Discovery or Reputation? Jacques Loeb and the Role of Nomination Networks

in Attributing Excellence in Medicine

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A 2015 contribution to the Journal of the American Medical Association (jama) raised the question of why American Nobel Laureates outnumber those of any other nativity.1 Times are changing. About 100 years ago, when the Prize was quite new, the same journal asked why only European scientists were acknowledged.2 At that time, U.S. medical journals praised the Nobel Prize as ‘the ideal method of encouraging the best scientific research’3 and used it as a yardstick for other medical honours. Commentators repeatedly bemoaned that American research ‘of fundamental importance’4 had been disregarded. Whether for the prize money (corresponding to about one million usd) or the international competition in science and medicine, the Prize was perceived as a coveted trophy right from its inception.5

It is not as if Americans did not nominate domestic candidates. In fact, jama even published calls to name Walter Reed and James Carrol for their investigations into yellow fever.6 However, another American candidate would eventually come to play a larger role in the nomination cycle. The physiologist Jacques Loeb (1859–1924) was, according to the Nomination Database of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine, nominated 78 times between 1901 and his death,7 which makes him one of the most nominated scholars in the first half of the 20th century.8 Nevertheless, Loeb was, as Robert Merton phrased it in his classical paper on the Matthew effect, an occupant of the ‘41st chair’.9

In 1951, the former Secretary of the Nobel Committee, pharmacologist Göran Liljestrand, gave a short explanation as to why Loeb (according to his opinion) never made it. He wrote that ‘the examiners […] remained unconvinced as to […] [the] scope and general significance’ of his work. On the other hand, he stressed that ‘between 1901 and 1924, Loeb was proposed for a Nobel Prize by about a hundred sponsors in ten different countries’.10

One should bear in mind that the sheer number of Nobel Prize nominations gives a first hint of a researcher’s worldwide reputation and recognition. Furthermore, a substantial amount of nominations might even increase the chances to be awarded. The early American Nobel complaints in jama, Merton’s Matthew effect and Liljestrand’s remark on the number of nominees reflect a common idea about why certain scientists receive the Prize for Physiology or Medicine and others do not: the final selection depends on networks of nominees. The underlying hypothesis is that because science is not just a cognitive activity but also a social endeavour, the effects of social processes in prize politics need to be examined to understand why research is considered prize-worthy or why the contribution of a scientist remains disputed.

In our chapter, we will address this hypothesis using the example of Jacques Loeb and his nominations. We will ask who nominated him and for what reason and describe some of the links that connected the nominators with Loeb. Additionally, we will examine how the Nobel committee’s referees evaluated the nominations. A Loeb case study is particularly suitable for such an investigation not only because of the rich archival files on him but first and foremost because it highlights disciplinary conflicts (struggles in the grey areas between morphology, chemistry, biology and experimental physiology) and scientific priority disputes in the first two decades of the 20th century.11 From a historical perspective, it is unusual for a candidate to be awarded after only a few nominations. Normally, the Nobel committee watched their front-runners for several years before making a decision (see the chapter by Fabio De Sio et al. on Nobel laureate John C. Eccles in this volume). During the years in which Loeb had been nominated, some requirements were repeatedly stressed in evaluative reports following a first selection of him as a potential candidate (see Introduction). It should be a fresh discovery, and it should have potential to open up new scientific avenues of research. It was also crucial that the discovery in question be verified by the scientific community and that issues of priority were settled.

We will analyse whether the nominators addressed these points and we will reconstruct Loeb’s nomination network. Loeb was a disputatious character who fought for his scientific convictions in a polemical manner. At the same time, he had powerful supporters and friends. An analysis of his Nobel nominations will offer a better understanding for how reputable his research really was among medical scientists. With the help of this case, we come to some conclusions regarding the value of nomination networks for understanding the intellectual and social organisation or the reputational system of the Nobel Prize.12


The starting point of our analysis is the material on Loeb in the Archive of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine, which includes nomination dossiers as well as four reports by members of the Nobel Committee written in 1906, 1909 and two in 1917. Most of the nominations are written in English or German, and all evaluations in Swedish. The original documents are not accessible – only copies which have been transcribed by Swedish staff of the Nobel Committee and bound together in yearbooks. Therefore, we cannot investigate marginalia or corrections. Nevertheless, we get as close as possible to the decisions of the Nobel Committee.

The Swedish historian Franz Luttenberger was one of the first scholars to explore the Nobel Archive for Physiology or Medicine.13 He focused on files concerning Svante Arrhenius, Paul Ehrlich, Emil von Behring and Émile Roux. His work is of particular interest for this study since the formal statutes in the Nobel Committee of the early 20th century concern Loeb as well: the International Nominating System, the Nobel Committee and evaluative reports. At the beginning of the century every year, all professors of medicine in Scandinavia were invited to nominate a scholar for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. This right was also enjoyed by the Faculty members of the Karolinska Institute, and a few leading universities and scientific associations. The job of the Nobel Committee consisted of agreeing on one candidate mentioned in the nominations, whom they proposed to the Faculty. As a basis, the committee first agreed on a shortlist with usually five to fifteen candidates. In order for the Nobel Committee to get a nuanced view of Loeb’s work, experts discussed the statements of the nominators and the strengths and weakness of his methods. However, Loeb’s research was also brought up in Nobel Committee reports about other scholars, such as the one on surgeon Alexis Carrel in 1912.14 In the discussion over Carrel’s experiments with tissue culture, competitors like Loeb and Ross Granville Harrison (1870–1959) played a part. These reports offer a mediated perspective on how Loeb’s achievements were interpreted during these years.

