Disproved Discoveries That Won Nobel Prizes

Disproved Discoveries That Won Nobel Prizes
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Over a million papers are published in scientific journals each year, and as Stanford University professor John Ioannidis wrote in a now legendary paper published to PLoS Medicine in 2005, most of their findings are false. Whether due to researcher error, insufficient data, poor methods, or the numerous biases present in people and pervasive in the ways research is conducted, a lot of scientific claims end up being incorrect.

So it should come as little surprise that Nobel Prize-winning discoveries are not immune to being wrong. Though marbleized in prestige, a number of them have been either disproved or lionized under mistaken pretenses.

PERHAPS THE MOST clear-cut example hearkens all the way back to 1926, when Johannes Fibiger won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for "for his discovery of the Spiroptera carcinoma." In layman's terms, he found a tiny parasitic worm that causes cancer. Subsequent research conducted in the decades following his receipt of the award would show that though the worm definitely existed, its cancer-causing abilities were entirely nonexistent. So where did Fibiger go wrong?

Though widely respected and considered to be a careful and cautious researcher, Fibiger fell victim to improper controls and inadequate technology. To elucidate his hypothesized connection between parasites and gastric cancer in rodents, he fed mice and rats cockroaches infested with parasitic worms and observed what he thought were tumors grow inside the rodents' stomachs. Later studies would show that they were not tumors but lesions likely caused by vitamin A deficiency, which resulted from a poor diet.

It's hard to fault Fibiger or the Nobel Committee too much for this blunder. At the time, cancer was much, much more of a mystery than it is today, and Fibiger worked tirelessly to solve it, exploring all sorts of hypotheses, not just those involving parasites.

Analyzing Fibiger's story in a 1992 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, Tamar Lasky and Paul D. Stolley were kind in their remembrance:

"We now know that gastric cancer is not caused by Spiroptera carcinoma, and the purported "discovery" of such a relation hardly seems worth a historical footnote, never mind a Nobel Prize. At the same time, it is quite touching to read the speech given by the Nobel Committee on presenting Fibiger with his award. They considered his work to be a beacon of light in the effort of science to seek the truth. Perhaps his work did serve to inspire other scientists to conduct more research and to persist along the path of human knowledge...

...Fibiger's story is worth recounting not only because it teaches us about pitfalls in scientific research and reasoning, but also because it may provide perverse solace for those of us who will never receive the Nobel Prize (but, of course, deserve it)."

THOUGH MOST STUDENTS of science wouldn't recall Johannes Fibiger; they would be well acquainted with Enrico Fermi. Credited with the creation of the first nuclear reactor in Chicago, Fermi etched his name into the history books of quantum theory, nuclear and particle physics, and statistical mechanics. He also won a Nobel Prize sort of by mistake.

Fermi won the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics "for his demonstrations of the existence of new radioactive elements produced by neutron irradiation, and for his related discovery of nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons." The catch, of course, was that he did not demonstrate the existence of new elements. When Fermi bombarded uranium atoms with slow-moving neutrons, and observed a process called beta decay, he thought he did, and even labeled the new elements he supposedly saw Ausonium and Hesperium. But what he actually and unknowingly accomplished was nuclear fission! The uranium atoms split to become lighter elements!

Considering that this was a big discovery, one that would eventually earn German scientist Otto Hahn the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, one can't really bemoan Fermi his Nobel Prize. Moreover, once he realized his mistake, he admitted it. Radioactive elements beyond uranium were actually created in 1940, beginning with element 93, Neptunium.

THE FIRST TIME a Nobel Prize was awarded jointly was in 1906. The prize in Physiology or Medicine went to both Camillo Golgi (pictured) and Santiago Ramón y Cajal "in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system". The decision was controversial, as the two men were bitter adversaries, both endorsing competing views about the structure of the nervous system. Golgi thought that the nervous system was a single continuous network, while Cajal proposed that the nervous system was composed of individually-acting, linked nerve cells, or neurons as he called them. Though many members of the Nobel Committee considered Cajal's work to be superior to Golgi's and likely the correct interpretation of how the nervous system functions, they ended up electing the diplomatic path and awarding the prize to both men.

Golgi, however, was decidedly undiplomatic during his Nobel lecture. In it, he directly attacked Cajal's theories, taking sophisticated swipes at his colleague throughout the presentation. Time would prove Cajal correct, however, and Golgi wrong.

THERE IS NOTHING wrong with being wrong, of course. The history of science is filled with incorrect ideas, far more than correct ones, in fact. The pursuit of knowledge follows a darkened path riddled with dead ends. That's why it's okay that science's top prize has occasionally been awarded for false claims.

(Imagse: AP, Wikimedia Commons, )

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