Many Indians have gained worldwide recognition and acquired prestigious positions due to their contribution to various and extensive fields. Several of such personalities have been conferred with the Nobel Prize to honour and mark their global significance. Nobel Prize winners from India have indeed achieved greatness.
Established in 1895 according to the will of a Swedish engineer, chemist, and industrialist Alfred Nobel, the annual Nobel Prize is a set of awards that honour those who have done unprecedented work in several fields including that of Chemistry, Physics, Peace, Literature and Physiology or Medicine.
Both Indian citizens and Indian-origin foreign citizens have gained the stature to receive this renowned international award because of their revolutionary discoveries, research, social work, and so on. Here, we put forth a list of all these tremendous icons who make their country proud.
Rabindranath Tagore – 1913
Born in Calcutta, Rabindranath Tagore was a Bengali poet, writer, composer, and painter. His writing incorporated the lives of common people, world philosophies, literary criticism, and social issues. He is the first Indian to be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1913, in the field of Literature. He was honoured with the award for “his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse” in his poetry collection titled Gitanjali or Song Offerings, which is centred on the theme of devotion.
Tagore incorporated novel forms of prose and verse in colloquial Bengali, doing away with the classical models based on Sanskrit. His ideals were deeply ingrained in the betterment and upliftment of the people so that they can act upon the values of humanism. He pursued to bring together in harmony the worlds of both the West and the East for education and philosophy.
Tagore was a staunch supporter of the Swadeshi Movement during India’s freedom struggle and believed that the people of India should be self-sufficient, economically, and spiritually. However, his nationalistic principles were far apart from his extremist contemporaries, and he advocated that freedom, liberation, and empowerment should be aimed for the benefit of the whole of humanity and not be restricted and governed by bias according to the geographical bounds of nations. When in 1915 he was felicitated with Knighthood by King George V, he denounced the acceptance as a gesture of protest against the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.
Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman – 1930
In 1928, along with his student K. S. Krishnan, Sir C.V. Raman discovered that when light traverses a transparent material, some of the light that is deflected changes in wavelength and amplitude because it has caused an energy state transition in the material’s molecules. They named this phenomenon as the “modified scattering”.
Raman was born in Tiruchirappalli, India, and his discovery of what came to be called as the Raman scattering or the Raman effect was what brought him worldwide honour in the form of the Nobel Prize in the field of Physics in 1930. His work on the ‘Molecular Diffraction of Light,’ which was published in 1922 led him to this ultimate discovery, which took place on February 28, 1928, a day now observed by the Government of India as National Science Day, every year.
Other than his additional interest in the optics of colloids, electrical and magnetic anisotropy, and the physiology of human vision, Raman also studied the fundamentals of crystal dynamics and optical behavior of various iridescent substances like pearls, agate, and opal. He was also keen on his understanding of the physics of musical sounds which contributed to his later works on optics and quantum mechanics.
Early in his career in 1924, Raman was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society and was knighted in 1929. Raman founded the Indian Academy of Sciences in Bangalore, in 1933, and also established the Raman Research Institute in 1948.
In 1954, Raman received the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award, from the Government of India, which he later smashed in protest against Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s policies regarding scientific research.
Har Gobind Khorana – 1968
Alongside Robert W. Holley and Marshall W. Nirenberg, Raipur-born Har Gobind Khorana was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1968 for the excellent achievements in the field of Physiology or Medicine.
Coming from the humble and the only literate family in his village, Khorana completed his renowned work on the decoding of genes and synthesis of proteins in the Wisconsin Institute for Enzyme Research, at the University of Wisconsin. Khorana’s main area of expertise was nucleotides which are subunits of DNA and RNA. While RNA is the part of the DNA strand that directs the formation of proteins in the form of tissue and muscle, nucleotides are essential parts of the same and decide which proteins make up which cells and tissue. Khorana, along with Holley and Nirenberg, figured out how nucleic acids translated the genetic code from DNA.
RNA is made up of four chemical bases that combined to form three-letter ‘words’ that represent amino acids. Since proteins are made of amino-acids, Khorana used protein synthesis to prove that the genetic code consists of sixty-four different three-letter ‘words’, which dictated the cell where to begin reading the code and where to stop.
Khorana also constructed the world’s first synthetic gene in 1972, another breakthrough that is considered as an imperative for genetic research and biotechnology even today.
Mother Teresa – 1979
The world-renowned figure of humanity and peace, Mother Teresa, was born in a devout Catholic family in Albania and was baptized as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. At the age of twelve, while attending a congregation, Agnes received a spiritual calling from God. And this eventually led her to leave for the Sisters of Loreto in Dublin, Ireland, and start her life as Sister Mary Teresa from the age of eighteen.
Mother Teresa, named so after having taken her final vows, taught History and Geography at St. Mary’s High School for Girls when she travelled to India. She was deeply moved by the widespread suffering, poverty, and deprivation that she saw in the country. On the train to Darjeeling in 1946, she received another religious “call within a call” and decided to completely devote her life to help the ones who were abandoned in society.
In 1950, she founded the Missionaries of Charity which played a significant role in creating a leper colony, orphanages, family counselling programs, nursing homes, and several mobile health clinics to help the underprivileged ones. The congregation also administers centres for people suffering from HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. The members of this Roman Catholic organization profess to chastity, obedience, and wholeheartedly serve the needy and the poor.
Posthumously canonized by Pope Francis as Saint Teresa, Mother Teresa received the Nobel Prize in 1979 for her undaunted work to help eradicate distress across society. She was also honoured with the Bharat Ratna in 1980. Her spirit and actions directed at charity still pose as a flame of inspiration for humanitarians around the world.