Jacques Loeb and the Nobel Prize

Jacques Loeb was born in Germany and educated as a physiologist.15 After completing his studies in medicine, he worked as an assistant of Nathan Zuntz in Berlin (1885), Adolf Fick in Würzburg (1886–1888) and Friedrich Goltz in Straßburg (1888–1891). In 1891, he emigrated to the United States. In letters to Ernst Mach and other colleagues and friends, he attributed his emigration to the rigid hierarchical structures of German universities and the anti-Semitism in German academia which made it difficult for him to find a permanent appointment.16 In the United States, he held positions at Bryn Mawr, Chicago (1882), Berkeley (1902) and finally at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (1910), which offered a unique and innovative research atmosphere.17 During his scientific life, Loeb developed his own research programme of ‘general physiology’ directed at investigating life phenomena by reducing them to the laws of physics and chemistry. Furthermore, he intended to apply these laws in order to synthesise living matter – ‘that is, to form new combinations from the elements of living nature, just as the physicist and chemist form new combinations from the elements of non-living nature’.18 The construction of life meant for him fully understanding its underlying processes. Based on a quantitative, experimental approach to biology,19 he followed an ideal that Philip Pauly referred to as Loeb’s ‘engineering standpoint’.20

Loeb gained world-wide recognition for his research on tropisms (induced conduct) in the animal kingdom and for studies on directed regeneration and heteromorphosis during the 1880s and 1890s, but he became a real science celebrity21 or a ‘visible scientist’22 after having succeeded in inducing development in sea urchin eggs without sperm in 1899. He called this process artificial parthenogenesis.23 Although Loeb did research on such different fields as brain physiology, regeneration, antagonistic salt actions, duration of life, proteins and colloidal behaviour, his work on artificial parthenogenesis had the most sustainable legacy. As Liljestrand recalls, most of the nominators for the Nobel Prize ‘particularly stressed’ these works.24 Newspapers and magazines like the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Cosmopolitan reported on him and his ‘chemical creation of life’.25 The Viennese physicist Ludwig Boltzmann joked in his 1905 travelling reports from the United States of America on how he embarrassed young women with Loeb’s findings over dinner.26 Other scientists, like Wilhelm Roux, again commented carefully on the exaggerated press reports.27

After the turn of the century, Jacques Loeb was a well-known and highly reputed representative of physiology. Scientists from all over the world visited his laboratories while he was at Berkeley (among them eminent scientists from various disciplines, like Hugo de Vries, Ludwig Boltzmann, Ernest Rutherford and Nathan Zuntz). Loeb was under consideration by colleagues for chairs in Halle, Berlin and Budapest before he took a prestigious position at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (rimr) in 1910. In 1909 he received honorary doctorates from Cambridge, Geneva and Leipzig. By 1914 he had become an honorary member in numerous international scientific societies. He was in correspondence with laureates like Svante Arrhenius (Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1903), Paul Ehrlich (Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1908), and, until the beginning of the First World War, a friend of Wilhelm Ostwald (Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1909), whose son Wolfgang worked in Loeb’s laboratory between 1904 and 1906.28 All in all, due to his artificial parthenogenesis experiment, Loeb had reached a popularity peak when the first Nobel Prize was to be announced in December 1901. Additionally, he was to increase his scientific symbolic capital during the next years. The question persists: why didn’t the nominations between 1901 and 1924 bear fruit?


Alfred Nobel had stipulated that the Prize should reflect research that had been presented during the ‘preceding year’, and the fortunate timing of Loeb’s publication on artificial parthenogenesis might be a factor as to why Loeb was the only US-based nominee for the first Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He was put forward by two sponsors, the Johns Hopkins embryologist and anatomist Franklin P. Mall and the Harvard psychologist Hugo Münsterberg. Mall directly referred to Loeb’s discovery of artificial parthenogenesis. Münsterberg declared in a detailed nomination that Loeb was the only person who had deserved the Prize because his works were the only ones that contributed visionary new perspectives to physiology. However, Münsterberg did not concentrate on artificial parthenogenesis alone, but delivered a whole bibliography, which he categorised in works related to the chemical effects of electricity, to the effects of ions, to oxidation in the cell, to development and to the central nervous system. He compared Loeb’s contributions to those of Hermann von Helmholtz, Robert Koch, Wilhelm Wundt, Charles Richet and Rudolf Virchow, but stressed that Loeb’s works were much more recent and that he would consider it an awkward solution if one of the other famous gentlemen were to get the Prize for work which belongs to the past. Additionally, Münsterberg weaved an international aspect into his nomination. Referring to Loeb’s emigration from Germany, which he in part explained by referring to controversies Loeb had had within the German scientific community, he argued that awarding Loeb would show younger scholars that it might be worthwhile to rise against the mainstream of research and the narrowmindedness of regional scientific cliques. When Loeb, under pressure, had to leave Germany, this narrow-minded republic of scholars (‘kleinliche Gelehrtenrepublik’) had scored a victory. Now the Nobel committee had the chance of proving that it could serve as a scientific clearing board. Awarding Loeb would be a statement that scientific ideas were more powerful than a German clique. Consequently, he wrote, a Prize for Loeb would do science a service, even more so since a German prize awarded to Loeb by the Senckenberg Institute in Frankfurt could not be accepted by him because this could only be accepted by German citizens. Besides arguments based on Loeb’s works, he indirectly put forward the argument of internationalism in science as a criterion for his nomination.

