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Meet Some of the (Many!) Cornellians Who’ve Won the Nobel

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We offer a sampling of alums and profs who’ve earned one of the world’s top accolades—including a 2023 laureate in economics!

By Lindsay Lennon

For their extraordinary contributions to human knowledge, 51 people associated with Cornell have won the Nobel Prize over the years—an august roster that includes alumni, former faculty, and several current professors. The Big Red laureates have primarily won in the categories of physics, chemistry, and physiology/medicine, but also in literature and economics; two have been honored with the Peace Prize.

One of those peace Nobelists is an alum—described below—while the other is famed agronomist Norman Borlaug, known as the father of the Green Revolution. Like Borlaug, a number of Cornell-affiliated Nobel laureates have served as A.D. White Professors-at-Large—such as renowned poet Octavio Paz and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne.

Here, in no particular order, is a sampling of the Cornellian laureates (including one brand-new winner, and two who were recently depicted on the big screen!), focusing on alumni and full-time faculty.

Claudia Goldin ’67

Economics (2023)

In October 2023, Goldin became the first woman ever to win a solo Nobel in economic sciences (and the third to win in the category overall).

The Arts & Sciences alum was lauded for providing “the first comprehensive account of women’s earnings and labor market participation through the centuries,” according to the Nobel organization.

Claudia Goldin
(Wikimedia Commons)

Through her extensive analysis of data spanning two centuries, Goldin demonstrated that women are sorely underrepresented in the global labor market—and those who do work earn less than men.

While the gender gap in earnings has historically been chalked up to differences in education and occupations, Goldin’s research shows that most pay inequalities are now occurring between men and women in the same fields—and that it mostly occurs within a year or two of a woman giving birth to her first child.

“We see a residue of history around us,” she told the New York Times. “We’re never going to have gender equality until we also have couple equity.”

The first woman offered tenure in economics at Harvard, Goldin holds a doctorate in the field from the University of Chicago.

A photo of Pearl Buck
(Wikimedia Commons)

Pearl Buck, MA 1925

Literature (1938)

Buck is best known for her fiction depicting the extreme hardships of early-20th-century Chinese villagers.

She’s one of only 17 women to have won the Nobel in literature; the others include a fellow Cornellian (see below).

The child of American missionaries, Buck spent the first half of her life in China—except for college (at a small women’s school in Virginia) and grad school on the Hill, where she earned a master’s in English literature.

She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for her novel The Good Earth and is credited as one of the first writers to expose the American public to Asian life and culture.

While many of Buck’s works are no longer widely read, The Good Earth remains a staple of high school English classes, and Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club in 2004.

Hans Bethe

Physics (1967)

The renowned scientist and humanitarian was one of the most celebrated faculty members in Cornell history.

On the Hill, a West Campus residence bears his name.

After arriving as a refugee from Nazi Germany in 1935, he took the physics department to new heights with groundbreaking research on nuclear reactions—including his Nobel-winning discoveries regarding energy production in stars.

A photo of Hans Bethe
(Cornell University)

He was a leader of the Manhattan Project during World War II, helping to develop the first atomic bomb. He figures prominently in Christopher Nolan’s 2023 hit film Oppenheimer, in which he’s played by Gustaf Skarsgård.

Bethe went on to become an eloquent voice in the debate over nuclear arms control and advised several U.S. presidents on national security policy regarding nuclear weapons and power.

Barbara McClintock 1923, PhD 1927

Physiology/Medicine (1983)

Through her pioneering research on the hereditary characteristics of corn, McClintock proved that some genes could change position on a chromosome—which, in turn, can activate or deactivate other nearby genes.

By observing that genes could “transpose” as well as mutate, McClintock posited that physical traits could be switched on and off depending on certain conditions. She spent decades defending her findings, which flew in the face of popular theory.

Barbara McClintock
McClintock at the microscope. (Smithsonian Institution Archives)

Despite the skepticism of both colleagues and her family—who, according to her Nobel bio, preferred that she marry rather than go into academia—McClintock devoted her life to research. She received countless honors, including a Guggenheim fellowship; in 1944, she became the third woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

On the Hill, a North Campus residence hall bears her name, as does a life sciences lecture series in CALS.

Roald Hoffmann
(Cornell University)

Roald Hoffmann

Chemistry (1981)

Hoffmann is one of a handful of Nobelists currently on the Cornell faculty (where he has served since 1965).

