Nobel Italian Prize Winners Throughout History: A Story Of Achievement

compiled by Tegan GEORGE


1. Giulio Natta: 1963

Born in Imperia, Italy in 1903, Giulio Natta studied at the Politecnico di Milano and passed the exams to become a professor in 1927. In 1963, he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Karl Ziegler for their combined work on high polymers, or chemical compounds with repeated structural units. They also discovered a catalyst used in polymer synthesis called the Ziegler-Natta catalyst.


2. Guglielmo Marconi: 1909

Marconi, the father of long-distance radio transmission, was an Italian inventor often given credit for the invention of the radio, one of the most revolutionizing technologies the world has ever known. In Great Britain, he founded the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company, which commercialized the radio and made it accessible to greater audiences. In addition to the 1909 Nobel Prize, Marconi was ennobled in Italy, becoming Marchese Marconi in 1924 and traveling all over the world testing out radios while the company he created continued to innovate. He died in 1937 of a heart attack, and radios worldwide observed two minutes of silence in his honor.

3. Enrico Fermi: 1938

Fermi, or “the father of the atomic bomb,” is one of the most famous particle physicists that ever lived due to his work on the Manhattan Project and the first nuclear reactor (Chicago Pile-1), as well as his discoveries related to quantum theory and induced radioactivity. He is held in high esteem by other physicists, as he is seen as one of the rare few physicists to excel both theoretically and experimentally. He immigrated permanently to the United States in 1938 because of the new racial laws in Italy that affected his Jewish-born wife, and after the war he was appointed to General Advisory Committee, the council that acted as advisers on the use of nuclear energy to the Atomic Energy Commission, a very prestigious job. He was extremely against the development of a hydrogen bomb for moral and technical reasons, and questioned the ability of society to know how to handle the responsibility attached to nuclear power. Today, many awards, scholarships, and research facilities are named after Fermi, as he is responsible for leaps and bounds in physics and science as a whole.

4. Emilio G. Segrè: 1959

Segrè is best-known for his discovery of anti-protons, the subatomic anti-particle. He studied under Enrico Fermi at the university level, and worked as a professor until he had to relocate to the United States in 1938 because of his Sephardic Jewish upbringing. He discovered several elements while he worked at the Lawrence Research Laboratory at UCLA-Berkeley, such as astatine and technetium. Many of these were later used to construct the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, which he worked on as a group leader for the Manhattan Project. Additionally, he had artistic pursuits – his avid amateur photography and his biography of Fermi, which he wrote before returning to Rome in 1974, where he remained until his death in 1989 from a heart attack.

5. Carlo Rubbia: 1984

Rubbia, a particle physicist and inventor, received a Nobel Prize in 1984 for his discovery of the W and Z particles at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), one of the premier physics facilities in the world, that houses the Large Hadron Collider. The W and Z particles are intermediate vector bosons that are part of the process of radioactive decay. Today, he focuses on the problem of depleted energy supplies, and researches future possibilities for renewable, cleaner energy. So far, he has discovered a way to concentrate solar energy that is currently being explored for commercial use. He also has an asteroid named after him, the Asteroid 8398 Rubbia.

6. Riccardo Giacconi: 2002

Born in Genoa, Giacconi received his degree from the University of Milan before moving to the United States to pursue a career in particle physics. He laid the foundations for x-ray astronomy and received the 2002 Nobel Prize for his fundamental contributions to modern astrophysics. He is currently a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and has been a professor there since 1982. He has also worked on and directed various space observatory telescopes, such as Hubble, Chandra, and the European Southern Observatory.


7. Ernesto Teodoro Moneta: 1907

Moneta was a revolutionary soldier, journalist, and nationalist who later became a pacifist, which won him the 1907 Nobel Peace Prize. When he was young, he participated in the 5 Days of Milan against Austrian rule as well as Garibaldi’s Expedition of the 1000. Despite the fact that he was incredibly nationalistic, he still considered himself a pacifist and founded the Lombard Association for Peace and Arbitration in 1887, which envisioned a future of disarmament and a League of Nations-type organization.


8. Giusuè Carducci: 1906

The first ever Italian to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, Carducci is one of the most influential Italian poets, often referred to as the official national poet of modern Italy. In addition to poetry, he wrote 20 volumes worth of prose, served in the Italian Senate, and worked as a professor of Italian and Greek for many years, but poetry is what he is best known for. Carducci was also an excellent translator, and translated many works by Goethe and Heine, as well as Book 9 of Homer’s Iliad into Italian. He died the year after receiving the Nobel, at age 71.

9. Grazia Deledda: 1926

Born in Sardinia in 1871, Deledda completed elementary school and was trained by a private tutor afterwards until she moved on to studying literature alone. Famous for her blend of prose and poetry, her work often focuses on themes of love, pain, and death and the ties people have to places and feelings.

10. Luigi Pirandello: 1934

Pirandello wore many hats: playwright, novelist, professor, poet, dramatist, short story writer, and youth revolutionary. His upperclass Sicilian family supported the Italian unification movement (Risorgimento) fiercely, and when he was 13, he joined Garibaldi’s Expedition of the 1000, following him all the way to Caterina. However, unification proved to be a huge failure in the eyes of many, and Pirandello expressed much of this betrayal and disappointment in his works. After relocating first to Bonn and then to Rome, Pirandello taught at the university and wrote newspaper columns and novels on the side. During World War I, his fame spread from Italy to London and during Italian Fascism, his public support of Mussolini caused his fame to explode on a worldwide scale. He died in 1936, shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1934.


