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Local Laureates of the East Bay

As we celebrate this month’s announcements of the 2019 Nobel Prize recipients, Diablo reflects on the wealth of groundbreakers who have been honored with prestigious awards through the years.


Left to right: Ernest O. Lawrence, William F. Giauque, Steven Chu, Jennifer Doudna. (Photos courtesy of UC Berkeley).


UC Berkeley boasts more Nobel Prize–winning alumni and faculty members than almost any academic institution in the world. The university is so proud of its laureates—which number between 48 and 107, depending on whom you ask—that it gives them free campus parking passes for life. Perhaps Cal’s most prominent Nobel-awarded scientist was physicist Ernest O. Lawrence, who invented the cyclotron, a particle accelerator that was instrumental in the development of nuclear technology. He received the prize in 1939 and went on to establish the Lawrence Berkeley and the Lawrence Livermore national laboratories. Other Cal-affiliated laureates include William F. Giauque (chemistry, 1949), who pioneered research in the fields of thermodynamics and cryogenics; Steven Chu (physics, 1997), who helped to develop methods for cooling and trapping atoms (and later became the United States secretary of energy); and Fremont High School alum Andrew Z. Fire (medicine, 2006), who helped to discover RNA interference, a gene-silencing mechanism. Many speculate that UC Berkeley biochemist Jennifer Doudna, who cocreated the genome-editing platform CRISPR-Cas9, will one day win the Nobel, too.


Michael Chabon (Photo by Sarah Lee). Maxine Hong Kingston (Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley).


The region has long been a hotbed for writing talent. Oakland nurtured literary icons such as Jack London, Gertrude Stein, and relative newcomer Tommy Orange, whose 2018 novel There There recently won an American Book Award. The prolific writer and African American activist Ishmael Reed—who has been awarded MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, as well as a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts—still lives and works in Oakland. Berkeley’s Michael Chabon, meanwhile, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. UC Berkeley alum and longtime faculty member Maxine Hong Kingston, a former Hayward high school teacher, has a National Book Award, National Humanities Medal, and National Medal of the Arts. And, of course, onetime Danville resident Eugene O’Neill is the only American playwright to earn a Nobel Prize. (He has four Pulitzers, too.)


Daniel Kahneman. (Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley).

Other Humanities

At least five UC Berkeley–affiliated economists have won Nobel Prizes, including Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist whose trailblazing research linked human cognitive biases to financial behavior. (He also earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.) Slow-food pioneer Alice Waters, the founder of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, scored a National Humanities Medal in 2014 and was the first woman to win the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef. (She’s claimed seven James Beard Awards total.) And when Oakland-bred architect Julia Morgan—who designed Hearst Castle and multiple buildings on the Mills College campus—was posthumously awarded an American Institute of Architects gold medal in 2014, she became the first female architect to receive the honor.



While multiple East Bay natives have won acting trophies (ahem, Mahershala Ali) and Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame designations (we’re looking at you, Green Day), perhaps no one has received more official accolades than Concord-born Tom Hanks—who holds two Academy Awards, four Golden Globes, eight Emmys, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom—and fellow Medal of Freedom recipient Rita Moreno, a Berkeley resident who is only the third person in history to achieve PEGOT (Peabody, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards) status, and earn a National Medal of the Arts, as well.



Two of the world’s most decorated Olympians have East Bay roots. Moraga native and UC Berkeley alum Matt Biondi won 11 Olympic swimming medals (including 8 golds) between 1984 and 1992; he also set 12 individual swimming world records during his illustrious career. Another Cal graduate, Natalie Coughlin—who was raised in Vallejo and Concord—has 12 Olympic swimming medals to her name. And in 2008, she became the first woman in history to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the 100-meter backstroke event. 


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