Two Generations of Nobel Prize Winners on Father's Day

By Sotheby's

This pair of Nobel Medals for Physics were granted to Manne Siegbahn and Kai Siegbahn in 1925 and 1981, respectively. No other such pair of Nobel Medals has ever appeared together at auction. Manne Siegbahn and his son Kai Siegbahn were both pioneers in spectroscopy, the study of the interaction between matter and electromagnetic radiation: Manne’s work provided key empirical evidence for quantum theory, whilst Kai developed new techniques that have been hugely important to industry. Together, the Siegbahn family’s work traces the trajectory of a key branch of modern science from confirmation of abstruse theories to applications with profound effects on our daily lives.

Remarkably, the Siegbahns are one of four father son pairs to be Physics Nobel Laureates. This astonishing trend of father-son winners can be explained, in part, by Kai Siegbahn’s comment on receipt of his award: “It’s a decided advantage if you start discussing physics every day at breakfast.” It’s no coincidence that Kai’s work builds and develops his father’s, and this pair of medals can be seen as a celebration of the influence a father can have on the mind, education, and imagination of his children.

Two other of the father-son laureates were also awarded their prizes independently; the sons, like Kai Siegbahn, no doubt having first been introduced to the wonder and mystery of the physical world by their fathers. An even more poignant example of fatherly influence was the father-son duo Sir William Henry Bragg and William Lawrence Bragg, who were jointly awarded the prize in 1915 "for their services in the analysis of crystal structure by means of X-rays".


Beyond Physics, two additional father-son pairings have both been awarded Nobel Prizes. Arthur Korberg won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1959, and his son Roger, was awarded the Chemistry Prize in 2006. Hans von Euler-Chelpin was awarded the 1929 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and over forty years later his son Ulf, won the prize for Physiology or Medicine.

The breakfast table discussions extend of course beyond father son duos. Brothers Jan and Nikolaas Tinbergen have each won a Nobel Prize (for Economics and Medicine, respectively). Five married couples have been awarded Nobel Prizes. Four of these couples won the awards jointly. Alva and Gunnar Myrdal, remarkably each won a Nobel Prize independently of each other. Gunnar was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Science in 1974 and eight years later Alva was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in diplomacy and disarmament.


The most exceptional however must be the Curie Family, who, in total, hold no less than five Nobel Prizes. Marie and Pierre Curie jointly won the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with Antoine Henri Becquerel for their discoveries and research into radioactivity and radiation. Less than 10 years later Marie was the recipient of her second Nobel Prize (an honour awarded to only three other individuals), this time in Chemistry, for her discovery of the elements radium and polonium. Irene Joliot-Curie continued the family tradition when she won the 1935 Chemistry prize jointly with her husband Frederic. Taken together, these groups of awards provide a remarkably potent tribute to paternal influence and the power of family.

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