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Top of their game

Nobel Laureates

Five Australians of the Year are also recipients of the Nobel Prize. One of the most prestigious international awards, Nobel Prizes are given for outstanding contributions in Chemistry, Literature, Peace, Physics, Physiology or Medicine. Australia so far has produced 15 Nobel Laureates: only one of these was given for Literature and only one to a woman, Professor Elizabeth Blackburn in 2009 for Medicine.

The five Nobel Laureates were acknowledged as Australians of the Year in the same year, or that following their Award, in recognition of the significance of their endeavours. Scientists included Sir Macfarlane Burnet (AoY 1960), Sir John Eccles (AoY 1963), Sir John Cornforth (AoY 1975) and Professor Peter Doherty (AoY 1997). The first and only Australian writer to be awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature was Patrick White in 1973.

The two portraits that feature in ‘Top of their Game’ are of medical scientist, Sir Macfarlane Burnet and writer, Patrick White. Burnet received the inaugural Australian of the Year Award shortly after accepting the Nobel Prize for Medicine. In his Nobel banquet speech, he alluded to a sense of Australia identity that would characterise the first decade of the Australian of the Year Awards:

I think this occasion has a rather special significance for my own country … only now beginning to create an image of its own in the eyes of the world.

Patrick White famously did not attend the Nobel Prize ceremony in Sweden, sending his friend, the artist Sidney Nolan to collect White’s Nobel Prize for Literature. White did attend the Australia Day lunch in Melbourne, where he was presented with his Australian of the Year Award. In his acceptance speech, he admonished the guests saying that, ‘Australia Day is for me a day of self-searching rather than trumpet blowing’.