Untold story of India’s quest for Nobel Prize

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Well the Nobel season is on, the prizes will be handed over to those who have contributed for the ‘greatest benefit for the mankind’ the announcement dates have been declared so everything is in place just little more wait. I was just going through the last will of Alfred Nobel it is indeed a fantastic document and the most interesting part lies at the end of it. In the last paragraph Nobel mentions,” Finally, it is my express wish that following my death my veins shall be opened, and when this has been done and competent Doctors have confirmed clear signs of death, my remains shall be cremated in a so-called crematorium”!  I am actually surprised by the phrase, ‘veins shall be opened’ but possibly it means that he wanted to make sure he was dead before being buried!

Now since the Nobel foundation has released the nominees nominated for various prizes during 1901 to 1963 it was worth giving it a glance. The Committee can only release nominations which are 50 years older and in this way we have a list of all the nominees of various Prizes from 1901 to 1963. I was going through the Indian names in the list, notable Indians nominated during that period, although only two of them went on to win, needless to say Rabindranath Tagore and Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman. We will go through some of the names both winners and the unsuccessful candidates and see what interesting information we have behind their nominations. First things first we will start with Rabindranath Tagore; the bard of Bengal won the prestigious prize in 1913, the first Asian to receive it.


Rabindranath Tagore-In the year 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature evaluation Committee received 32 nominations, Tagore being one of them, nominated by Thomas Struge Moore. Tagore had long term friendship with Moore an English poet, author, and artist by his own right and a great friend of W B Yeats. Moore held very high regard for Tagore he once mentioned-‘you are a very much greater poet than the English versions give any idea of’. Tagore’s competitors were equally famous and of course formidable, there were Grazia Deledda Italian writer who eventually won the Prize in 1926, Thomas Hardy (nominated by the 97 members of the Royal Society of Literature), Ernest Lavisse the French Historian and author. But finally the Prize went to the Bard of Bengal. Tagore also played the role of nominator nominating James H Cousins the Irish writer, poet, critic and author for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1935, but Cousins did not make it.


Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman– The next Indian to make it the Nobel Prize in Physics was the discoverer of what is known as Raman Effect. Sir Chandrasekhara was also nominated for the Prize in 1926 by two nominators French Physicist Charles Fabry, and Niels Bohr but the Prize went to Louis De Broglie. But in the year 1930 he was back with strong backing of ten nominators, nominators of the likes of Louis De Broglie (the winner of the previous year), Lord Rutherford, Niels Bohr (two time winner), and Johannes Stark! Sir Chandrasekhara nominated five scientists for Nobel Prize in Physics, notable among them were Enrico Fermi, Ernest Lawrence, G N Ramachandran, and of course his famous nephew Subramanyan Chandrasekhar in 1957 which he went on to win 1983!


Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi– The most famous Indian and the rightful contender to the Nobel Prize according to many Indians never won it in spite of being nominated 12 times from 1937 to 1948. The Mahatma was nominated successively in 1937,38,39 by the Norwegian politician Ole Colbjørnsen. In 1947 he was nominated by B Kher, Mavalankar and G B Panth but again a futile attempt as the Nobel Peace Prize 1947 was awarded jointly to Friends Service Council (The Quakers) and American Friends Service Committee (The Quakers)! In fact in 1947 Gandhi’s was the strongest contender for Peace Prize the Nobel Committee was not favouring Gandhia great deal in the light of India-Pakistan conflict where Gandhi openly supported one of the belligerents. From the diary of Gunnar Jahn the chairman of the Nobel Prize Awarding Committee noted-“ “While it is true that he (Gandhi) is the greatest personality among the nominees – plenty of good things could be said about him – we should remember that he is not only an apostle for peace; he is first and foremost a patriot. (…) Moreover, we have to bear in mind that Gandhi is not naive. He is an excellent jurist and a lawyer.” Eventually some members were against Gandhi and the idea had to be dropped. In 1948 Mahatma Gandhi had behind him the support of 6 nominations, which included 6 Professors of Law at the University of Bordeaux (Maurice Duverger) and 5 professors of Philosophy at Columbia University (Herbert Schneider). Like Sir Chandrasekhara the winner of the previous year the American Friends Service Committee also had nominated Gandhi but he was assassinated before the declaration of the Prize leaving room for considering a posthumous Award but that never happened and the man ‘who could only be compared to the founders of religions’, remained un-awarded.[i] In the year 1948 no Peace Prize was awarded as ‘no suitable living candidate’ was found and the most suitable was dead and gone but his legacy lived on and when the Dalai Lama was awarded the Peace Prize in 1989, the chairman of the committee said that this was “in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi”.


