Of Medicine Medallions and Immortality

It’s safe to say most doctors, whether clinician, researcher or both, did not enter the field with an ambition to win a prize. Most simply seek the satisfaction of helping the sick, the excitement of critical thinking and some degree of financial security. But societies fixate on rank-ordering achievements in almost every field of endeavor. For medicine, the best known is the Nobel Prize. We bring attention here to a worthy companion—the Copley Medal.

Presumably awards serve some evolutionary purpose, but the process seems at times awfully myopic. My candidate for the best award encompassing the field of medicine (indulge my hypocrisy here) is the Copley Medal. Yes, it is awarded for science in general and early-on favored UK citizens in particular, but many of the winners did momentous world-class work in medicine, anatomy or physiology. It’s historical reach and the prestige of past winners, make it my favorite. 

Copley Medal, Nobel Prize

The Copley Medal

The Copley Medal began in 1731 when a recently deceased member, Godfrey Copley, left the Royal Society of London £100. The notion arose to use the annual interest from that endowment to reward "outstanding achievements in research in any branch of science” with all of £5—along with a medal. It is now the oldest award for scientific achievement in the world, preceding the Nobel by 170 years. Currently it alternates between physical and biological sciences (on odd and even years respectively), and amounts to a £5000 award—along with a medal.

Notable winners, just in medical fields, included Captain Cook (for preventing scurvy), Joseph Priestley, Louis Pasteur, Hermann von Helmholtz, Claude Bernard, Thomas Huxley, Rudolph Virchow, Elie Metchnikoff, Darwin AND Wallace, Francis Galton, Ivan Pavlov, John Haldane, Thomas Hunt Morgan, Hans Krebs … and so on.

Copley Medal

Copley Medal

Nobel Prize

Nobel Prize

And when you remember from chemistry lab the Bunsen burner or Dewar flask, or from statistics the names of Cox, Fisher, Poisson and Gauss, you will now know these were all winners of the Copley Medal. 

Some of the theses that won the Copley were quaintly parochial or historically irrelevant. Consider Nevil Maskelyne (1775): ”In consideration of his curious and laborious Observations on the Attraction of Mountains, made in Scotland". But we would be wrong to dismiss a given body of work for seeming passé or obtuse. For example Abraham Trembley, (1743): "For his Experiments on the Polypus”. With a little digging, we learn that this Swiss naturalist was “best known for his studies of the freshwater hydra, mainly Chlorohydra viridissima. His extensive systematic experiments foreshadowed modern research on tissue regeneration and grafting.”

Enduring Legacies

Another example of the continuity of research over decades, even centuries, is the case of Drs. William Hewson and Jacques Miller. Hewson’s (1739–1774) biography is one of great human interest, even drama. The disciple in anatomy of the famous Hunter brothers, he struck out on his own after a bitter dispute over claims to priority of discovery. He founded an ascendent competing school, won the Copley Medal (1769), married the beautiful daughter of his landlady (he shared quarters with Benjamin Franklin) and died at age 35 from an infection got from dissecting. He is regarded by many as the “Father of Hematology” for wide-ranging and pioneering observations. When bones were found in the basement of his old home and lab (now The Franklin House, in London) beads of mercury could be seen next to skeletons, the signs of his famous experiments on the lymphatic system. 

Modern researchers laud Hewson’s skill at anatomy and ability to deduce function of the thymus and lymphatic system from inventive experiments. It would be another 231 year before this topic engendered another Copley Medal, for Jacque Miller in 2001. 

William Hewson

William Hewson

Jacques Miller

Jacques Miller

Miller (1931–) was born in France, raised in China, immigrated to Australia and pursued a career at the likes of the Institute for Cancer Research in London, the National Institute for Health in the US and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Australia. He showed that the thymus gland was not vestigial but played an active role in infection, autoimmune disease, cancer and transplantation, and discovered the division into B and T cell lymphocytes. He has won a dozen research medals overall. One wonders if a Nobel is in the offing.

Companion to the Nobel Prize

Which brings us to something that further supports the preeminence of the Copley Medal—the number of winners who also won the Nobel Prize In Physiology or Medicine: a total of 52, of which 21 were in physiology or medicine. Medicine or physiology was the subject of research for 34.2% of the Copley Medalists (96/280). Of these 21.9% (21/96) also won the Nobel Prize, either before or after. The average time from winning a Nobel to winning the Copley is 10.9 years (16 cases, 1–31 years) and from winning the Copley to a Nobel is 5.8 years (5 cases, 1–9 years). 


The origin of the Nobel Prize is well known, funded by Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) the inventor of dynamite and seller of canons. In fact he was an intellectually curious man with 355 patents and an interest in physiology whose ambition was to fund laboratory research in that area. The Nobel in Physiology or Medicine by 2016 had been awarded to 211 laureates (over 107 years), giving a whole new meaning to “I’m going to Stockholm”.

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is a topic for another time. We just mention that it has been more open to women than the Copley, being first awarded to a woman, Gerti Cory, in 1947—long before a Copley Medal was given to a woman, Dorothy Hodgkin in 1976. 

Other awards are also interesting to explore, but space does not permit more than bringing them to your attention here: the LaskerAMAErhlichKochUCL and Reid Awards and the Wolf and Lurie Prizes.




Charles Darwin, the Copley Medal, and the Rise of Naturalism 1862-1864

Marsha Driscoll, Elizabeth E. Dunn, Dann Siems, B. Kamran Swanson.

 "...thrusts students into the intellectual ferment of Victorian England just after publication of The Origin of Species. Part of the “Reacting to the Past” series..."

Six Discourses Delivered before the Royal Society at Their Anniversary Meetings, on the Award of the Royal and Copley Medals:

Sir Humphry Davy

"Leopold is delighted to publish this classic book as part of our extensive Classic Library collection. Many ... have been out of print for decades, and therefore have not been accessible to the general public."