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Pesticides, Gas Attacks and Lobotomies: Nobel Committee's Biggest Blunders

© AP Photo / Fernando Vergara, FILENobel Prize medal
Nobel Prize medal - Sputnik International
It as a well-known fact that a Nobel Prize cannot be recalled, which is why the jury has to do a thorough job of picking its laureates. However, quite a number of historic mistakes have been made in the past which have greatly undermined the Nobel Prize award's reputation.

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On Friday, the Nobel Committee is all set to present this year's winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, who is to be selected among 376 candidates. In this connection, Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten has produced a list of five of the arguably biggest mistakes by the Nobel Committee, which in hindsight proved to miss the mark and tarnish the Nobel Prize award's status.

The most striking instance of such dubious decisions, obviously omitted by Aftenposten, is when US President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. The award's prestige was subsequently questioned: his pugnacious Democrat administration, which waged more wars than his Republican predecessor George Bush, failed to live up to Obama's peaceable rhetoric. However, there have been other historic errors in the history of the Nobel Prize.

Chemical Warfare

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German chemist Fritz Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for discovering how to produce ammonia nitrogen and hydrogen gases. The method was used to produce fertilizers, which led to great strides for agriculture worldwide.

However, the Nobel Committee failed to take into account Haber's role in chemical warfare during WWI. Haber was enthusiastic about Germany's military campaign, and played a major part the first major gas attack, which occurred in Ypres, Belgium in 1915. A total of 10,000 Allied soldiers were hit by the attack. Half of them died, while the rest suffered from temporary blindness.

Fake Cancer

Danish physician and pathology professor Johannes Fibiger received the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1926 for discovering that roundworm caused cancer in rats. According to Fibiger's research, rodents developed cancer by ingesting worm larvae when eating cockroaches.

Later it was found that cancer in rats was caused by a lack of vitamin A, whereas their diet of larvae turned out to be unimportant.

Dangerous Pesticides

Swiss chemist Paul Müller received the 1948 Nobel Prize in medicine for having discovered new usages of the DDT pesticide. The agent was claimed to be highly effective in eradicating flies, mosquitoes, beetles and other insects that could be potentially harmful to crops and transmit diseases such as malaria and typhus to humans. This use of DDT was claimed to have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and led the eradication of malaria in southern Europe.

However, environmentalists in the 1960s found that DDT poisoned wildlife and environment. Later, a worldwide ban on agricultural use was formalized under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.


Portuguese doctor António Egas Moniz was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize in medicine for developing lobotomy as a surgical treatment for mental disorders.

Lobotomies were widely practiced in psychiatric therapy in the 1940s, with tens of thousands of operations being performed yearly. Following the introduction of antipsychotic medications in the mid-1950s, lobotomies were quickly and almost completely abandoned.

​This largely controversial method, which involves cutting or scraping away most of the connections to and from the prefrontal cortex in the frontal lobes of the brain, proved to have severe side-effects, with patients suffering from serious brain injuries. Today, lobotomies are practiced very seldomly.

Ignoring the Worthy

Indian politician and philosopher Mahatma Gandhi is considered some of the world's foremost advocates of non-violence, an idea which he took as a clue from Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. Despite being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times, Gandhi never won.

The Nobel Committee, which is not in the habit of acknowledging its mistakes, later admitted that not awarding Gandhi clearly was an omission. In 1989, when the Dalai Lama was awarded the prize, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee Egil Aarvik said that the prize should also be seen as a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi.

​In 1895, Alfred Nobel signed his last will and testament, giving the largest share of his fortune to a series of prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace, which later became known as the Nobel Prizes. 

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