Africa's Nobel Prize Winners

Nobel Square, Cape Town. The statues honor South Africa's four Peace Prize Winners, Albert Luthuli, Desmond Tutu, F.W. de Klerk, and Nelson Mandela. Harvey Barrison, 2012. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 via Flikr. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

25 Nobel Laureates have been born in Africa. Of those, 10 have been from South Africa, and another six were born in Egypt. The other countries to have produced a Nobel Laureate are (French) Algeria, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Morocco, and Nigeria. Scroll down for a full list of winners.

The Early Winners

The first person from Africa to win a Nobel Prize was Max Theiler, a South African man who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1951.

Six years later, the famed absurdist philosopher and author Albert Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Camus was French, and so many people assume he was born in France, but he was in fact born, raised, and educated in French Algeria.

Both Theiler and Camus had emigrated out of Africa at the time of their awards, however, making Albert Lutuli the first person to be awarded a Nobel Prize for work completed in Africa. At the time, Lutuli (who was born in Southern Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe) was the President of the African National Congress in South Africa and was awarded the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize for his role leading the non-violent campaign against apartheid.

Africa’s Brain Drain

Like Theiler and Camus, many African Nobel Laureates have emigrated from their countries of birth and spent most of their working careers in Europe or the United States.  As of 2014, not one African Nobel Laureate has been affiliated with an African research institution at the time of their award as determined by the Nobel Prize foundation.

(Those winning awards in Peace and Literature are not typically affiliated with such institutions. Many winners in those fields were residing and working in Africa at the time of their award.)  

These men and women provide a clear example of the much discussed brain drain from Africa. Intellectuals with promising research careers frequently end up living and working at better funded research institutions beyond Africa’s shores.

This is largely a question of economics and the power of institutions’ reputations. Unfortunately, it is hard to compete with names like Harvard or Cambridge, or the facilities and intellectual stimulation that institutions like these can offer.

Female Laureates

Including the 2014 awardees, there have been 889 total Nobel Laureates, meaning that individuals from Africa make up only about 3% of Nobel Prize winners. Of the 46 women to ever win a Nobel Prize, however, five have been from Africa, making 11% of female awardees African. Three of those awards were Peace Prizes, while one was in Literature and one in Chemistry.

African Noble Prize Winners

1951  Max Theiler, Physiology or Medicine
1957  Albert Camus, Literature
1960  Albert Lutuli, Peace
1964  Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, Chemistry
1978  Anwar El Sadat, Peace
1979  Allan M. Cormack, Physiology or Medicine
1984  Desmond Tutu, Peace
1985  Claude Simon, Literature
1986  Wole Soyinka, Literature
1988  Naguib Mahfouz, Literature
1991  Nadine Gordimer, Literature
1993  F.W. de Klerk, Peace
1993  Nelson Mandela, Peace
1994  Yassir Arafat, Peace
1997  Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, Physics
1999  Ahmed Zewail, Chemistry
2001  Kofi Annan, Peace
2002  Sydney Brenner, Physiology or Medicine
2003  J.

M. Coetzee, Literature
2004  Wangari Maathai, Peace
2005  Mohamed El Baradei, Peace
2011  Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Peace
2011  Leymah Gbowee, Peace
2012  Serge Haroche, Physics
2013  Michael Levitt, Chemistry

Sources Used in this Article:

 “Nobel Prizes and Laureates”, “Nobel Laureates and Research Affiliations”, and “Nobel Laureates and Country of Birth”all from Nobelprize.org, Nobel Media AB, 2014.