The Nobel committee did not follow Münsterberg’s advice, perhaps due to the strong emphasis on European scientists in the other nominations. A review of the nomination letters for 1901 reveals that the Prize was not international in practice. For example, eleven scholars from Germany, six from Austria and three from Sweden were proposed. In the end, the German physiologist Emil von Behring was chosen for his work on serum therapy and its application against diphtheria.29

Loeb’s sponsors did not surrender. Over the following two decades, further nominations were sent to Stockholm, primarily by American scientists. John Auer argued in 1913 that Loeb had unravelled ‘the mechanisms of Life’, and Loeb’s director at the rimr Simon Flexner proposed him eight times between 1913 and 1922. His colleagues at the rimr – Phoebus Levene, Samuel J. Meltzer and Alexis Carrel – also sent nomination letters to Stockholm. Close friends, former colleagues and relatives nominated him as well. Loeb received nominations, for example, in 1902 by the physiologist Justus Gaule from Zurich, who was married to the older sister of Loeb’s wife, and in 1909 and 1912 by his former co-assistant in Friedrich Goltz’s laboratory Alexander Koranyi, with whom he stayed in rather close contact during these years.30 Another nominator who had been working with Loeb in Goltz’s laboratory was Ernst Julius Richard Ewald, who nominated him twice.

According to the Nobel prize database, Loeb received 78 nominations from 54 scientists from eight countries over the following years.31 The database lists nominators, nominees, the year of the nomination, the affiliation of nominee and nominator and a summarising account of the reason for the proposal. Surely, the database has its limitations in its reduction and some minor mistakes. Nevertheless, its value for a summary account is unquestioned. In addition to the database, we analysed most of the nominations in the Nobel Archives. According to the database, Loeb received 29 nominations from the usa, 13 from Germany, 11 from France and 11 from the Austrian-Hungarian Kingdom. A further 4 were from Italy, another 4 from Russia (including Estonia, Russia at that time), 3 from Belgium and 3 from Switzerland.

A further 17 nominations, however, are not listed in the database. They belong to the so-called Group vii in the nomination files of the Nobel Archives. These are nominations which reached the Nobel committee after the closing date for nominations on the 31st of January. Often these nominations were only a couple of days too late.32 They are also kept in the Nomination files. The US-American chemist Julius Stieglitz in 1917 gave as a reason for the delayed transfer of reprints of Loeb’s works that he needed consent from the British embassy. Giving this reason, he ‘trust[ed] that this delay will not invalidate Dr. Loeb’s candidacy, especially in view of the extraordinary’ war conditions.33 Some other nominators explicitly referred to these excluded nominations, when they were asked again during the following years to submit a nomination. Alexis Carrel, for example, in a nomination from 1922 referred to a complete selection of reprints of Loeb’s works, which he had sent in 1921 in a nomination, which ended up in Group vii. As the nominations were filed and nominators referred to them, Group vii nominations most probably found their way to the Nobel committee and were considered. Therefore, we included these 17 nominations and 4 additional nominators in the following analysis.34

Most of the nominations for Loeb were sent to Stockholm between 1909 and 1914. During the War, the number of nominations decreased substantially.35 From 1915 to 1918, in general, fewer nominations for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine were submitted.36 According to Liljestrand, this was due to the ‘extreme confusion that prevailed throughout Europe’37 as a consequence of the First World War. After the War, the number began to rise again (Figure 5.1).

Figure 5.1
Figure 5.1

Nomination(s) for Loeb per year

Loeb received most of his nominations from the usa. Especially after the war, the US-share increased to over 50% (Figure 5.2).

Figure 5.2
Figure 5.2

Nominations by countries

Most nominations for Loeb referred to his work on artificial parthenogenesis. In addition, his works on tropism and his works on colloidal behaviour are mentioned as prize-worthy (Table 5.1). Some simply state that no motivation is necessary, because his works were ‘pathbreaking’ (Julius Richard Ewald in 1914), everybody knew Loeb’s work (Franz Hofmeister in 1915) or they nominated him for all the work he had done.


