On Monday in Stockholm, the Royal Academy of Sciences will present the Nobel Prize in chemistry to Bronx-reared Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, and the Nobel in economics to Queens-raised Alvin Roth. Lefkowitz, a graduate of the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, and Roth, soon to depart the faculty of Harvard for Stanford, are the 39th and 40th graduates of New York City public high schools to win a Nobel Prize.
Thirty-five of these graduates are Jewish, and two other Jewish laureates were educated in Manhattan private schools: physics winner Murray Gell-Mann, a graduate of Columbia Grammar High School, and economics laureate Robert Aumann, who studied at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. (Aumann later immigrated to Israel and became a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.)
Among these Jewish laureates educated in New York City — who account for nearly 4.5 percent of all 835 individuals to win a Nobel Prize — the overwhelming majority are the children or grandchildren of Eastern European Jews who came to American between 1881 and 1924, during the Great Migration. Isidor Isaac Rabi, the physics Nobelist in 1944, is one of thousands from this historic exodus who made gigantic contributions to America in many fields.
Growing up on Manhattan’s heavily Jewish Lower East Side and in Brownsville, Brooklyn, Rabi graduated from Brooklyn’s Manual Training High School in 1916, nearly two decades after Irving Langmuir, a non-Jewish Nobel laureate in chemistry, graduated from the same high school. Barbara McClintock (medicine), Russell Hulse (physics), Frank Wilczek (physics) and Paul Greengard (medicine) are the four other non-Jewish Nobel laureates educated in New York City public schools.
After earning earlier degrees from Cornell and Columbia, Rabi received a doctorate from Columbia and taught at the world-renowned university between 1927 and 1988. An incredible 21 Nobel laureates studied at Columbia and/or taught there. This remarkable clustering resulted from the refusal of other leading universities, including Harvard, Princeton and Yale, to accept more than a small Jewish presence until the 1960s.
Indeed, of the 37 Jewish Nobelists from New York City, 10 received bachelor’s degrees from Columbia, nine from City College and five from Cornell. Only four graduated from Harvard, and Princeton and Yale produced just one each. A comprehensive account of this history is provided in Jerome Karabel’s “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton.”
Rabi also supervised the Columbia doctoral dissertations of six other physics laureates who graduated from a city public high school: Julian Schwinger, Leon Lederman, Martin Perl, Arno Penzias, Leon Cooper and Melvin Schwartz. When he died in 1988, the New York Times’ obituary included this remarkable statement from Rabi, the scientific adviser to several American presidents:
“It’s a miracle that a sickly child from a Lower East Side poverty-stricken family moved in one generation to where I did. Had we stayed in Europe, I probably would have been a tailor.”
Jewish New Yorkers succeeded despite the refusal of Harvard, Princeton and Yale to accept more than a small Jewish presence until the 1960s
Of New York City’s Jewish laureates, 32 were born in America between 1915 and 1937, and many were among the 550,000 Jewish Americans who served in the armed forces during World War II.
Others performed crucial scientific research on the homefront. At Los Alamos, Dr. Roy Glauber, another of Bronx Science’s eight Nobel laureates (seven in physics), worked with Richard Feynman, the future Nobel physics laureate and a graduate of Far Rockaway High School in Queens, on the atomic bomb.
Physicist Robert Oppenheimer, the civilian head of the Manhattan Project during the war, was born to an affluent German-Jewish family in New York City in 1904, and attended the private Ethical Culture/Fieldston School. Oppenheimer, who never won the Nobel, is one of the few German-Jewish New Yorkers who became a world-renowned scientist.
But many German-Jewish New Yorkers were prominent in other fields, including business, law, government and Jewish communal service. By contrast, beginning in the last decades of the 19th century and continuing until Hitler’s rise to power, Jews in Germany were amply represented among the country’s scientific elite, including more than a dozen science Nobel laureates such as Albert Einstein and Paul Ehrlich.
