Their work on asymmetric organocatalysis, which the award-giving body described as "a new and ingenious tool for molecule building", has also helped in the development of plastics, perfumes and flavours.
"Organic catalysts can be used to drive multitudes of chemical reactions," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement. "Using these reactions, researchers can now more efficiently construct anything from new pharmaceuticals to molecules that can capture light in solar cells."
Catalysts are molecules that remain stable while enabling or speeding up chemical reactions performed in labs or large industrial reactors. Before the laureates' breakthrough findings at the turn of the millennium, only certain metals and complex enzymes were known to do the trick.
The academy said the new generation of small-molecule catalysts were both more friendly for the environment and cheaper to produce, and praised the precision of the new tools.
Before asymmetric catalysis, man-made catalysed substances would often contain not only the desired molecule but also its unwanted mirror image. Sedative thalidomide, which caused deformities in human embryos around six decades ago, were a catastrophic example, it said.
"The fact is, it is estimated that 35% of the world’s total GDP in some way involves chemical catalysis," it added.
List, 53, is director of the Max-Planck-Institut fuer Kohlenforschung, Muelheim an der Ruhr, Germany.
He and MacMillan share the prestigious 10-million Swedish crown (US$1.14-million) prize in equal parts for breakthroughs achieved independently of one another.
The chemistry award is the third of this year's crop of Nobel prizes and follows the prizes for medicine or physiology, and physics, announced earlier this week.