Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Albert Einstein headed off at the “Nobel pass” by Alvar Gullstrand

Jayant Radhakrishnan
Darien, Illinois, United States


Albert Einstein in his office
Photograph of Albert Einstein in his office at the University of Berlin. c1920. Accessed via Wikimedia.
Allvar Gullstrand nobel prize winner
Allvar Gullstrand. Unknown artist. The National Library of Medicine. 

Allvar Gullstrand was a brilliant ophthalmologist and the second of eleven surgeons who have received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. He was awarded the prize in 1911 “for his work on the dioptrics of the eye.”1 A self-taught mathematician, he calculated the path of light through the layers of the ocular lens using advanced mathematics. This is no easy task since every layer of the lens refracts light to a different degree and the lens as a whole changes shape. Modified versions of the slit lamp and reflex-free ophthalmoscope he devised are still in use. In addition, he deserves credit for his work on astigmatism and the use of corrective lenses after cataract surgery.

Gullstrand was a member of the Nobel Committee for Physics from 1911 to 1929 and was Committee Chair from 1923 to 1929. He was elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1905 and became its president for the academic year 1925-1926.

Nobel Prize nominations are made by previous recipients of the Prize and members of the Academy. Next, a separate committee of five individuals for each prize reviews the nominations and submits its report to the Academy for approval. The final decision is then made by the full Academy.2

Albert Einstein had been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics ten times in the period between 1910 and 1922 but the Nobel Committee refused to award it to him for specious reasons. First, they claimed that the terms of Nobel’s will stated that “the Prize was to go for works of proved, not theoretic value to humanity.” Then they stated that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, proposed in 1915, was not unequivocally proven.2 This statement was not true since Arthur Eddington, an astrophysicist from Cambridge, had proven Einstein’s theory in 1919 during a solar eclipse by demonstrating that light rays indeed bend under the gravitational effect of the sun and to the degree predicted by Einstein. An important German scientist of the time, Ernst Gehrcke (an experimental physicist and director of the optical department of the Reich Physical and Technical Institute), accused Einstein of plagiarism and propaganda and Philipp Lenard (1905 Physics Nobel Prize winner for his work on cathode rays and the photoelectric effect) denounced Einstein’s theory of relativity as “fraud and fantasy.”3 In addition to jealousy induced by Einstein’s international fame and public adulation, it appears that anti-Semitism was in play since Jews were being blamed for Germany’s defeat in World War I. It did not help that Einstein was a democrat and a pacifist.

In 1921, the Nobel Committee for Physics asked Gullstrand to prepare a report on the Theory of Relativity while Svante Arrhenius (Nobel Prize for Chemistry 1903) was asked to report on Einstein’s theory regarding the photoelectric effect whereby light energy striking some solids may release electrons. Gullstrand trashed the Theory of Relativity and Arrhenius was also uncomplimentary in his report on the photoelectric effect. The committee tabled the award in 1921. In 1922 they again asked Gullstrand for an updated report on relativity, and he was just as scathing in this evaluation but the report from the member who was asked to study the photoelectric effect was complimentary. Carl Wilhelm Oseen, a theoretical physicist in Uppsala and the Director of the Nobel Institute of Theoretical Physics in Stockholm, suggested to the committee that they deal with this hot potato by awarding Einstein the prize “for his services to Theoretical Physics and especially for his discovery of the photoelectric effect.”4 There is no question that this work of Einstein’s from 1905 is also very important since it introduced the concept of photons, but it does not compare to the Theory of Relativity. In the official announcement there was a caveat that the award was presented “without taking into account the value that will be awarded your relativity and gravitation theories after these are confirmed in the future.”5 This ambiguous statement could be interpreted as the Academy’s back-handed suggestion that Einstein should receive another Nobel Prize in the future for his Theory of Relativity.

Einstein did not attend the award ceremony in Stockholm. Whether it was because he felt insulted or because he felt safer touring and lecturing in Japan at a time when his name was on an antisemitic hit list, is not clear.

Although Gehrcke, Lenard, and some others were active and vocal antagonists, Gullstrand was clearly the main architect in heading off Einstein and the Theory of Relativity at the Nobel pass.




  1. Allvar Gullstrand – Facts. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2020. Tue. 17 Mar 2020. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1911/gullstrand/facts/>
  2. Ravin JG (1999). Gullstrand, Einstein and the Nobel Prize. Arch Ophthalmol 117;670-672.
  3. van Dongen J (2007). Reactionaries and Einstein’s fame: “German scientists for the preservation of pure science.” Relativity and the Bad Nauheim meeting. Physics in perspective 9;212-230.
  4. The Nobel Prize in Physics 1921. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2020. Fri. 6 Mar 2020. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/1921/summary/>
  5. Clark S (2012). Why Einstein never received a Nobel Prize for relativity. The Guardian October 8, 2012



JAYANT RADHAKRISHNAN, MB, BS, MS (Surgery), FACS, FAAP, has been an Emeritus Professor of Surgery and Urology at the University of Illinois since 2000. After a Surgery Residency and Fellowship in Pediatric Surgery at the Cook County Hospital, he completed a Pediatric Urology Fellowship at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston. He then returned to the County Hospital and worked as an attending pediatric surgeon and served as the Chief of Pediatric Urology. Jayant continued his career at the University of Illinois, Chicago from where he retired as Professor of Surgery & Urology, and the Chief of Pediatric Surgery & Pediatric Urology.


Winter 2020  |  Sections  |  Science

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