Polish Nobel Winners

The Nobel Prizes are the most distinguished awards in the world. Since their inception in 1901 several ethnic Poles have been winners.

Maria Sklodowska Curie (1867-1934) - Physics 1903, Chemistry 1911 - Born in Warsaw, Maria left occupied Poland at age 23 for the freedom to pursue the study of science. Settling in Paris, she married Pierre Curie and the couple discovered the phenomenon of radioactivity and the elements Polonium (named for Poland) and Radium. For this they received the Physics prize in 1903. Madame Curie also achieved the isolation of pure Radium, and for this was awarded the Nobel for Chemistry in 1911. She is considered to be the greatest female scientist of all time. Photo to the right

Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916) - Literature 1905 - Born into a family involved in the fight against Russia for Polish independence, those ideals are reflected in much of Sienkiewicz's work. Best known for his Deluge trilogy as well as Quo Vadis, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1905. He traveled to America and his impressions of this country were published in Polish newspapers. A prolific writer, his complete works encompass 60 volumes.

Wladyslaw Reymont (1868-1925) - Literature 1924 - Like Sienkiewicz, Reymont (original family name Rejment) was born into a family involved in the struggle against Russia. His parents were well to do but he split with them over their strict conservatism, traveled with an acting troupe and worked as a railroad clerk. These experiences provided fodder for his socially-tinged writings, and he received the Nobel in Literature in 1924 for his epic Chłopi (The Peasants), a groundbreaking novel depicting rural Polish life.Photo to the left

Irene Joliet-Curie (1897-1956) - Chemistry 1935 - Irene Curie was born in Paris, the elder daughter of Pierre and Marie Curie. A brilliant scientist in her own right, she became her mother's assistant in 1918. She married Frederick Joliet and together they discovered artificial radioactivity. They were awarded the Nobel for Chemistry in 1935. Irene Curie became involved in the social issues concerning the use of radioactivity.

Czesław Miłosz (1911-2005) - Literature 1980 - Miłosz was a Polish Lithuanian author who worked as a diplomat in New York for Poland's communist government in the 1940s. He was suspected of harboring anti-communist views and was arrested and sent into exile in 1951, settling in California where he became Professor of Slavic Literature for UC Berkeley. His poetry was translated into English and world renown followed. His work The Captive Mind led to the Nobel Prize. Miłosz later returned to Poland where he died in 2005. Photo to the right

Lech Wałęsa (1943- ) - Peace 1983 - In 1980 this Gdansk shipyard electrician in the free trade union movement in Poland led a strike for expanded workers' rights which spread throughout the entire country and changed the world. The strikes crippled the government, which was forced to agree to the strikers' demands. Later Wałęsa was arrested, martial law was declared and the newly won rights rescinded. But for his efforts in leading non-violent democratic change in Poland, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. Eventually Poland, followed by the rest of communist Europe, became free. Walesa was elected president in 1990. Today he is a private citizen living near Gdansk.Photo to the left from the visit of Lech Walesa in the US - read more about Lech Walesa Visits Washington During Solidarity's 25th Anniversary

Wislawa Szymborska (1923- ) - Literature 1996 - Writing beautiful, moving poetry since 1945, Szymborska's works were published in dozens of languages and she became one of Poland's most famous poets with admirers throughout the world. Her collective works won for her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. She lives in Kraków.

Gunter Grass (1927- ) - Literature 1999 - Gunter Grass was born in the German dominated Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland) of a German father and a Polish Kashubian mother. He is best known for his novel The Tin Drum, set in Poland and Danzig during the Nazi era. Though a German writer and citizen, many of his works are set in Danzig-Gdansk. He became dedicated to the peace and environmental movements. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999. In 2006, after decades of urging Germans to confront their Nazi past, he admitted that he had been a soldier in the SS.

Frank Wilczek (1951- )- Physics 2004 - Frank Wilczek is a physics professor at MIT and a third generation Polish-Italian American whose grandfather was in Haller's Army. With two other scientists he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2004 for his theories related to subatomic particles and the forces holding them together.

Although not ethnic Poles, many other Nobel Laureates have connections to Poland, typically of Jewish or German roots who were born or resided there:

  • Albert A. Michelson - Physics 1907
  • Walther H. Nernst - Chemistry 1920
  • Isador Rabi - Physics 1944
  • Tadeus Reichstein - Medicine 1950
  • Maria Goppert-Mayer - Physics 1963
  • Shmuel Agnon - Literature 1966
  • Andrew V. Schally - Medicine 1977
  • Isaac Bashevis Singer - Literature 1978
  • Menachem Begin - Peace 1978
  • Roald Hoffman - Chemistry 1981
  • Klaus Von Klitzing - Physics 1985
  • Georges Charpak - Physics 1992
  • Shimon Peres - Peace 1994
  • Jozef Rotblat - Peace 1995
  • Gunter Blobel - Medicine 1999 Roger Kornberg - Medicine 2006

    The 1965 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to UNICEF, the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund. It was accepted by UNICEF's executive director, Henri Labouisse, husband of Eve Curie, younger daughter of Maria Sklodowska Curie.

    written by Martin S. Nowak
    October 2007, Check all Martin's articles at Martin Nowak Corner

    Read articles about
  • Famous Poles,
  • Women in Poland's Early History
  • Famous Polish and Eastern European Filmmakers: Forman, Polanski, Wajda .


    I recommend a very interesting biography of Maria Curie by Sarah Dry
    Curie (Life & Times)


    I also recommend Lech Walesa autobiography
    The Struggle and the Triumph: An Autobiography




    This article was published in the complete paper edition of Polish-American Journal, you may subscribe to it here.

    Martin Nowak is a resident of Lancaster, N.Y, a baby-boomer who was born and raised on Buffalo's Polish East Side. He attended Alfred State College in New York and is a U.S. Army veteran who recently retired after a career in the federal civil service. He has previously contributed Polish-themed articles to various publications and provided data used in a recent book on the U.S. presidents.


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