Skip to main content

Duke's First Nobel Laureate

Lefkowitz makes history -- although Duke has other ties to the award, too

Dr. Robert Lefkowitz described the significance of his Nobel Prize at a reception Wednesday evening, saying, "This is for us. This is for Duke. This is our first one and, damn, that feels good." 

A few minutes earlier, Dr. Nancy Andrews, dean of the School of Medicine, noted the presence at the reception of the Triangle's other Nobel laureate, Oliver Smithies of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who won the 2007 prize for physiology or medicine. She thanked him for attending and then, with a smile, added, "UNC 1, Duke 1."

Lefkowitz's Nobel Prize provided a historic day not only for him but the entire Duke community, which cheered the announcement with thousands of "likes" on its Facebook page and countless phone calls and text messages.

Lefkowitz is the first "Duke winner" of a Nobel Prize -- but there have been other scientists with a less direct Duke connection who also have been honored. Here's a summary, in chronological order:

Charles Townes won the 1964 physics prize for discoveries involving quantum electronics. He earned a Masters of Arts degree in Physics at Duke in 1936.

Gertrude Elion and George Hitchings won the 1988 prize in physiology or medicine for research that laid the foundation for important drug treatments.  Scientists at the Wellcome Research Laboratories in Research Triangle Park, both were also adjunct members of the Duke medical faculty who trained numerous Duke students.

Hans Dehmelt won the 1989 physics prize for developing a technique to trap ions. He worked as a postdoctoral student in Duke's physics department.

Robert C. Richardson won the 1996 physics prize for studies of superfluidity. He earned his Ph.D. at Duke.

Peter Agre won the 2003 chemistry prize for research at Johns Hopkins University on water channels in cells. He served as vice chancellor for science and technology at Duke Medicine from 2005 to 2008.

Brian Kobilka shared the 2012 chemistry prize with Lefkowitz for their work on cell receptors. He was a postdoctoral fellow in Lefkowitz's lab and an assistant professor at Duke before joining the Stanford faculty.