The length of the nominations varies substantially. Some, like Münsterberg’s from 1901 or Ladislaus von Udranszky’s from 1912 and 1913 (almost the same text in both years), are several pages long and include a long list of literature. Others are just one sentence, which is repeated over the years, if a nominator was asked for a nomination again. Phoebus Levene, for example, in 1914 just wrote: ‘In reply to your letter of Sept 1913 I wish to nominate as candidate for the year 1914 Doctor Jacques Loeb for his work on artificial fertilisation. Very respectfully…’. He repeated this sentence twice, once in a nomination for 1919, and for the year 1920.38

Altogether, 58 colleagues proposed Loeb to the Nobel committee. Some were able to do so more than once (Table 5.2). Most often, Loeb was suggested as a single candidate, but not always. Albrecht Bethe (another of Goltz’ assistants), for example, in his nomination from 1923 listed almost a dozen names, and Charles Richet nominated Loeb together with Maurice Arthus, (1921, 1922), Charles Sherrington (1921, 1922), Yves Delage (1915) and Hartog J. Hamburger (1921).


Loeb knew most of his nominators personally, either as former colleagues and friends (see Koranyi and Gaule above, Stieglitz in Chicago), as mentors (for example Nathan Zuntz) or as alumni at the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research (for example Simon Flexner, Alexis Carell, Phoebus Levene, Samuel Meltzer, John Auer). Existing connections with Julius Richard Ewald, for example, were intensified just before Ewald’s second nomination in 1914 when Ewald’s nephew Wolfgang Felix – via his uncle – was able to become Loeb’s assistant in 1912.39 Ewald had been Friedrich Goltz’s assistant and deputy when Loeb worked in Strassburg during the late 1880s with Goltz. Whereas the two had difficulties with each other during these years – at least from Loeb’s side –40 it seems that this did not affect Ewald’s evaluation of Loeb negatively.

We do not know whether Loeb activated this network of colleagues in order to be nominated, however, in a contemporary comment, Jöns Johansson, who was asked to review Loeb’s candidacy, noticed the relatively high number of nominations, some of which were received at the same time. Besides the attention for Loeb’s work, Johansson attributed this phenomenon to ‘advertisement’ (‘reklam’) that had been made in favor of Loeb.41 It remains unclear whether Johansson is alluding to the press reports on the artificial parthenogenesis experiment or to an advertisement for nominating Loeb within the scientific community. Simultaneously, Loeb also had colleagues to whom he had a close relationship who did not nominate him, although they had the chance of doing so. Wilhelm Roux, for example, who considered Loeb to be a close ally for his own research programme and who supported him on other occasions, never nominated him, although he had been invited to put forward a Nobel candidate.42

Evaluations by the Nobel Committee

The yearbooks in the Nobel Archive show that Loeb was considered a strong candidate. The Nobel committee completed four special investigations (1906, 1909, and two in 1917) by four different evaluators to determine his eligibility. The candidates on the shortlist were assessed, a process that was usually conducted by a member of the Nobel Committee and consisted of a description and evaluation of their research in question. Some reviewers also discussed the candidate’s role in the scientific community by elucidating his or her competitors. Loeb’s studies were analysed by a histologist in 1906 (Emil Holmgren) and a pharmacologist in 1909 (Karl Mörner). In 1917 two statements of a physiologist (Jöns Johansson) and an anatomist (Erik Müller) can be found in the files for the same year – a rare case.

1906 Evaluation by E. Holmgren

In 1906, Loeb received only one nomination together with Ernest Overton by Justus Gaule, for his work on artificial parthenogenesis and heterogeneous hybridisation. Gaule also mentioned a previous nomination and stated that Loeb deserved the Prize now even more than four years before. In the same year, Loeb’s German counterpart Max Verworn was also nominated by the pathologist Johannes Orth for his work on general physiology. Loeb and Verworn had at the beginning of their careers worked on similar topics, but later began to differ in research style and questions. Above all, Verworn disregarded Loeb’s radical mechanistic standpoint while Loeb accused Verworn of an unsound holistic standpoint based on methods of comparative, descriptive morphology. Both were part of a larger scientific dispute among biologists who on the one hand considered themselves to represent a new kind of experimental biology (epitomised in characters like the founder of developmental mechanics Wilhelm Roux), as opposed to on the other hand traditional morphology.43 Additionally, Loeb and Verworn saw themselves both as entrepreneurs of a new general physiology – Loeb concentrating on chemistry and mechanism, Verworn concentrating on the organic cell and conditionalism. They competed for influence in the same scientific arena, separated only by the Atlantic Ocean.

In that year Verworn did not make it to the shortlist.44 Nevertheless, the ‘morphologists’ (as Loeb called them in his correspondence and books) represented by Verworn and Oscar and Richard Hertwig indirectly played a role against Loeb in the 1906 report. The first Nobel Committee report on Loeb was written in 1906 by the histologist Emil Holmgren, with a focus on artificial parthenogenesis.45 According to Holmgren, Loeb’s research on this matter was not really original, since other scholars before him had succeeded, through modifications of seawater, in affecting both fertilised and unfertilised eggs of the sea urchins and their further development. In the introduction of his 13-page report, Holmgren listed a few predecessors in this field, such as Oscar Hertwig, Éduard van Beneden, Eduard Strasburger, Theodor Boveri, Wilhelm Pfitzner, Friedrich Weismann, Samuel Steen Maxwell, as well as ‘Richard Hertwig[,] […] the first one to demonstrate unquestionable divisions of unfertilized eggs triggered by changes in the medium’s chemical composition’. Holmgren appreciated that Loeb could drive unfertilised egg cells to division. However, the conclusions of this research were, in Holmgren’s view, far-fetched and illusionary, only acknowledged by scientists far away from ‘biological research branches’:

It is ridiculous to believe that an exclusively biological process like fertilization would only rely on physical-chemical processes. […] How can Loeb argue, that fertilization only is a physical-chemical process?

