The curious case of the 1960 Nobel Prize to Burnet and Medawar

Immunology. 2016 Mar;147(3):269-74. doi: 10.1111/imm.12558. Epub 2016 Jan 20.


The 1960 Nobel Prize was awarded to Macfarlane Burnet and Peter Medawar for immunological tolerance. The Nobel Archives reveal that the two were never nominated together by anyone; Burnet had repeatedly been nominated for his virology studies, and the Medawar group (including Rupert Billingham and Leslie Brent) had been nominated independently for their transplantation work. A review of the 1950s literature suggests that tolerance had not yet, by 1960, reached the level of acceptance and acclaim in the immunological community to appear to justify the award. Burnet probably should have received the Prize for his virus work, and perhaps also for his Clonal Selection Theory, whereas Billingham and Brent should have shared in a Prize with Medawar for transplantation. If a Prize were to be given for tolerance, most agree that Ray Owen should have shared in it, for his work on cattle chimerism. It is suggested that the 1960 Nobel Prize to Burnet and Medawar for immunological tolerance may have been given for the wrong reasons and to the wrong associates.

Keywords: Burnet; Medawar; Nobel Prize; tolerance; transplantation.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Allergy and Immunology / history*
  • History, 20th Century
  • Immune Tolerance / immunology*
  • Nobel Prize*