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Nobel Prizes for radiology

Last revised by Daniel J Bell on 17 Jan 2022

The Nobel Prizes have been awarded since 1901, and several have been won for scientific discoveries with a direct or indirect importance for the development of radiology

The Nobel Prizes were originally established in the will of Alfred Nobel (1833-1896), a very wealthy Swedish weapons manufacturer. Nobel was predeceased by his older brother Ludwig. When Ludwig died, several of the newspapers erroneously published obituaries for Alfred instead. Nobel was displeased to find himself described as a man who made his fortune by coming up with innovative methods to injure and kill people 1. Nobel died in 1896, and his will stipulated for the foundation of prizes to be awarded annually for important discoveries in science.

Approximately 25 individuals have been awarded the Nobel Prize for scientific discoveries that directly or indirectly advanced medical imaging 2:

  • Wilhelm C Roentgen (1901)
    • discovery of x-rays (Physics)
  • Henri BecquerelMarie Curie, Pierre Curie (1903) 
  • Marie Skłodowska Curie (1911)
    • radium and polonium (Chemistry)
  • Frederic Joliot and Irene Joliot-Curie (1935)
    • artificial radioactivity (Chemistry)
  • Ernest O Lawrence (1939) 
  • George De Hevesy (1943)
    • radioisotope tracers (Chemistry)
  • Otto Stern (1943)
    • magnetic moment of the proton (Physics)
  • Isidor I Rabi (1944)
  • Hermann J Muller (1946)
    • x-ray-induced genetic mutagenesis (Medicine or Physiology)
  • Edward Purcell and Felix Bloch (1952)
    • NMR in condensed matter (Physics)
  • Andre F Cournand, Werner Forssmann, Dickinson W Richards (1956) 
    • cardiac catheterization (Medicine or Physiology)
  • Allan M Cormack and Godfrey N Hounsfield (1979)
  • Nicolaas Bloembergen (1981)
    • NMR relaxation mechanisms (Physics)
  • Norman Ramsey (1989)
  • Richard R Ernst (1991)
    • NMR Fourier spectroscopy (Chemistry)
  • Georges Charpak (1992)
    • multiwire proportional chamber (Physics)
  • Paul C Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield (2003)
    • MRI (Medicine or Physiology)

Egas Moniz, a neurologist and one of the pioneers of interventional radiology, is now remembered primarily for his development of cerebral angiography. Ironically, however, he won the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology in 1949 for his invention of the - now very controversial and obsolete - prefrontal leucotomy.

The British physicist Sir Joseph Rotblat (1908-2005) 3, who performed important research on the biological effects of radiation, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 for his work on nuclear disarmament with the Pugwash conferences.

It is interesting to note that no radiologists have ever won a Nobel prize. However, Herbert Abrams (1920-2016), an American radiologist at Stanford University, was a co-founder of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 6

Indeed only two physicians appear in the above list: Werner Forssmann and Dickinson W Richards, for their co-development of cardiac catheterization.

The aim of the annual Ig Nobel Prizes is to "honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think." The "Igs" as the prizes are informally known were founded as a satirical take on the Nobel Prizes. They are handed out every October at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, often by real Nobel laureates 7

The Ig Nobel Prizes were founded in 1991 by Marc Abrahams, the then Editor of the Journal of Irreproducible Results. In 1994 Abrahams quit and became editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, the home of the Ig Nobels ever since. 

Brian Witcombe, a British radiologist, with Dan Meyer, a sword-swallower, won the Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2007 for their research on sword swallowing and its side effects. Witcombe is the only radiologist to have won an "Ig" 8,9.

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