Not surprisingly, Holmgren concluded that he could not recommend Loeb for the Nobel Prize. The debate he referred to had been triggered by Oscar Hertwig, when he in 1905 denied the importance of Loeb’s work. For Hertwig the union of the egg’s and the sperm’s nuclear substances was the essential element in fertilisation. For Loeb this was a misunderstanding of the process itself which he attributed to the actions of ions. For several years, the two of them fought a public dispute. A few years later, on 6 January 1911, Holmgren nominated Oscar Hertwig, who had rather strong scientific ties to Sweden for his work on fertilisation. Hertwig was elected fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1903 and he received an honorary doctorate at the University of Uppsala in 1907.46 As an argument, Holmgren described Loeb as ‘significantly inferior’ to Hertwig. Loeb had clearly belonged to the wrong network in this case. From Loeb’s perspective, Holmgren was – as a supporter of Hertwig – a very unfortunate reviewer.

1909 Evaluation by K. Mörner

The physiologist Mörner had a more positive tone in his 1909 report. That year, Loeb’s nominations had reached a peak of ten. Loeb had just published a summarising book on his artificial parthenogenesis in German.47 Furthermore, he had received a call to the university of Budapest – publicly discussed in various media:48 Emile de Grosz (no motivation), Felix Mesnil (who nominated Loeb together with Émile Roux for work on tropism, artificial parthenogenesis and the antagonistic action of salts), Albert A. Michelson (artificial parthenogenesis, heterogeneous hybridization), Ivan Pavlov (artificial parthenogenesis, tropism, dynamics of living matter), August Rauber (together with Theodor Boveri and August Weismann for the chemistry of fertilization), Alexander Smith (physiology), Julius Stieglitz (artificial parthenogenesis, heterogeneous hybridization), Franz Tangl (artificial parthenogenesis), August von Wassermann (artificial parthenogenesis, chemistry of fertilization) and – in group vii – Alexander Koranyi (artificial parthenogenesis).

According to reviewer Mörner, Loeb’s research activities had, over decades, been original, including his theories on artificial parthenogenesis. As for the latter however, Mörner was unsure whether Loeb was the first one to relate haemolysis, parthenogenesis and cytolysis. Mörner raised a priority question referring to a speech held the very same year, in 1909, by Svante Arrhenius in the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. In that speech, Arrhenius supposedly had stated that he had written a letter to Loeb and informed him of the supposed relation. However, Loeb states that he got the idea in 1904 when he tried to figure out why membrane cultivation did not take place at his original method of ‘artificial parthenogenesis’.50

As for the question of whether Loeb was prize-worthy, Mörner wrote that it had been correct not to consider him for the 1901 Prize, but, as Mörner put it: ‘a very significant change has taken place since then… His investigations are of great interest for our understanding of the development of the egg and of the fertilization’. Although Mörner felt that Loeb’s ideas were ‘tempting and spiritual’, he did not give Loeb a full recommendation for two reasons. First, he thought that Loeb’s theories needed to stand on a more solid ground. Second, he wrote that one should await the development of the ‘individuals’, who had been created by artificial parthenogenesis and that it would be of great importance to find out if his findings on sea-urchins also may apply to mammals.

At that time, Loeb’s work on egg development was still controversial. And again, the Hertwig brothers stood in the way: ‘Without any doubt, he has many admirers, and some of them are men with scientific authority’.51 But, he also had, according to Mörner, opponents mostly among the morphologists. Mörner also reported the most recent critics against Loeb formulated by Oscar Hertwig in his study Der Kampf um Kernfragen der Entwicklung und Vererbungslehre.52 Nevertheless, Mörner was not convinced that there really existed a substantial difference between Loeb’s experimental approach, which he shared with developmental mechanics like Wilhelm Roux,53 and methods fostered by, for example, the Hertwigs. In Mörner’s opinion, the controversies could be explained by the fact that researchers tend to view their own methods as the most meaningful ones. Thus, both sides in that quarrel were ‘somewhat one-sided’. Due to these quarrels, however, Mörner concluded not to propose Loeb for a Nobel Prize: ‘Although I do not agree with Hertwig on this matter, I find it not yet reasonable to recommend Loeb for the Nobel Prize’.54

1917 Evaluation 1 by J. Johansson and Evaluation 2 by E. Müller

In 1917, the last time Loeb was considered for a report, he had been proposed by two colleagues from the rimr. One short nomination was brought forward by the institute’s director Simon Flexner, who stressed Loeb’s work in the broad field of experimental biology. The other was from the biochemist Phoebus Levene, who singled out artificial parthenogenesis. A little bit too late (on the 3rd of February) a third nomination by the German serologist August von Wassermann reached the committee, in which he (referring to previous nominations) briefly nominated Loeb without further explanation. The reports were written by the physiologist Jöns Johansson and the anatomist Erik Müller, both from the Karolinska Institute.

