicine Prize when you haven’t agreed?
Our statues do not allow me to reveal our discussions.
Statutes of the Nobel Foundation

How do you define if an awarded work falls within the categories considered for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and not within the Nobel Prize in Chemistry?
There are many borderline cases and some scientists are actually nominated both in Chemistry and Medicine. We meet regularly with the Nobel Committee for Chemistry to handle these cases.

Is it difficult to limit the number of Laureates to three when research is done more and more in bigger international groups?
Yes, it can be difficult but we work hard to identify the real discoverers within an institution. After all, discoveries are made by individuals and not by organizations. In a time when organizations and institutions become increasingly important and powerful, it is even more important to identify the creative individuals who change the world.

Do you foresee an increase in the number of women awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in the future?
Yes, and this has already started. During the last 10 years (2003-2012), 4 women received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, but only one during the preceding 10 years (1992-2002). As more and more women enter science and medicine, I am sure we will see more female Nobel Laureates.
All Nobel Prize awarded women

Which research area has been awarded most often? Why?
DNA and molecular biology. Watson and Crick’s discovery of the DNA structure (Nobel Prize 1962) started a revolution in life science. In the first half of the previous century, research on infections was probably the most awarded area.
The 1962 Medicine Prize

What Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been most criticized?
The 1949 Nobel Prize to Moniz for lobotomy has been much criticized. At the time, it appeared to be a great step forward in psychiatry but the side effects soon became apparent.
Article: Controversial Psychosurgery Resulted in a Nobel Prize

What Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been most popular?
Probably the 1945 Nobel Prize to Fleming, Chain and Florey for the discovery of penicillin.
The 1945 Medicine Prize

Do you regret selecting any of the Medicine Prizes over the years? 
No comments.

Can a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine be revoked?

Why do you keep everything about the Medicine Prizes secret for 50 years?
We are bound to keep silent by the statutes of the Nobel Foundation.

What do you think the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine means today? What do you think it will mean in the future?
It is by far the most prestigious prize for medical research. And I think it will remain so for the foreseeable future.