Throughout history, a relatively small number of individuals have made a profound and lasting impact on science and society. Despite long-standing, multi-disciplinary interests in understanding careers of elite scientists, there have been limited attempts for a quantitative, career-level analysis. Here, we leverage a comprehensive dataset we assembled, allowing us to trace the entire career histories of nearly all Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine over the past century. We find that, although Nobel laureates were energetic producers from the outset, producing works that garner unusually high impact, their careers before winning the prize follow relatively similar patterns as ordinary scientists, being characterized by hot streaks and increasing reliance on collaborations. We also uncovered notable variations along their careers, often associated with the Nobel Prize, including shifting coauthorship structure in the prize-winning work, and a significant but temporary dip in the impact of work they produce after winning the Nobel. Together, these results document quantitative patterns governing the careers of scientific elites, offering an empirical basis for a deeper understanding of the hallmarks of exceptional careers in science.