As stated above, in 1917 Johansson found it remarkable that Loeb by then had been nominated quite often for the Nobel Prize. Loeb’s greatest virtue, however, was the tenacity with which he pursued his ideas. Although Johansson admitted that Loeb’s overviews of issues in the general physiology were as original as the contributions made by previous award-winning scientists, he raised objections against the conclusions and generalisations that Loeb had drawn from his findings. Although he expected that Loeb ultimately would succeed in completing his theory of the egg division process, it seemed to him that possibly other physiologists were more deserving, even if they were not among that year’s candidates. Müller also confronted Loeb’s discoveries and theoretical hypotheses, which he found hard to distinguish, with contradicting theories and rejections by other scientists like the French zoologist Yves Delage or the American embryologist Ralph S. Lillie. ‘One must distinguish between Loeb’s actual discoveries and his theoretical hypothesis’, he wrote:

Even if we acknowledge Loeb’s premise to understand development processes through chemistry, and if we admire his deductions, which strive to realize the alchemists dreamed objective: the synthesis of living matter, we must conclude, that his lysin-theory is not a clear-cut physical-chemical explanation of fertilization and parthenogenesis. […] The French zoologist Yves Delage rejects Loeb’s theory, as well as the American embryologist R.S. Lillie, who has seen Loeb’s work at Woods Hole. Hence, it is easy to find opponents. Moreover, it is hard to combine Loeb’s chemical theory with the findings of Albert P. Matthews on the one hand [to stir eggs of sea-urchins to start a parthenogenetic development], and with Bataillon’s on the other.55

Eugène Bataillon (who in 1919 also nominated Loeb for the Nobel Prize) had in 1910 introduced a different method of producing artificial parthenogenesis which conformed to earlier observations on marine invertebrates. Loeb had changed the electrolyte environment of sea urchin eggs, Bataillon, by puncturing frogs’ eggs with extremely fine needles, was able to bring about a division of the egg. Loeb subsequently took up the same method and at times was able to make the eggs develop into sexually mature frogs which closely resembled those raised in the normal manner. Nevertheless, Müller acknowledged Loeb’s priority and his skills at transgressing disciplinary borders. He stated:

It probably is universally recognized, that Loeb’s demonstration of artificial parthenogenesis is a scientific discovery of premier rank. Loeb’s priority is undeniable, even if we consider R. Hertwig’s experiments on sea-urchins in 1895, or Morgan’s in hypertonic seawater in 1896. Loeb has opened an entirely new research field, which has become one of the most important fields within physiological morphology. It is a great achievement that Loeb has been able to synthesize morphology and chemistry to one subject. He must be evaluated by experts in morphology and chemistry (in this evaluation, his work is viewed from a morphological standpoint, thus it is not complete). Having said that, to me personally it is of no doubt that Loeb deserves the Nobel Prize, even though I can understand if some would question this decision because of the discussion about the theoretical evidence of artificial parthenogenesis.56

In the closing remarks, however, Müller struck a deadly blow as he candidly wrote: ‘If I compare Harrison with Loeb, I would vote in favour of Harrison because of the fact that his ground-breaking investigations were immediately recognized.’ It seems as if there has been simply too much debate about Loeb’s controversial findings. The reviewers could not get themselves to award a prize against all the opposition.

Prize Discussions in the Nobel Committee 1917

Müller’s reference to Harrison was due to the fact that Harrison was also shortlisted that very year. Harrison, who, by the way, had a friendly personal correspondence with Loeb (Fangerau 2010, 148f), had worked successfully on the culture of nerve fibre in vitro (Maienschein 1983). The following candidates made it – apart from Loeb – to the shortlist in 1906, 1909 and 1917. 1906: C. Golgi, R. Cajal, E. Overton, A. Bier, Ch. J. Finlay, H. Carter, A. Laveran, P. Ehrlich; 1909: E. Fischer, A. Bier, H. Quincke, V. Horsley, Th. Kocher, J. Bordet, R. Pfeiffer, Th. Smith; 1917: H. Gutzmann, B. Krönig, C. Eijkman, J. Bordet, W. Einthoven, R.G. Harrison.

Only on rare occasions were prize discussions brought to protocol. One of these exceptions is found is the yearbook of 1917, where single Nobel Committee members announced their opinion on the researchers on the short list. The physiologist Jöns Johansson did not see the shortlisted Willem Einthoven as a strong candidate, since he ‘merely has developed an instrument’. As for Loeb, his work was interpreted to be of particularly large value, but the physical-chemical part was held not to be sufficiently investigated – he called for a further investigation: ‘Thus, he shall not be proposed by the Committee this year either’.

