Nobel Prizes have been awarded to more than 850 laureates and, although Jews comprise less than 0.2 percent of the world’s population, or 1 in every 500 people, more than 20 percent of Nobel laureates have been Jews – two orders of magnitude greater than their numbers would suggest.
Overall, Jews have won 41 percent of all the Nobel Prizes in economics, 26 percent of physics, 19 percent of chemistry, 13 percent of literature, and 9 percent of all peace awards.
Jews have also won 28 percent of the awards in medicine. The first such Nobel Prizes were awarded to two Jews: Paul Ehrlich and Elie Metchnikoff, who shared the award in 1908.
Ehrlich (1854-1915), whose research on antibodies established him as the founder of modern chemotherapy, was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine before he finally won in 1908 for his work in immunology.
His Nobel Prize was delayed by Svante Arrhenius, an influential Swedish scientist on the Nobel committee and himself a Nobel Prize winner (1903), who was furious that some of his theories had been disproven by Ehrlich’s work. But the real reason for Arrhenius’s blocking Ehrlich’s path to the Nobel may have been good old-fashioned anti-Semitism: After accepting an invitation to visit Ehrlich’s institute in Frankfort, Arrhenius – who, ironically, was considered a friend by Ehrlich – was irritated by the “markedly Jewish atmosphere” of the Institute, and he was not pleased to learn that most the staffers were Jewish and that the lunchtime scientific conversation was “mixed with Talmudic dispute.”
Ehrlich’s original concepts initiated monumental advances in virtually all fields of biomedical research and paved the way for many of the important medical advances in the 20th century. He is perhaps best known for his pioneering work in immunology, chemotherapy (a term he invented), and pharmacology. Hematology became a recognized discipline through his groundbreaking studies of dye reactions on red and white blood cells; his search for a “magic bullet,” a chemical substance that would invade and kill off infected cells without damaging healthy cells, proved successful when he discovered salvarsan, an effective cure for syphilis; and he also found an antitoxin for diphtheria.
Ehrlich’s father, who was the superintendent of the Jewish community in Upper Silesia (Germany), raised Paul as an Orthodox Jew and Paul, who was married at the Neustadt Synagogue (1883), remained interested in Jewish affairs throughout his life. Though he experienced anti-Semitism, he remained loyal to the German state.
When Chaim Weizmann met with Baron Edmund de Rothschild in 1913 to discuss plans for a proposed Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the baron insisted that Weizmann first obtain the support of some great Jewish scientists, particularly Ehrlich.
When approached by Weizmann to work at the as-yet unestablished university, a famous story, perhaps apocryphal, has Ehrlich asking, “Dr. Weizmann, do you know that hundreds of persons wait months for a few minutes of my time, and you have already occupied an hour?” Weizmann is reported to have answered, “Esteemed Herr Professor, the great difference is that they are patients who come to you in search of a cure, while I, on the other hand, have come to cure you.”
Weizmann convinced him to serve as a member of the first academic committee of the board of governors of the Hebrew University, and Ehrlich’s broad support was instrumental in expanding the pool of influential people who became receptive to Weizmann’s pleas on behalf of the university and, later, on behalf of Israel. (Weizmann, himself a renowned chemist, later did some of his own scientific work in Ehrlich’s laboratory).
Unlike most German Jews, Ehrlich demonstrated strong lifelong support for Zionism and championed Jewish nationalism, including serving as an active member of L’Maan Tzion. He was among the founders of the Society of Jewish Physicians and Scientists for Medical-Biological Interests in Palestine (1912), whose goals included “research and implementation of the sanitary conditions in Palestine” and holding courses for the skill enhancement of doctors in Eretz Yisrael.