Five Nobel Laureates Who Made Food History

These five Nobelists have made food safer or more available, or increased our knowledge of it

Brown rice
Brown rice Image courtesy of Flickr user ayayan.s

This year’s Nobel Prize winners were honored for, among other things, discovering that the universe is expanding at an accelerating pace; their work on women’s rights and peace-building in Liberia; and advances in the understanding of immunity. But in years past, a number of winners have been recognized for food-related achievements—making food safer, more available or just increasing our knowledge of it. Here are five notable cases:

1904: Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
Better known for his research with canines to explain conditioned responses—training dogs to salivate when they heard a sound they had come to associate with food—Pavlov won the Nobel for his earlier work on the digestive systems of mammals. Before he devised a way of observing the digestive organs of animals, there was only a limited understanding of how the stomach digests food.

1929: Christiaan Eijkman, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
Eijkman and his co-awardee, Sir Frederick Hopkins, were honored for discovering of the importance of vitamins in health and disease prevention. In the 1890s, Eijkman, of the Netherlands, studied the disease beriberi in the then–Dutch colony of Java, where he made the connection between a diet lacking rice bran (the bran had been removed to make the rice last longer) and high rates of beriberi. This was an important milestone in the eventual formation of the concept of vitamins, though the word itself wasn’t coined until 1911.

1945: Lord John Boyd Orr, Nobel Peace Prize
Orr, of Scotland, devoted much of his life to improving world nutrition and to the equitable distribution of food. After helping shape Britain’s wartime food policy, Orr became director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and tried, unsuccessfully, to establish a World Food Board in 1947. Two years later, by which time he had retired to a lucrative business career, his efforts were recognized by the Nobel committee.

1970: Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize
Possibly no one on this list had as great an effect on so many people as Borlaug, the American considered the father of the “Green Revolution” for his development of methods that vastly improved yields and disease-resistance in crops. Although some of his methods were later criticized for having a negative environmental impact, they greatly increased food security in poor countries such as India and Pakistan. The debate over how to balance environmental concerns with the food needs of a growing world population continues today.

1998: Amartya Sen, Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel
The prize in economic sciences is the only category to be added since the establishment of the Nobel prizes. It was first awarded in 1969. Sen, an Indian living in the United Kingdom, won in part for his study of the underlying economic causes of famine. In his 1981 Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Sen debunked the common notion that food shortage is the sole cause of famine, and his later work explored how to prevent or mitigate famine.

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