He’s not just a prize-winning researcher who has advanced understanding of chemical reactions, but a longtime examiner of the intersections of art, science, philosophy, and literature.

In several of his works, Hoffmann explores how science intertwines with our everyday existence and fundamental beliefs.

His books include Old Wine, New Flasks: Reflections on Science and Jewish Tradition. He’s also a poet—publishing his fifth collection, Constants of the Motion, in 2020.

After his father perished in a Nazi labor camp, Hoffmann and his mother hid in a schoolhouse attic in Ukraine for more than a year. They eventually settled in Brooklyn, and he went on to study chemical physics at Columbia and Harvard.

Toni Morrison, MA ’55

Literature (1993)

Morrison’s novels—iconic works like The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Beloved—explore the history and lives of Black Americans.

“Morrison’s works often depict difficult circumstances and the dark side of humanity,” noted her Nobel nominators, “but still convey integrity and redemption.”

Toni Morrison
Morrison during a campus visit in 2013. (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

Morrison also garnered many other major honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Like McClintock, she’s the namesake of a North Campus residence.

Morrison frequently returned to the Hill, including serving as an A.D. White Professor from 1997–2003.

“Cornell was the first place in my life where I was treated as a human being,” she once wrote to her thesis advisor. “I was welcomed there into the human race and, good or ill, I have been there ever since. Now, that, I think, was progress.”

John Mott
(Wikimedia Commons)

John Mott 1888

Peace Prize (1946)

The only Big Red alum to win the Peace Prize, Mott devoted much of his life to spreading religious gospel, particularly as the longtime national head of the YMCA.

The Nobel recognized “his contribution to the creation of a peace-promoting religious brotherhood across natural boundaries,” according to his nominators.

Mott’s long relationship with the YMCA began as a student on the Hill, where he served as president of the group’s Cornell chapter.

After graduation, he worked internationally with the YMCA for decades, and received a Distinguished Service Medal for service as a general secretary in the National War Work Council during World War I.

Eric Betzig, PhD ’88

Chemistry (2014)

Through his research on fluorescence—the process in which light exposure causes substances to become illuminated—Betzig helped make it possible to observe activity inside living cells with a traditional microscope.

By harnessing the ability to turn fluorescence on and off in certain molecules, he helped develop a method, called single-molecule microscopy, that yields detailed images of the nano-sized world previously unachievable by optical microscopes.

Eric Betzig speaks on stage at a podium
Speaking on the Hill during the Charter Day celebration in 2015. (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

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Betzig worked for AT&T Bell Labs after earning his doctorate. He left academia in the ’90s for the private sector, but returned to help conduct the research that led to his Nobel. He’s now a professor of physics and cellular and molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Isidor Isaac Rabi
(Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Isidor Isaac Rabi 1919

Physics (1944)

Through his discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance, Rabi paved the way for countless other scientific breakthroughs.

They include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the atomic clock, and the laser.

He also worked on the Manhattan Project and was present at the inaugural test of the atomic bomb in 1945. (In Oppenheimer, Rabi is portrayed by David Krumholtz.)

According to a bio of Rabi from the National Parks Service, he often said: “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending to. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school, ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference—asking good questions—made me become a scientist.”

Robert Fogel ’48

Economics (1993)

In the early 1960s, Fogel made a name for himself with a then-provocative report that railroads had a far smaller impact on the U.S. economy than previously believed.

He stoked even more controversy with his 1974 book, Time on the Cross, which analyzed slavery’s role in the nation’s economic development.

Fogel was known in the economics community as an interdisciplinarian who incorporated data from diverse sources into his research.

Robert Fogel
(Cornell University)

As a New York Times obituary observed of the University of Chicago faculty member: “Professor Fogel, a rumpled former New Yorker by turns amiable and combative, was widely known for work that aroused objections if not open hostility in academic circles, chiefly through his pioneering use of cliometrics, which applies economic theory and statistical methods to the study of history.”

Robert Holley, PhD ’47

Physiology or Medicine (1968)

A biochemistry professor on the Hill, Holley was the first person to successfully isolate tRNA—the link between DNA and protein synthesis—and map its structure.

As part of his graduate studies, Holley spent two years studying at Weill Cornell Medicine (as it’s now known), where he participated in the first chemical synthesis of penicillin.

A group of scientists in lab coats
Holley (far left) in the lab. (Wikimedia Commons)

After earning his doctorate, he joined the Cornell faculty in organic chemistry, both at the Geneva Agricultural Experiment Station and in Ithaca.