Subrahmanyam Chandrasekhar – 1983
C.V Raman’s nephew, Subrahmanyam Chandrasekhar, was one of the first scientists to pair the study of astronomy with physics. This remarkable astrophysicist of the twentieth century was bestowed with the Nobel Prize in 1983 for his revolutionary theoretical studies on the fundamental processes involved in the structure and evolution of stars.
Chandrasekhar determined that a star with mass above 1.44 times that of the Sun does not form a white dwarf which contracts to about the size of the Earth under the influence of its own gravity. Instead, such massive stars continue to collapse in on themselves until they blow off their gaseous envelope in a supernova explosion and form a neutron star. Black holes are formed in this process when a star of enormous mass dies. This upper limit of the mass of a star came to be known as the Chandrasekhar limit. Current theoretical models of stellar evolution and black holes have been based on Chandrasekhar’s discovery.
Chandrasekhar also was the first to elaborate and discuss in detail about ‘Dynamical Friction’ or gravitational lag, also known as Chandrasekhar Friction. He described this new quantity with the help of a set of twenty partial differential equations. With this, he solved the complex problem of stellar dynamics by studying the fluctuating gravitational fields of stars moving about the galactic centre of the Milky Way.
Amartya Sen – 1998
Amartya Sen was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1998 for his unprecedented contribution to welfare economics, economic and social justice, decision theory, social choice theory, public health, division of important resources available in a community, and in-depth research on the causes and prevention of famine.
Sen’s keen interest and approach in his research are evident in his book Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981). Here, he concluded and elaborated on how famines were not caused due to a shortage of food supply but other socio-economic causes like unemployment, low-wages, inflation, and inadequate and unequal distribution of food.
Sen is regarded as “the conscience of his profession” because of his resolute contribution to the field of welfare economics where he sought to evaluate policies for the development of the economy of the entire society. Researchers were influenced by his monograph Collective Choice and Social Welfare (1970) and governments and international organizations based their policies on managing food crises on Sen’s work. He has designed effective methods to measure poverty as well as how to predict and overcome famine.
Harvard President Neil Rudestine describes Sen as a teacher with a moral vision who establishes his work and views against the backdrop of economics as well as philosophy. Sen is strongly opinionated in his political views on the functions of democracy and social reformation and how it must precede the economic one.
Venkatraman Ramakrishnan – 2009
Ramakrishnan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, the first Indian to achieve this feat in the field, for his research on the atomic structure and function of cellular bodies called ribosomes.
As a biophysicist in the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, Ramakrishnan utilized the techniques of neuron scattering and X-Ray crystallography to explicate the structure of ribosomes and other molecules like histones. He produced illuminating scientific papers based on the RNA structure and organization of the small ribosomal subunit of the bacterium called Thermus thermophilus. He also revealed the structures of antibiotics bound to small subunits of ribosomes.
Ramakrishnan was made a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 2003 and later, in 2015, became the society’s first Indian-born president. He was also included in the United Kingdom’s New Year Honours List for 2012 as a ‘knight bachelor’.
Kailash Satyarthi – 2014
Satyarthi received the Nobel Prize in 2014, jointly with Malala Yousafzai, for their contribution to social reform for children and the youth and the universal right to education for all.
Kailash Sharma changed his upper-class Brahmin surname to ‘Satyarthi’ which was derived from Dayananda Sarasvati’s work Satyarth Prakash, which translates to ‘the light of truth’. Satyarthi was motivated by Dayananda’s advocacy of the abolition of the caste system and child marriages and thus, started his own magazine titled Sangharsh Jaari Rahega. The magazine spoke about the lives of the oppressed and vulnerable people of society. Satyarthi was aware of how pervasive poverty in a family leads to piling up of debts to money-lenders and, subsequently, to bonded labour of their children in place of monetary repayment.
Satyarthi founded the nonprofit Bachhpan Bachao Andolan in 1980 which took a radical approach to free children from the bondage of labour, slavery as well as trafficking. The BBA also set up several ‘ashrams’ where the freed youth could start or resume their education. Satyarthi’s organizing of the Global March against Child Labour in 1998 became one of the largest social movements that brought to light and demanded admonition of the worst forms of child exploitation. In 2011, the Bal Mitra Programme was launched to ensure that children in villages were enrolled in schools and child labour was banned.
Satyarthi has also served on the board and committee of several international organizations, including the Center for Victims of Torture (USA) and the International Labor Rights Fund (USA).
Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee – 2019
Abhijit Banerjee was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economic Sciences along with Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer in 2019 for their contribution to an experimental approach to alleviate global poverty.
Banerjee and Duflo wrote that the policies that are implemented for the poor are usually based on misguided perceptions and generalized ‘one size fits all’ concept. The existence of global poverty is undermined because it is wrongly regarded that the existence of the poor is insignificant due to their minimal possessions.
To formulate better policies that consider the complex economic existence of the poor, Banerjee implemented the carefully constructed field experiments in several low and middle-income countries, including the method of Randomized Controlled Trials.
Banerjee, Duflo, and Kremer did extensive research in the mid-1990s and determined that the cause of poor education was due to the inadequacy of teaching policies to adapt to the needs of the weaker children. They proposed that remedial tutoring and computer-based teaching guides could serve to improve education. They also concluded that following the method of short-term contracts to employ teachers and renewing them based on the teacher’s performance was a far more effective way to combat teacher absenteeism which is a prevalent problem in low-income countries.
Field experiments were also conducted in the city of Hyderabad, India to study the effectiveness of microcredit to increase the profit and investment of small-businesses. Banerjee, Duflo, and Kremer’s teamwork have led to beneficial policy-making all across the globe. Their approach and methods were made standard in the field of developmental economics and served as the foundation for several public policy formulations.
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