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Nobel Prizes for Vaccines

Vaccines are often described as one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century.

So how many of the people that worked to develop those vaccines have been awarded a Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology?

Remember that since 1901, the Nobel Prize has “been awarded to scientists who have made the most important discoveries for the benefit of mankind.”

So you would think that more than a few Nobel Prizes would have gone for vaccines.

Surprisingly, only one has.

Max Theiler, who developed the yellow fever vaccine, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1951 “for his discoveries concerning yellow fever and how to combat it.”

John Enders, together with T. H. Weller and F. C. Robbins, did receive the Nobel Prize in 1954 for their work on the cultivation of the poliomyelitis viruses, and while that helped with the development of the polio vaccines, the actual developers never got a Nobel Prize, although they were nominated several times.

It was likely felt that the work of Salk and Sabin, while certainly important, wasn’t original enough to deserve a Nobel Prize.

And the first Nobel Prize in Medicine did go to Emil Adolf von Behring for his work combating diphtheria, but it was for developing an antiserum, not a vaccine. He got the Nobel Prize “for his work on serum therapy, especially its application against diphtheria, by which he has opened a new road in the domain of medical science and thereby placed in the hands of the physician a victorious weapon against illness and deaths.”

It is also said that Bruce A. Beutler, Jules A. Hoffmann, Ralph M. Steinman, who shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Medicine, made possible the development of  improved vaccines against infections and dendritic-cell tumor vaccines for different types of cancer.

Beutler and Hoffmann, for example, in discovering Toll-like receptors, “triggered an explosion of research in innate immunity” and a better understanding of how adjuvants in vaccines stimulate innate immunity.

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