From Oct. 2-9, the Nobel Foundation awards winners in literature, physics, chemistry, peace, economics and medicine.
At first glance, the academic rigor and research of Nobel laureates seems far removed from the rugged mountains and farms of Idaho. But many laureates over the years have lived, worked and died in Idaho.
These are a few of their stories. Unless noted, all information comes from their Nobel Prize biography page.
Richard Feynman, one of the most well-known scientists and lecturers in U.S. history, has an unlikely tie to Idaho. According to the book Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick, Feynman first met Mary Louise Bella, a student of Mexican art and textiles, while at Cornell University.
They kept in contact through Feynman’s first year of professorship in Brazil. Feynman proposed to her with a letter, and they were married on June 28, 1952, in Boise.
They divorced several years later due to his abusive behavior, and Mary Feynman spent many more years in Meridian, Idaho. She passed away in March 2014 and is buried in the Lewiston Orchards Cemetery in Lewiston, Idaho.
Feynman spent most of his career as a professor of theoretical physics at Caltech California Institute of Technology. He and co-research Julian Schwinger went on to win the Nobel Prize in physics “for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics.”
The Old Man and the Sea is required reading for high school students across the country, and it won Ernest Hemingway the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954 for “his mastery of the art of narrative … and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style.”
According to Hemingway: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers, Hemingway and his wife, Mary, moved to a cabin near Ketchum, Idaho, a few years after winning the prize. He died by suicide in his home in 1961, after years of hemochromatosis and failed treatments.
Their home is still registered on the National Register of Historic Places. These words, penned by Hemingway for a friend’s eulogy, are etched into his memorial, north of Sun Valley:
Best of all he loved the fall
the leaves yellow on cottonwoods
leaves floating on trout streams
and above the hills
the high blue windless skies
… Now he will be a part of them forever.
James Rainwater was born on Dec. 9, 1917, in Council, Idaho, a little town of 800 near the Oregon border. He completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Washington and later earned his doctorate in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Rainwater’s groundbreaking work in nuclear physics, particularly his pioneering formulation of the “nuclear deformation theory,” transformed scientist’s understanding of atomic nuclei. This theory explained the non-spherical shapes exhibited by certain nuclei, fundamentally reshaping the field of nuclear physics and providing crucial insights into nuclear behavior under extreme conditions.
Rainwater’s contributions in this field, among others, earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1975 alongside Aage Bohr and Ben Mottelson.
Leon Lederman and Melvin Schwartz
Physicists Melvin Schwartz and Leon Lederman first crossed paths in the realm of particle physics during the 1950’s. Working alongside Jack Steinberger, the duo conducted pivotal experiments at Columbia University that confirmed the existence of the muon neutrino, a significant advancement in particle physics and one that earned them the 1988 award for physics.
In their post-research years, Schwartz and Lederman both chose to retire in different parts of Idaho. Melvin Schwartz retired in Ketcham, Idaho, and later passed away in Twin Falls, Idaho, in 2006. Leon Lederman settled in Driggs, Idaho, with his wife, and passed away in Rexburg, Idaho, in 2018 at the age of 96.
Norman Borlaug was born in 1914, in Cresco, Iowa. According to the Dallas Observer, he received a Depression-era program to study forestry from the University of Minnesota.
After graduating in 1937, he spent the summer stationed on the Salmon River in Idaho with the National Forest Service. At that time, it was one of the most isolated wilderness areas in the country.
Borlaug spent the majority of his career developing high-yielding and disease-resistant wheat varieties. According to The Atlantic, his work saved a billion lives from famine and hunger. In 1970, his efforts earned him the Nobel Peace Prize, making him one of the few scientists to receive this prestigious honor.
Charles Dawes won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925 in part because of an Idahoan.
Dawes was born in Marietta, Ohio, and attended Cincinnati Law School. He served as a general in World War I, but when the war ended, President Henry Harding appointed Dawes to the Bureau of the Budge.
From 1921 to 1924, Dawes developed a loan plan to support Germany’s recovery and help them pay reparations to France and other countries. His economic work helped smooth relations between countries.
According to Robert James Maddox’s Keeping Cool with Coolidge, President Calvin Coolidge originally wanted Idaho Senator William Borah as his vice president for the 1924 presidential election. After Borah declined — preferring to continue what became a 30-year legacy of senate work — Coolidge called Dawes to be his running mate.
Dawes won the Nobel Peace Prize a year later for his work.