In chemistry, as in every branch of science, major breakthroughs happen rarely. Knowledge creation more typically comes from the incremental advances of diligent scientists toiling in obscurity.

Every so often, though, this slow progress builds pressure, like tectonic plates straining against one another. Then, “the big one” hits. A researcher makes a truly transformative discovery, sending shockwaves throughout their field, often changing the landscape for people far from the academic epicentre.

The Nobel Prizes recognize the lucky, diligent and talented researchers who make these kinds of seismic advances. Of the 175 people who have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, eight have been Canadian or have had strong Canadian connections.

The stories of these eight scientists’ research — and their lives — are all different. But some common themes emerge: immigration, emigration, collaboration and mentorship. Some were born here, some came from away and some just passed through. Somehow, though, Canada played a role in their success. “Canadians I know are a very friendly and open group, who tend to be more low-key and freer from hype than many others,” says Rudolph A. Marcus, Chemistry Nobel Laureate of 1992.

Openness matters but geography also helps, says John C. Polanyi, FCIC, who shared the 1986 prize with two United States-based researchers. “A generous welcome to immigrants plays a part,” Polanyi says. “But we should not forget our greatest cultural asset: proximity to the US.”

Sidney Altman

Until Sidney Altman discovered otherwise, conventional thinking said that all enzymes — biochemical catalysts that accelerate the thousands of chemical reactions required to sustain a living organism — were proteins. Altman, working with American Thomas Cech, discovered first that some enzymes are a combination of a protein and an RNA string and subsequently that some RNA molecules can serve an enzymatic function with no protein component at all.

Because RNA existed before proteins, Altman’s discovery helped explain how life might have arisen in the first place. RNA enzymes also have the potential to treat or prevent viruses including those that cause the common cold. Montreal-born Altman shared the 1989 Nobel Prize with Cech for their joint discovery and characterization of ribozymes.

William Giauque

William Giauque was born in Niagara Falls, Ont., spent his childhood in Michigan and returned to Canada for high school. His path to the 1949 Chemistry Nobel, though, really began when he recrossed the Niagara River once more, taking a job at the Hooker Electro-Chemical Company in Niagara Falls, New York. Giauque’s research focused on the third law of thermodynamics, which stipulates that the entropy system approaches a minimum as that system approaches absolute zero.

Giauque developed a magnetic refrigeration technique that cooled atoms to within a degree of absolute zero, which helped him establish conclusively that the third law is, in fact, a basic law.

Gerhard Herzberg

Gerhard Herzberg, HFCIC, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1971, nearly 40 years after fleeing Nazi Germany with his Jewish wife and research partner Luise Oettinger. First, at the University of Saskatchewan and later at the National Research Council, Herzberg made this country a leader in spectroscopy, the study of how light and matter interact.

While Herzberg advanced the field as a whole, his Nobel-winning research centred on molecular spectroscopy, which uses the light-absorption and emission patterns of molecules to determine their electronic structure and geometry. Most notably, his study of free radicals — unstable molecules which often exist only temporarily during chemical reactions — led to his Nobel Prize.

Rudolph Marcus

His eponymous Marcus Theory explains the rate at which an electron can jump from an electron donor to an acceptor. The theory explains how atoms swap electrons and how this electron transfer drives chemical reactions.

Marcus Theory helps researchers understand many major chemical processes ranging from photosynthesis to corrosion. Born in Montreal, Marcus received his PhD from McGill University in 1946. At McGill, and later in the National Research Council’s postdoctoral program in Ottawa, he expanded from his early experimental research into the realm of theory, developing the insights that would earn him the 1992 Nobel Prize. He is currently a Kirkwood-Noyes professor at the California Institute of Technology.

John C. Polanyi, HFCIC, in his University of Toronto laboratory in 1986, the same year he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for research into chemical kinetics. Photo credit: Russell Monk.

John C. Polanyi

British ex-pat John C. Polanyi, HFCIC, first came to Canada during the Second World War and moved back and forth between the two countries until he took a postdoctoral fellowship at Canada’s National Research Council. Under the mentorship of Gerhard Herzberg, Polanyi became immersed in chemical kinetics. He joined the University of Toronto in 1956, becoming a full professor in 1962.

Polanyi’s Nobel-winning work involved using weak infrared radiation, emitted from recently formed molecular compounds, to glean information about those compounds’ quantum mechanical energy states. Effectively, this method allowed researchers to track in real time molecular motion of molecules and atoms as they formed new materials. Polanyi shared the 1986 Nobel Prize with American Dudley Herschbach and Taiwan-born Yuan Lee.

Ernest Rutherford

While Ernest Rutherford was born in New Zealand and died in England, his journey as a researcher included a critical stint in Montreal. Rutherford made several major discoveries, any one of which would have been the pinnacle of a lesser researcher’s scientific career. He determined that atoms comprise a dense, charged nucleus surrounded by empty space and orbiting electrons. He discovered the existence of protons and hypothesized the existence of neutrons. These kinds of advances earned him the epithet “the father of nuclear physics.”

In 1898, though, Rutherford began a highly productive nine-year stint at McGill University. During that time, he authored or co-authored 69 papers related to the nature of radioactive decay, including the discovery of distinctive alpha, beta and gamma rays, that the process of radiation transforms one element into another, and that radioactive decay happens at a predictable rate, which laid the foundation for carbon-dating ancient rocks and fossils. Rutherford’s work at McGill formed the primary basis for his winning the 1908 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

University of British Columbia biochemist and businessman Michael Smith shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with American Kary Mullis for their work developing site-directed mutagenesis. Photo credit: Dina Goldstein.

Michael Smith

British-born Canadian biochemist Michael Smith, HFCIC, shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with American Kary Mullis for their work developing “site-directed mutagenesis,” which allows researchers to introduce specific, engineered mutations into a DNA sequence.

Smith immigrated to Canada in the 1960s. While working at the University of British Columbia in the 1980s, he developed a technique to identify and alter genes in DNA strings, swapping out specific amino acids and inserting the resulting modified strings back into an organism. Artificial mutation became both a powerful research tool, allowing scientists to test the effects of particular mutations on genetic structure and behaviour, as well as a valuable technique to engineer proteins for industry, medicine and other commercial enterprises.

Henry Taube

Hailing from Neudorf, Sask., Henry Taube, FCIC, was the first person born in Canada to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. As a master’s student at the University of Saskatchewan, he studied under Gerhard Herzberg, establishing the foundations of his research into oxidizing agents and coordination chemistry. Notably, he realized that key processes in organic chemistry had analogs in inorganic chemistry. This insight led to his discovery that metallic ions can join into complexes, within which electrons transition indirectly from one ion to another by way of an additional “bridge” molecule. This work led to Taube receiving the Nobel Prize in 1983.