Two Nobel prizes in literature will be awarded this year—to make up for the lack of one in 2018, following scandals around the Swedish Academy. Since 1901, more than 800 citizens and institutions from across 72 countries have been awarded a Nobel Prize in recognition of their academic, cultural, and scientific achievements. But there have been no Brazilians on that list. Why is that?

The short answer is education. Of the six Nobel Prize categories, only two are not utterly dependent on an excellent education: peace and literature. It is something of a consensus that Brazilian institutions are not yet capable of producing groundbreaking research in most fields analyzed by the Nobel committee: chemistry, physics, medicine, and economics.

For the sake of argument, we can compare Brazil to the country which is home to the highest number of laureates, the United States, with 259. Forty-two percent of American adults graduate from a university; in Brazil, only 11 percent obtain an academic degree. But this result is by no means simply a matter of quantity, as the quality of education is also a major issue. Among the world’s top 100 universities according to the Times Higher Education rankings, 41 are in the U.S.—7 in the top 10—whereas Brazil’s top-ranked institution, the University of São Paulo (USP), doesn’t crack the top 250. USP, meanwhile, is haunted by debt and a lack of funding for research.

We agree that comparing Brazil to the U.S. is unfair, given their historical and economic differences. But this situation is not much better when looking closer to home. Seventeen people from eight Latin American countries have already won a Nobel Prize. Among the BRICS – the group formed by Brazil, India, China, and Russia – Brazil is the only country without a Nobel winner of its own. 


latin america nobel prize


Close calls for the Nobel prize

There were, however, a few Brazilians who came close. In 1950, physician Cesar Lattes proved the existence of the “pion,” a composite subatomic particle made of a quark and an antiquark. The research was awarded the prize. The winner, however, was Britain’s Cecil Powell, the head of Mr. Lattes’ laboratory—but who didn’t have a direct role in the research.

Technically, one person born in Brazil has won a Nobel. Peter Brian Medawar—also known as “the father of organ transplantation”—was born in Petropolis in 1915, but grew up in the UK, his mother’s country. He lost his Brazilian citizenship due to not completing military service, an obligation for 18-year-old teens. So when he won the Nobel prize in Medicine for discovering acquired immune tolerance (which is key for organ transplants), it counted as one more for the Brits.

César Lattes nobel prize brazil

César Lattes

Brazilian sanitary physician Carlos Chagas was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize. Mr. Chagas identified a new species of parasite endemic to tropical regions, and discovered how it attacks humans. His work became a classic in medicine, and he was granted the prestigious Schaudinn Prize in June 1912. The new tropical disease was named after him, Chagas disease. At the time, however, only Europeans and Americans received the nod for the Nobel.

More recently, the most prestigious Brazilian scientist alive, Miguel Nicolelis, was nominated in 2009 for his work on Parkinson’s disease, but failed to win. Mr. Nicodelis cannot be discarded as a potential winner in the future, however; the Brazilian scientist leads research on how a “robo-suit” and virtual reality could help prevent paralysis in people with spinal cord injuries. His work is conducted in the U.S., which increases his chances of ever winning the prize.

In the less-technical categories, Brazilians have had a few chances to win. One of the greatest writers in the country’s history, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, declined the opportunity to compete in 1967 upon being requested by the Swedish Commission to send his work for evaluation. At the time, he declared that he thought the honor should go to another fellow writer, Jorge Amado.

In 1990, Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work aiding the victims of political repression during the Brazilian military dictatorship. Arns used his position as Archbishop of São Paulo to fight for the liberation of political prisoners. His competition at the time? Nelson Mandela.

Read the full story NOW!

SocietyMar 07, 2019

Tags: - - -

BY The Brazilian Report

We are an in-depth content platform about Brazil, made by Brazilians and destined to foreign audiences.