Jawaharlal Nehru-Pandit Nehru was nominated several times 13 times to be precise by various men, women and organisations without success. From 1950 to 1961 he was nominated by Professors from the University of Madras, Politicians, members of the Belgian Senate, former Nobel Laureates. The several members of the Belgian National Assembly nominated Nehru because he- had established parliamentary government in India, and he had been one of the principal leaders of the independence movement. He was nominated for his neutralist foreign policy and for upholding the same principles as Gandhi.


Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan-Perhaps the most nominated Indian for Nobel Prize, nominated 10 times for Peace and 16 times for Literature. The nomination began as early as 1933 and ended in 1961 spanning over a period of 28 years. The most desperate effort to get the erudite President the Nobel Prize was done by Professor N K Sidhanta, the former Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University nominated his name nine times. The well known linguist of Calcutta University, Professor Suniti Kumar Chatterjee offered the last nomination in the year 1963 when he nominated Radhakrishnan for Literature.


Meghnad Saha- Unquestionably one of the brightest minds in India, Meghnad Saha was nominated seven times for Nobel Prize in Physics. In 1937 he was nominated by Sir Arthur H Compton winner of Nobel Prize in Physics in 1927. In 1951 Megnad Saha nominated the distinguished Physicist Arnold Sommerfeld.


Homi Bhabha- Distinguished scientist and Professor of Physics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research Homi Bhabha was nominated for Nobel Prize in Physics five times from 1951 to 1956, nominated by Jacques Hadamard member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in all  five occasions. Bhabha nominated three scientist for Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1952 and 1954 and all three, i.e Felix Bloch, John Douglas Cockcroft, Willis E Lamb Jr. won the Prize!


Upendranath Brahmachari- Sir Brahmachari was a leading medical practitioner in his time. He discovered ureastibamine (antimonial compound for treatment of kalaazar) and a new disease, post-kalaazar dermal leishmanoid. Sir Brahmachari was nominated for Nobel Prize in Medicine six times, in as early as 1926 by the Professor of Chemistry Sudhamoy Ghosh from the Tropical School of Medicine Calcutta. He later received five nominations in the year 1942 but unsuccessful, as from 1941-43 was a drought period in the Nobel Prize in Medicine category no one was awarded the Prize during the period.

Satyendra Nath Bose- Professor Bose was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics four times, from 1956-62 by various academicians.

That in a nutshell is the story of some notable Indians who were nominated for Nobel Prizes. Among Universities the University of Calcutta nominated the most with 26 nominations. Some famous Indian personalities like Hari Mohan Banerjee (Nobel Prize in Peace), Acharya Vinoba Bhave (Nobel Prize in Peace), Sri Aurobindo (Nobel Prize in Peace), Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (Nobel Prize in Peace), Sir Mohammad Aga Khan (Nobel Prize in Peace), Rabindranth Dutta (Nobel Prize in Literature) were also nominated for various categories. From 1901 to 1964 Indians were nominated 126 times (includes same person nominated multiple times) on 115 separate occasions, multiple nominations from single person also considered. Talking about city with the most nomination is Calcutta with 41 nominations followed by Delhi 24.

[i] http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/themree/peace/gandhi/

Sumit Soren is the founder of Livelystories. Basically an Agricultural Engineer, Sumit has interest in varied topics. He regularly writes on tribal history, internet and science related topics.

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