Monday, September 12, 2022

Immigrants and the Nobel Prize

While combing through a 1905 issue of NationalGeographic that featured several articles on immigration, I came across a brief note, “Why No Americans Have Received Nobel Prizes.” The piece was not related to immigration. It simply pointed out that the Nobel winners for 1904 had just been announced, and not a single American had won any of the five awards.

Given America’s near domination of the Nobel Prize over the past several decades (46% of all winners between 1901 and 2021), I found this strange. Then I recalled that before World War I, America’s reputation in what we now call STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) was modest. Throughout the 19th century, Germany was the world’s scientific heavy hitter. In fact, German immigrants typically came to the United States believing that, at least in terms of education and high culture, they were taking a step downward. For many, it was a trade-off. The immigrant would gain personal freedom and economic opportunity but in an uncouth, unsophisticated country.  

The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901, but no American would earn the prize until 1907. That year physicist Albert A. Michelson was honored for his work on the speed of light. Michelson was a German-born ethnic Jew, the first of a succession of Jewish scientists who came to America to escape antisemitism in Europe, particularly after the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s. Among these great minds, a half dozen would win the Nobel Prize. Albert Einstein was the most famous among them.

Since World War II, most of America’s Nobel awardees have been native-born, Still, many have been the children of immigrants, notably those immigrants who came from Central and Eastern Europe in the first decades of the 20th century when they were called the “new immigrants” to distinguish them from their Anglo-Saxon predecessors. Most came through eastern seaboard cities, particularly New York. Immigrants and their children—or “foreign stock,” a popular term then—represented majority shares of big city populations. America’s urban schools were dominated by these kids.  

Today, urban public schools are rarely as good as those in the suburbs. Yet, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, city schools were manifestly better than country schools. They regularly produced students grounded in the fundamentals. That’s to say nothing of select public schools like New York City’s Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science (“Bronx Science”). Together, these two schools have produced twelve Nobel winners. I suspect that’s a larger number than most states can claim.

Clearly, America has come a long way since we had to explain our lackluster performance in the sciences. Ironically, that same issue of National Geographic featured an article arguing that large numbers of immigrant arrivals were bringing harm to the country. The newcomers just didn’t measure up to the ancestral stock that built the nation. This was a common belief at the time. It wouldn’t be long before the Ivy League colleges were imposing quotas to limit the admission of Jewish students, who were children and grandchildren of those turn-of-century immigrants. Today, a debate rages over whether Asian students are being subjected to similar quotas at several elite universities, including Harvard. The Supreme Court may soon rule on this issue.  

No matter the decision of the court, first and second-generation students of Asian ancestry are clearly echoing the academic achievements of immigrants from the past. Just look at recent winners of the Regeneron Science Talent Search or the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Is it too much to imagine some of these young people as future Nobel Prize winners? Probably not.