As shown above, the Committee member Erik Müller was enthusiastic of Ross G. Harrison. In the nominations of Harrison, it was stated that he had placed fragments from frog embryos in a drop of clotted frog’s lymph. Müller gave him a full recommendation and meant that his research was ‘of great importance’ and ‘performed recently’. Although Müller’s arguments mirrored the stipulations in Alfred Nobel’s will, again, Jöns Johansson was cautious: ‘I am not convinced that Harrison is the best candidate and therefore suggest, that no Prize shall be awarded this year.’57 Johansson’s proposal lost by one vote (Müller, Lennmalm, Sundberg for R. Harrison, Johansson and Westermark for no Prize). Thus, the Committee nominated Harrison with the motivation: ‘for his discovery of the development of the nerve fibres by independent growth from cells outside the organism.’58

However, the Nobel Assembly did not agree and chose not to award the Prize in 1917. That was not the only occasion on which the Nobel Assembly did not follow the recommendation of the Nobel Committee. As Ragnar Björk has shown, the Committee even twice proposed Carl Neuberg, but could not get support from the Assembly.59


Loeb died in 1924 without a Nobel Prize after having received almost 100 nominations. Had Loeb been a wrong candidate? Some features in his research, his publication style and his self-promotion seem to have made him appear ‘second best’. Taking the reports of the referees into account, his combination of methods seems to have been an asset and an obstacle. Yet, he did not fit into the right shelf. Although he was nominated for many of his fields of work, he was considered in the evaluations only for his controversially discussed ‘artificial parthenogenesis’. His synthetic approach linking morphology and chemistry was appreciated as innovative but considered as far-fetched. All four evaluations lamented the lack of a proof of concept. Additionally, his priority was doubted. Although his concepts seemed to be too visionary on the one hand, his research itself was on the other hand presented as mainstream research in line with many other colleagues who in the end contradicted his conclusions. Here, a personal feature of Loeb might have played a role: he presented himself as an archetypical mechanist and fought against any other stance. He also was an ardent reductionist, confronting with pleasure his position with any grand theory like Darwinism or vitalism which, according to his view, did not take the physio-chemical basis of life adequately into account.60 This uncompromising, rigid and sometimes personally intransigent stance was indirectly remarked when his works were contrasted to those of Hertwig. Therefore, it seems as if Loeb had made too many enemies in the end to be awarded the Prize.

Taking the high number of nominations for Loeb into account our study reveals that numbers did not count for the Nobel committee. On the contrary, as Johansson’s remark on the advertisement can be understood, the committee was not impressed by the nomination politics obviously put forward by some scientific circles. The sheer number of nominations and the frequent nominations of Loeb by rimr fellows, together with the fact that some of the nominations were extremely short, call to mind a general observation Liljestrand expressed in his book from 1963. ‘Frequently’, he wrote,

several members of the same faculty propose a common candidate – in most cases a fellow-countryman, who is sometimes, moreover, one of their own faculty colleagues – and they usually do it, either in a joint statement, or in personal letters which in content vary very little from each other. This procedure is probably due to the erroneous assumption that the prize-distributing bodies will be impressed and influenced in proportion to the number of supporters a candidate has among those officially invited to submit nominations. This idea has become so common that it has often been possible to predict with a fair degree of accuracy, even before opening a letter to the Committee, the name of the candidate it has supported.61

After the First World War, the pattern of Loeb’s nominations slightly changed and inclined even more in the direction observed by Liljestrand. The disintegration of Loeb’s European roots resulted in more than 50% of his post-war nominations stemming from Americans. Whereas his German nominators held their pre-war share, the Hungarian nominations from Budapest for example, which had contributed much to his nomination statistics before the war, declined substantially. Loeb now had become an American candidate.62

This external image was also reflected in his self-image. During the war, Loeb’s critical standpoint towards European (science) politics in general and German (science) politics in particular intensified. He was shocked by the War and the disintegration of international science. In his public writings and in his correspondence – for example with Svante Arrhenius – he strongly expressed his disapproval of scientists engaging in the war. He could not understand why his former friends like Wilhelm Ostwald or Charles Richet (one of his nominators) participated in the propaganda for their respective countries.63 During the War, he became an ardent antagonist of German imperialism which he also partly attributed in his writings to the morphological school of biology. His argument was that the German idea of racial superiority, which nurtured the war, was fostered by morphologically oriented biologists and that a mechanistic standpoint would have at least not contributed to this idea.64 Loeb was puzzled by the fact that his former friends favoured the German case. Even his first nominator, Hugo Münsterberg, a German patriot himself suffering from the deterioration of the German-American relationship, was accused by him of ‘irresponsibly’ preaching the ‘spirit of brutal egotism’65 nurturing the war.