A facility on the Ithaca campus—the USDA’s Robert W. Holley Center for Agriculture & Health—is named in his honor.

Holley was married to a fellow alum, Arts & Sciences grad Ann Dworkin Holley ’46, BA ’45, MA ’47.

Harold Varmus
(Wikimedia Commons)

Harold Varmus

Physiology or Medicine (1989)

Varmus, who joined the Weill Cornell Medicine faculty in 2015, is a world leader in the study of oncogenes (cancer-causing genes)—notably, the fact that cancer can occur through the transformation of a normal cell.

He led the National Institutes of Health for most of the 1990s, then served as president and CEO of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. In 2010, President Barack Obama appointed him to head the National Cancer Institute.

Today, Varmus—the Lewis Thomas University Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine—continues conducting research on potential treatment applications of cancer genomes.

Kenneth Wilson

Physics (1982)

Through his research on phase transitions of matter—from solid to liquid to gas, for example—Wilson developed a theoretical understanding of how to measure “tricky moments like when ice melts or an iron bar loses its magnetism,” according to his New York Times obituary.

He went on to apply his theories to countless other fields, from abstract math to supercomputing.

Kenneth Wilson in front of a chalkboard
(Rare and Manuscript Collections)

He played a crucial role in the NSF’s establishment of five national scientific supercomputing centers, including one on the Hill.

Wilson served on the Cornell faculty from 1963­–87. As the Times also reported, one of the things that drew him to the University was Ithaca’s folk dancing scene. He met his wife—Alison Brown, MS ’85—while doing a Swedish dance called the hambo.

Richard Feynman

Physics (1965)

Known in scientific circles as the “Great Explainer,” Feynman was famously grounded in his lectures—committed to presenting ideas in physical forms rather than as abstract theories.

The much-lauded physicist, who taught on the Hill from 1945–1950, helped to create graphic representations of interactions between particles, now known as Feynman diagrams.

His legendary talks at Caltech in the 1960s became the basis of a renowned three-volume series, The Feynman Lectures on Physics.

Richard Feynman in front of a chalkboard
(Wikimedia Commons)

He also delivered a famed lecture series on the Hill in 1964.

Peter Debye
(Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Peter J.W. Debye

Chemistry (1936)

In 1912, Debye developed a method to determine the distribution of electric charges within a molecule.

This work became crucial in achieving one of the overarching goals of chemistry: seeing what molecules look like.

Debye served on the Cornell faculty from 1940–50, coming to the Hill after decades at various universities across Europe, from Switzerland to the Netherlands.

His Nobel-winning research dealt with using X-rays and electron beams to map molecular structures in gases.

David Lee, Douglas Osheroff, PhD ’73 & Robert Richardson

Physics (1996)

The trio of experimental physicists shared the Nobel for a discovery regarding helium: they verified that a specific form of the element flows without friction at extremely low temperatures.

Five Nobel Prize winning physicists stand next to each other
Five Big Red Nobelists pose for a group shot in 1996, in celebration of the trio’s win. From left: Osheroff, Bethe, Lee, Hoffmann, and Richardson. (Cornell University)

The late Richardson joined the faculty in 1968 and remained on the Hill for his entire career. Osheroff—now a professor emeritus at Stanford—is his former doctoral student.

Lee, now 92, joined the Cornell faculty in 1959. He remains a professor emeritus of physics, as well as a distinguished professor at Texas A&M.

Top: Illustration by Caitlin Cook / Cornell University.

Published September 15, 2023; updated October 9, 2023


  1. Lee Kass, Class of 1975

    Barbara McClintock taught many courses at Cornell as a faculty member (1927-1931). She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1933, and was appointed one of Cornell’s first A.D. White Professors-at-Large (1964-1975). Unfortunately, legends abound regarding McClintock. The story of marrying into wealth is one such FALSE legend. Her mother had attended Emerson College in Boston, and very well knew the value of an education for women.

    H.J. Muller, 1946 Nobel prize winner in Physiology/Medicine (Columbia Ph.D.),took classes at Cornell Med, and was a Messenger Lecturer at Cornell.

    • Melissa Yorks, Class of 1975

      Yet as a bio major at Cornell (also class of ‘75) I never hear about her. Maybe because I was a transfer student and took genetics elsewhere?

  2. Randall Nixon, Class of 1978

    Hans Bethe taught an interdisciplinary course in my senior year (1978) called “Physics and Global Uncertainty in the Nuclear Age”, and it was amazing. A generation later, my daughter lived for two years in the Hans Bethe dorms on west campus.

