Amherst has 0.00019 Nobel laureates per capita. That may not sound like many, but according to a recent article in Nature, it places the College among the top Nobel-producing undergraduate institutions in the world.
The October 2016 article, “Where Nobel Winners Get Their Start,” reported on the research of psychologist Jonathan Wai and physicist Stephen Hsu, who “examined the 81 institutions worldwide with at least three alumni who have received a Nobel award in any of the six categories between 1901 and 2015.” For each school the researchers divided the number of laureates by the number of alumni. France’s École Normale Supérieure came out on top, followed by Cal Tech. Amherst, at number 9, is one of two U.S. liberal arts colleges in the top 10 (Swarthmore is the other).
“What these smaller schools are doing,” Wai told the journal, “might serve as important undergraduate models to follow in terms of selection and training.”
And what is that model? The College’s four laureates, in autobiographical statements on the Nobel website, each reflect on the transformative value of an Amherst liberal arts education.
Harold E. Varmus ’61—whose 1989 Nobel in medicine honors his joint discovery of the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes—wrote that “the most decisive turn” in his intellectual history came when he entered Amherst “intending to prepare for medical school. The evident intensity and pleasure of academic life there challenged my presumptions about my future as a physician, and my course of study drifted from science to philosophy and finally to English literature.”
Henry W. Kendall ’50 won the 1990 Nobel in physics for joint research that provided the first experimental evidence for quarks. A math major, he did a thesis in physics. “But history, English and biology were all most attractive,” he wrote, “and there was a period, early on, when any one of these might have ended up as a major subject.” Kendall died in 1999.
The 2001 economics prize went to Joseph E. Stiglitz ’64 and colleagues for their analyses of markets with asymmetric information. He majored in economics and math at Amherst, where his “intellectually most formative experiences” took place, he wrote. “What distinguished Amherst was not only what was taught, but how it was taught, and the close relationships we had with our teachers.”
Edmund S. Phelps ’55 won the 2006 economics prize for recognizing that inflation depends not only on unemployment but also on the expectations of firms and employees about price and wage increases. His early years at Amherst “were a revelation,” he wrote, with “innumerable exchanges with brilliant classmates” and humanities courses that had a lasting influence. He settled on economics as a major because he “liked the difficulty of the subject,” he told Amherst magazine in 2006—“plenty of unsolved questions.”
Update: A Fifth Nobel Laureate
Amherst congratulates geneticist Jeffrey C. Hall ’67, named a winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Hall and fellow scientists Michael Rosbash and Michael Young were recognized for their discoveries of the molecular mechanisms controlling circadian rhythms.
Hall is the former Libra Professor of Neurogenetics at the University of Maine and a professor emeritus at Brandeis University.
Read an interview with Hall on the Nobel site.
Thanks to Hall and his colleagues, “we now know that all multicellular organisms, including humans, utilize a similar mechanism to control circadian rhythms,” the Nobel Prize committee said. “The paradigm-shifting discoveries by the laureates established key mechanistic principles for the biological clock.”