In his fight for politics through science Loeb himself in the end intended to include the Nobel Prize. He supported colleagues in receiving it, but at the same time he – disappointed by the First World War – suggested to use Nobel’s money rather for the internationalization and democratization of science than for further Prizes. Without knowing of Münsterberg’s earlier nomination, which seems to contradict his own feelings towards Münsterberg 15 years later, he expressed similar ideas towards the danger of German scientific organization when he wrote to Svante Arrhenius in March 1918:

I feel very strongly the necessity of saving the world from the subtle influence of German scientific teaching and scientific literary organization. […] It seems to me that you in Sweden should take the first step by utilising the money for the Nobel Prizes for the equipment of your research institutions. […] with the impoverishment following the war, with the necessity of providing research institutions outside of Germany to save the world from their philosophy of organization, brutality, anti-Semitism, and the Lord knows what else, it becomes imperative that we do everything to prevent the victory of the Germans over the minds of the coming generations. It seems to me that it becomes a duty of the friends of liberty to insist that the money for the Nobel prizes for one thing should at least for the next twenty-five or fifty years be utilized in building up research in Sweden […].66

Definitely, Loeb’s candidacy was a near miss, but finally he indirectly stayed involved in the Prize circus after the war and even after his death in 1924. He succeeded on other levels. It is as if Julius Richard Ewald’s prognosis given in one nomination had become true. Ewald wrote: ‘… Loeb’s works are … like a cheque, which is paid in the future, compared to the safe value of cash’.67 Some of the colleagues he actively supported received the Prize in the years to come (for example Otto Meyerhof in 1922, Charles Sherrington in 1932, his former assistant John Howard Northrop in 1946 (for chemistry)). His reductionist research approach (although in a mechanistic shape already contested by his contemporaries) was to have a lasting influence on the life sciences in the United States.68


Files on Loeb in the Nobel Prize archive were kindly provided by the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine. All translations from Swedish and German to English were done by the authors.


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817 additional nominations arrived too late to be included in the Nobel committee’s decisions.
9Merton used the example of the French Academy of Science and their early decision that ‘only a cohort of 40 could qualify as members and so emerge as immortals’ in order to ­describe the ‘artifact of having a fixed number of places available at the summit of recognition’ (Merton 1968).
11On Loeb, his science and struggles see Pauly 1987; Rasmussen and Tilman 1998; Fangerau 2010.
14Yearbook 1912 (Nobel Archive).
15For the following short biography see Fangerau and Müller 2005; Fangerau 2009.
16Pauly 1987, chap. 2, 55ff.
18Loeb 1912d, 109.
19Loeb 1912b; Loeb 1912c, 3–4.
21Pauly 1987, 100.
25Turney 1995, 156.
27Turney 1995, 159.
30Loeb for example seems to have been in close contact with Koranyi during a journey to Europe (correspondence Loeb to Emil Godlewski, jr. 20.07.1909 (Archives Jagiellonian Universiy Kraków, DIV 76); Wolfgang Ostwald to Loeb 24.08.1909 (Library of Congress (LC), Manuscript Division, Loeb Papers).
31For the following figures and numbers see also Fangerau 2010, 183–189.
33Yearbook 1918 (Nobel Archive).
34They were not included in a previous study (Fangerau 2010), which solely was based on the 78 official nominations which can also be found in the database.
35See chap. 3 in this volume.
361910: 136 Nom.; 1911: 91; 1912: 108; 1913: 136; 1914: 151; 1915: 61; 1916: 64; 1917: 75; 1918: 104; 1919: 104; 1920: 125. No awards between 1915–1918.
38Loeb himself also wrote only one sentence when he had the chance to give a nomination in 1914. He suggested very briefly his colleague from the rimr Samuel J. Meltzer for his work on ‘anaesthesia and insufflation’, Yearbook 1914 (Nobel Archive).
39Loeb Papers, LC, Box Ewald.
40Pauly 1987, 41.
41Yearbook 1917 (Nobel Archive).
44On Loeb and Verworn as well as their animosity see Fangerau 2012; Pauly 1987, 84f.
45Yearbook 1906 (Nobel Archive), Holmgren.
461Cremer 1985, 105–109.
50Yearbook 1909 (Nobel Archive), Mörner.
51Yearbook 1909 (Nobel Archive), Mörner.
52Hertwig 1909. See in particular the pages 109–113 about Loeb.
53Halling, Fangerau, Hansson 2018.
54Yearbook 1909 (Nobel Archive), Mörner, 11.
55Yearbook 1917 (Nobel Archive), Müller.
56Yearbook 1917 (Nobel Archive), Müller.
57Yearbook 1917 (Nobel Archive).
58Yearbook 1917 (Nobel Archive).
62Nevertheless, he also suffered from anti-German, anti-Semitic tendencies in the usa. In 1922 he wrote to Flexner: ‘Since I was born in Germany my participation in the meeting [a meeting by the Bunsen-Gesellschaft in Germany] might be utilized by the jingoes and the antisemitic crowd in the American Universities to make trouble for me.’ (Loeb to Flexner 02.06.1922, American Philosophical Society Archives, Flexner Papers).
65Loeb to Sarton 16.12.1916, Houghton Library, Harvard Sarton bMS Am 1803 (950), see (Fangerau 2010, 108).
66Loeb to Arrhenius 11.03.1918, Loeb papers, LC, see (Fangerau 2010, 116f). See similar letters Loeb to Arrhenius printed in Reingold and Reingold 1981.
67Yearbook 1909 (Nobel Archive).

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