    • Dexter Wang, Class of 1969

      I was an Engineering Physics Major (’69) when Prof. Bethe won the prize. He was famous for his stairwell talks. A student would catch him in the stairwell of Rockerfeller and ask him a question. He would start talking and we would just sit on the steps and listen. He must have liked it because it happened quite often.

    • Tim Lynch, Class of 1990

      I never got to have Bethe for an actual class, but I remember that he gave a guest lecture in my freshman E&M class in 1987; it was riveting.

  3. Sabrina Moran, Class of 2003

    David Lee taught my Freshman level Physics section in the Fall of 1999. He was wonderful. I loved that class. I will never forget the awe of walking into my first Physics section with a Nobel laureate for my instructor. Just amazing.

  4. Andy Alpart, Class of 1990

    I knew I was at a “big league” university when I went to Baker to hear Linus Pauling speak, and I was annoyed because some guy blocked my view by sitting right in front of me, and when that guy turned around I saw it was Hans Bethe. I conceded that he could sit wherever he pleased.

    • Jennifer Leeds, Class of 1991

      I actually hid under the seats in Baker, after my Chem 207 class, so I could see the Linus Pauling lecture! When people started filing in I just popped my head up and too a seat. I wasn’t going to miss it for anything!

  5. Dzmitry Kolkin, Class of 2016

    While studying at Cornell I got a regretful feeling that I hadn’t chosen physics as a major. Cornell inspired me to incline to a more data driven path in my profession. This helped me to become more competent and more satisfied with results of my work. I think the heritage those (and many other) Cornellians has left gave me strength, enrich with a feeling that I can do more, inspired me to set ambitious goals and achieve them, and finally, made me think that “i know that i know nothing”. These keep me going…

  6. Dennis Mudge, Class of 1975

    Love Cornell! Long career with Cornell Extension and then University of Florida IFAS Extension. Distinguished Service Award 2020.

    • April Wright Lucas, Class of 1979

      I agree, Dennis Mudge, Cornell was and still is a great experience. It has afforded me continuing experiences and learning to share researched information to help many others. Currently at Cornell Cooperative Extension Educator,19 years. Distinguished Service Award 2023

  7. Jonathan Cohen, Class of 1978

    Roald Hoffman was (and I’m sure still is) a wonderful teacher who made freshman chemistry an exciting experience for me and many others. What a privilege to learn the basics of chemistry from such a great teacher and scientist.

  8. Eugenia Barnaba, Class of 1974

    I was a new staff member in the Engineering and Physics Department when Hans Bethe won his Nobel Prize, and I was based in the original Rockefeller Hall on the Cornell campus. The day of the formal announcement, Professor Bethe was scheduled to give a routine early morning Physics class lecture in the 100+ seating lecture hall on the third floor. I was working on the first floor when an uproarious clamor and shouts of appreciation and joy resounded throughout the building from the attending students when their great mentor Hans Bethe entered the lecture hall. Office staff and other faculty rushed upstairs in order to join in that wonderful occasion. It was a truly awesome experience to be a part of the celebration and of history at Cornell. After that, I was inspired to go on to earn both a bachelor’s and master’s degree, not in Physics, but as an Aggie in the College of Agriculture and Lif Sciences.

  9. Keegan Fonte, Class of 2025

    I loved this article! Thank you for sharing.

    If there are any famous LGBTQ+ Cornellians, I’d love an article about that too.

  10. Patrick J Lyons, Class of 1979

    As the disaster was unfolding at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979, Hans Bethe patiently explained to a freshman interviewer from WVBR who buttonholed him in Phillips Hall about which isotopes would be the most “troublesome” — his word — if detected leaking from the plant, and why. His remarks were a highlight of the student-run radio station’s coverage of the crisis, and spoke volumes about his collegial generosity.

  11. Karen Viglione Lauterwasser

    When I was in grad school in the late ’70s, I was doing some lab work that involved photography. At the time Debye’s Nobel medal as well as some other awards were about to be returned to Debye’s widow so someone decided there ought to be documentary photographs taken and the medals arrived in the same lab I was working in. I was thrilled to be able to see a Nobel medal close up – certainly as close as I expect to ever be.

  12. Vikas Tibrewala, Class of 1983

    Richard Thaler (Economics, 2017), was a professor at the Business School for many years in the late 70s, early 80s.
    As a result, we were exposed to “Behavioral Economics” long before it became fashionable.

