Robert C. Merton, who won the 1997 economics prize for his work on financial derivatives, was the last professor to win a Nobel while at Harvard.
1986 Chemistry Laureate and Baird Professor of Science Dudley R. Herschbach urged nervous Nobel counters to take the long view.
Out of 758 laureates since 1900 in the fields of chemistry, physiology/medicine, peace, physics and economics, 37 were Harvard faculty when they received the award.
“That’s more than most countries put together,” Herschbach quipped. “Harvard can’t expect to get one every year.”
At first glance, Harvard seems to be lagging in the Nobel race.
Cambridge University claims 80 past Nobel prize winners; the University of Chicago, 75. Columbia University and MIT boasts 64 and 56, respectively.
But for once, it’s not Harvard but peer institutions who are suffering from a case of honors inflation.
Cambridge, Chicago, Columbia and MIT all claim some combination of former faculty and alums on their Nobel rolls.
Some of Harvard’s unclaimed Nobel recipients include Theodore Roosevelt, Class of 1880, and Henry A. Kissinger ’50, who were both honored for their contributions to peace.
Former Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence has also been honored, taking the economics prize in 2001. However, he left Harvard in 1990 to become dean of Stanford’s Business School.
Harvard’s tally does carry one asterisk—Amartya K. Sen held an emeritus title when he won his Nobel Prize in 1998, but had already left the University to become Master of Trinity College in Cambridge, England. Sen returned to Harvard this year as Lamont University professor.
Herschbach, whose voice will make a cameo appearance as a Nobel presenter on the Halloween episode of “The Simpsons,” drew a comparison between Harvard’s current Nobel drought and baseball.
“Nomar [Garciaparra’s] batting average is around 0.3, but that doesn’t mean that he bats exactly three out of 10,” Herschbach said. “It’s nothing to be too concerned about.”
“The bottom line is: are there any Harvard people batting for the Red Sox?” he asked.