11. Franco Modigliani: 1985

Born in Rome in 1918, Franco Modigliani left Italy in 1939 because of his Jewish origins and anti-fascist leanings. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1946, where he was a professor of Neo-Keynesian economics from 1942 until his death. He spent most of his career (1962-2003) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he formulated the Modigliani-Miller theorem of corporate finance, the life-cycle hypothesis, and the MPS model, and co-authored several textbooks.

12. Salvatore Quasimodo: 1959

Considered one of the foremost poets of the 20th century, Quasimodo was also an engineer and a draughtsman, and originally only wrote as a side job. After moving several times and working in several fields to make ends meet, Quasimodo decided to devote himself entirely to writing when he moved to Milan in 1938. He became a member of the hermetic movement of poetry, which is known to be very difficult and obscure. He also was very vocally anti-Fascist, and eventually joined the Italian Communist Party in 1945. After receiving the Nobel Prize in 1959, his poems were translated into many languages and he traveled around Europe and the United States often until his death in 1968 of a cerebral hemorrhage.

13. Eugenio Montale: 1975

Considered the greatest lyric poet since Giacomo Leopardi, Montale also excelled at prose, editing, and translating. Despite the fact that he studied accounting, Montale proved himself to be a self-taught man through his mastery of the fields of philosophy, opera singing, and writing. Alongside his journals and poetry anthologies, Montale was also a culture columnist for Corriere della Sera, one of the most famous Italian newspapers, for many years, as well as a reporter abroad.

14. Dario Fo: 1997

Fo is a Varese-born playwright, satirist, theatre director, and composer who has revived classic Italian commedia dell’arte with his wife Franca Rame in the theatre that they own and operate in Milan. Commedia dell’arte is a type of theatre performance that originated in Italy in the 16th century. Originally it was performed outside and utilized masks and stock characters that improvised their lines and represented various levels of Italian society. Fo’s revamping features themes such as criticisms of the Catholic Church, the conflict in the Middle East, organized crime, political corruption and murders. They are often performed outside of Italy, and Fo encourages the actors to restyle them to reflect current problems in the country they are performed in. He received the Nobel Prize in 1997 for his take on this type of theater. Fo and his wife are also very politically active, and have run for office several times.

Physiology and Medicine

15. Camillo Golgi: 1906

Golgi was born in the region of Lombardy, in a town that is now called Cortena Golgi in his honor. The physician and pathologist dedicated most of his life to studying the central nervous system. He discovered a tendon sensory organ that is named after him (the Golgi receptor), a region of cells in the cerebellum called the Golgi cells, and the Golgi enzyme, among other things. These discoveries changed the understanding of scientists of the human body. He developed a tissue staining technique that is called the Golgi method, and was named a senator by King Umberto I in 1900.

16. Daniel Bovet: 1957

Swiss-born Italian Bovet is best known for his discovery of antihistamines, but his work in pharmacology in general earned him the 1957 Nobel. He also worked on the development of chemotherapy, studied the sympathetic nervous system, and led a study that concluded that smoking tobacco cigarettes increased intelligence. He was a professor at multiple universities, and also the head of the National Research Council until he retired.

17. Salvador Luria: 1969

Microbiologist Luria was born in Turin to a Sephardic Jewish family, and fled Fascist Italy in 1940 for New York under a Rockefeller fellowship from Giuseppe Levi. Together with Max Delbrück, he studied the genetic structure of viruses, and concluded that bacterial resistance to viruses is genetically inherited, following Darwinian (not Lamarckian, as previously thought) principles. He worked at Indiana University, the University of Illinois, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and collaborated on many research experiments through the years, including E. coli, DNA , and enzyme studies. Interestingly, one of his graduate students was James D. Watson, who later was to discover the structure of DNA with Frances Crick. Luria died in 1991 in Massachusetts of a heart attack.

18. Renato Dulbecco: 1975

Virologist Dulbecco won the 1975 Nobel for his work on oncoviruses, or viruses that can cause cancer (such as the human papillomavirus). He often worked under Giuseppe Levi and with two other Italian Physiology and Medicine Nobel winners, Rita Levi- Montalcini and Salvador Luria. Initially, he worked on the polio virus at Caltech, but was very drawn to studying cancer. In 1986, he was among the scientists that launched the Human Genome Project, the initiative to map the 20,000 to 25,000 genes of the human genome. He continued researching cancer cells and breast cancer until his death in 2012 at age 97.

19. Rita Levi-Montalcini: 1986

Born in Turin in 1909, Levi-Montalcini was the oldest living Nobel laureate until her death in 2012 at age 103. She is also the first laureate to reach a 100th birthday. Despite the fact that she received her doctorate in 1936 and commenced working under Giuseppe Levi, she could not work during World War II due to her Sephardic Jewish family origins, and instead conducted her laboratory experiments from home. The neurologist won the Nobel for her discovery of the NGF, or nerve growth factor, a small protein responsible for the survival of certain target neurons, which she discovered during her 30-year tenure at Washington University in St. Louis in the United States. She also served as a Senator for Life for the Italian Senate and was the 1987 recipient of the National Medal of Science.

20. Mario Capecchi: 2007

Geneticist Capecchi won the 2007 Nobel for his creation of “knockout mice”, mice that have been created with certain genes “knocked out”, or replaced with an artificial piece of DNA . They have been used in studies regarding obesity, anxiety, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and diabetes, among others, and are very widely used. Capecchi graduated from Antioch College, MIT, and Harvard, and has been a distinguished professor at the University of Utah since 1973.