  13. David Tanner, Class of 1972

    William E. (WE) Moerner got his Physics PhD in 1982 with Albert J. Sievers and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014 “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy.”

  14. Houston H. Stokes, Class of 1962

    Engle a Phd from Cornell in Economics is missing from your list. I was an Economics major at Cornell. I went on to a PhD from U Chicago in 1969 and was helped by Fogel I taught for 50 years at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

  15. Judy Gleklen Kopff, Class of 1968

    Fascinating article! I read every word as well as every comment. Thanks very much. I hope that this article shows up on the Cornell website so that every high school student who is considering Cornell may read it.
    Judy Gleklen Kopff, Arts ’68
    “2018 CAAAN Chair of the Year”
    Washington, DC

  16. Frank Millerd

    In 1967, while in a PhD program in agricultural economics, I had a reserved carrel on the fourth floor of Olin library. To keep up I was working there day and night. A student with another carrel close by only came in occasionally for a few hours. I thought this guy must be really smart. I was right. Thirty-six years later, in 2003, Robert Engle, PhD 1969, was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

  17. Martin Root, Class of 1973

    Vincent du Vigneaud was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1955 “for his work on biochemically important sulphur compounds, especially for the first synthesis of a polypeptide hormone”. He was a faculty member at Cornell at the time of the award. When I graduated with a BS in Biochemistry in 1973, his lab had an opening for a lab technician. I went to his office to inquire about the position. It became quickly apparent that I was completely unqualified for the position but Dr. du Vigneaud was patient and we talked about possible careers and he joked about the two stuffed chickens that were displayed on his shelf. They had something to do with the hormones he synthesized and won the prize for. A wonderful man.

    • Marilyn du Vigneaud Brown, Class of 1957

      My father, Vincent du Vigneaud, PhD, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1955, and at that time both my brother and I were attending Cornell in Ithaca. Both of us went on to Cornell University Medical College to get our MD degrees.

  18. Cynthia Kubas, Class of 1978

    Jack W. Szostak won the 2009 Nobel prize in Medicine or Physiology. He got his PhD from Cornell in Prof. Ray Wu’s lab. I was a lab tech for Prof. Volker Vogt during that time in the same department in Wing Hall.

  19. Dr. Marco Di Capua

    I had the privilege of attending the Messenger Series of lectures delivered by Richard Feynman in 1964. He explained that planets defy Nrwton’s Laws of rectilinear motion because angels push their trajectories inwards. The lectures have been transcribed in a paperback titled “The Character of Physical Law”
    Rockefeller Hall was a wonderful home to physics learning as it provided a stage where students and faculty could bridge gaps of knowledge in stairways and hallways.

  20. tom porter

    Having grown up a faculty brat from the chemistry department at Cornell, my childhood was filled with what my father referred to as applied statistics meetings at our house, at least once a month. These so-called applied statistics meetings were poker games, which usually included no less than two of the Nobel prize winners, and sometimes more. The brain trusts that I was allowed to bring beer and salami to as a social event in our home never struck me as odd as they were all like family. As I went out into the real world, and I realized how amazing these men were. Growing up in Ithaca was a magical experience and I’m saddened to see what it’s turning into now.

  21. Helen Tsai , parent, Class of 2018

    My husband won the chemistry prize and received the Merck award from Hoffman himself. Having taken classes from famed professors like Hoffman and Sagan in the 80s,hubby still felt the intellectual intensity when he went back to Cornell. Eve
    Life after Cornell was easier, he would say. As fate would have it, our son also went to Cornell and graduated from Chemistry 30 years.

  22. Eric Norman, Class of 1972

    I took CHEM 115 with Prof. Hoffman in the fall of 1968. Although I did not understand everything he discussed (especially the quantum mechanics he attempted to teach a bunch of freshmen) I recognized that he was a remarkable scientist. I told my classmates that he would one day win the Nobel prize. Many years later,I turned out to be correct.

  23. Arnie C Schwartz, Class of 1971

    Bob Richardson was a really smart person who had the ability to explain complex things so even I could understand them. It was always a pleasure talking with him, easy to get along with and an all around good guy.

  24. Stephen Schmal, Class of 1962

    Although I am a Cornell grad (class of ’62), I never had contact with any of the Cornell Nobel prize winners. But I know my dad, a physician in Ithaca, had at least one — Hans Bethe — as a patient and I’m pretty sure that another — Peter Debye — was also a patient. Only in Ithaca.

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