Baruj Benacerraf, a Nobel laureate in medicine, wasn’t educated in New York City public schools, but his incredible life journey brought him to New York City as a 20-year-old. Born in Venezuela in 1920 to a Sephardic Jewish family from North Africa, he lived with his family in France until 1940, when they fled the Nazis for New York City. After completing his undergraduate degree in 1942 at Columbia, Benacerraf was accepted into the Medical College of Virginia despite the quotas then in effect for Jewish students at many American medical schools. A year later, his medical studies were interrupted when he was drafted into the army and acquired American citizenship. He completed his medical degree after the war.
With many young Jewish New Yorkers now attending private schools and yeshivas, will this parade of Jewish-American Nobel laureates slow down?
Similarly, economics laureate Aumann (born in 1930), peace laureate Henry Kissinger, medicine laureate Eric Kandel and physics laureate Penzias escaped from Hitler’s Germany or Austria shortly before the Nazis’ invasion and occupation of the western half of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. In the spring of 1939, when Penzias was 6 years old, he was sent with a younger brother on a Kindertransport from Munich to England, where they were quickly reunited with their parents and sailed for New York City.
Kandel, who was 10 in 1939, when he emigrated from Vienna to Brooklyn, writes in his extraordinary autobiographical essay on the Nobel website about the “profound sense of gratitude I came to feel for the life I have led in the United States.” His brilliant recounting of the love-hate relationship between Jewish and Christian Austrians, and his analysis of the country’s virulent anti-Semitism, are the work of a first-rate historian.
Rosalyn Sussman Yalow and Gertrude Elion, two Jewish women who graduated from the same Bronx public high school (Walton) and then Manhattan’s Hunter College, were separately awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine. Economist Anna Schwartz, who died earlier this year, also graduated from Walton, and many observers felt she should have shared the economics Nobel with Milton Friedman, with whom she collaborated on several major research projects.
Despite the many prominent Jewish-American authors who grew up and were educated in New York City, including Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick and E.L Doctorow, none has yet won the Nobel Prize in literature.
Roth, the newly minted economics laureate, worked at Israel’s Hebrew University and Technion while on sabbatical. Israel has produced 10 Nobel laureates, and its rise to world-class scientific status is a magnificent historical development that would have deeply gratified Einstein, who was instrumental in founding the Hebrew University.
Unquestionably, a major reason for the remarkable progress and accomplishments of Jewish Americans since the end of the 19th century is the first-rate educations that millions received in New York City’s public schools. With many young Jewish New Yorkers now attending private schools and yeshivas, whose science and math courses are not comparable to those offered at the city’s top public high schools (including Bronx Science, Stuyvesant, Townsend Harris and Brooklyn Tech), will this parade of Jewish-American Nobel-winning scientists slow down?
While a Nobel Prize has not yet been awarded to a Jewish-American chemist, physicist or medical doctor whose family arrived in New York City in the Second Great Migration — the arrival of Soviet Jewry, which began four decades ago — I predict that this inspiring milestone will be achieved in the coming years. And this glorious local tradition of Jewish intellectual achievement, especially in the natural sciences, will continue well into a second century.
Jewish laureates educated in New York City account for nearly 4.5 percent of all 835 individuals to win a Nobel Prize
The breakdown by discipline for the 37 Jewish Nobel laureates who were raised and educated in New York City are: 14 in physics, 12 in medicine, five in chemistry, five in economics and one for peace.
Chemistry: Paul Berg, Roald Hoffmann, Jerome Karle, Herbert Hauptman and Robert Lefkowitz
Medicine: Herman Muller, Joshua Lederberg, Arthur Kornberg, George Wald, Julius Axelrod, Gerald Edelman, Baruch Blumberg, Stanley Cohen, Richard Axel, Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, Gertrude Elion and Eric Kandel
Physics: Robert Hofstadter, Burton Richter, Sheldon Glashow, Steven Weinberg, H. David Politizer, Isidor Isaac Rabi, Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger, Murray Gell-Mann, Leon Cooper, Arno Penzias, Roy Glauber, Melvin Schwartz and Martin Perl
Economics: Kenneth Arrow, Robert Solow, Gary Becker, Robert Fogel and Alvin Roth
Peace: Henry Kissinger