The History of the Nobel Prize

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Podcast Transcript

On December 10, 1896, the Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel passed away.

In his will, he gifted most of his estate for the creation of a prize that rewarded people for excellence in various forms of human endeavor. 

Over a hundred years later, the prize he created is one of the most prestigious awards that are given out in the world.

Learn more about the Nobel Prize, how they were created, and how they work on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

If you know anything about the history of the Nobel Prize and how and why it was created, you probably know part of the story, but probably not the whole story. 

The story begins with the man whose name is on the prize, Alfred Nobel. 

Nobel was born on October 21, 1833, in Stockholm, Sweden. His father was an engineer and an inventor, but the family was perpetually poor in Sweden. 

When he was nine, his family moved to St. Petersburg. There, his father found success operating a small factory that made tools and explosives. He did a good business fulfilling weapons contracts from the Russian government. 

With his father’s successful armaments business, Alfred’s family was able to hire private tutors for him and provide him with a top-notch education. He was proficient in six languages: Swedish, French, Russian, English, German, and Italian.

When he came of age, he worked in a laboratory in Paris for two years and traveled extensively. However, he returned to St. Petersburg to work in his father’s factory. 

He worked there until his father went bankrupt in the aftermath of the Crimean War. 

From there, he returned to Sweden, where he began experimenting with the extremely unstable and dangerous substance known as nitroglycerine. 

In 1863, he received a Swedish patent for the percussion detonator, which was a safer method of igniting explosives compared to gunpowder. In 1865, he invented the blasting cap.

In 1864, tragedy struck when a shed used to prepare nitroglycerin exploded at his factory outside of Stockholm, killing five people, including his brother Emil. 

The accident and the death of his brother led him to find safer methods of handling the inherently dangerous nitroglycerin. 

In 1867, he invented a substance that retained the explosive power of nitroglycerin but was much safer to handle. He did this by mixing nitroglycerine with diatomaceous earth. 

He originally called it “Nobel’s Blasting Powder” but later changed its name to dynamite.

Dynamite was his most famous and successful invention, but hardly his only one. He held over 300 patents, mostly dealing with pressurized gasses and gauges. 

It did make him rich. His brothers founded an oil company that he invested in, which made him even more wealthy.

Nobel never married and never had any children. He ran several successful businesses all over Europe and traveled constantly. He was very reserved, and few people ever got close to him.

According to one of his biographers, in 1888, an event occurred, which was a pivotal moment in his life and in this story. 

His brother Ludvig died. It wasn’t the death of his brother per se that changed him, it was an obituary written in a Paris newspaper. The newspaper had wrongly assumed that Alfred had died and wrote his obituary instead. 

The headline of the obituary read, “The merchant of death is dead.” 

Supposedly, after reading his obituary, he set about to ensure that he was known for something more than the creation of a deadly substance like dynamite. 

I should note that this story, as great as it is, has never been verified. There is no evidence that the newspaper it supposedly ran in, Ideotie Quotidienne, actually existed. However, it is a story that has been propagated for over a century now. 

In fact, there is nothing on the record, written or otherwise, that would suggest the Nobel felt guilty in any way about the invention of dynamite. Quite the opposite, actually.

Nobel felt that the invention would pave the way to peace. 

One of his former secretaries was a woman by the name of Bertha von Suttner. After she stopped working for Nobel, she became a notable 19th-century peace activist, and the two kept in correspondence. 

In one of his letters to her, he wrote:

My factories may make an end of war sooner than your congresses. The day when two army corps can annihilate each other in one second, all civilized nations, it is to be hoped, will recoil from war and discharge their troops. 

That being said, Nobel, oddly enough, considered himself a pacifist. It might be that von Suttner’s ideas eventually rubbed off on him. 

While his motivations might be in question, what we do know is that when he died on December 10, 1896, at the age of 63, he left behind a very specific will. 

94% of his assets, worth an estimated $200 million dollars today, were dedicated to an annual prize “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”

The categories were in physics, physiology (aka medicine), chemistry, literature, and peace. 

His family was shocked at the will. Several members of his family considered contesting the will. 

There were legal problems with the will as well. No one was sure where Nobel’s legal residence was. He had moved around and had lived in Russia, France, and Italy but never became a citizen in any of those countries. 

Had he been found to have been a resident of France, the will could have been interpreted to have violated French law, and it the French government could have taxed the estate.  It took five years to resolve all of the issues regarding his will.

Much about his will was rather vague, so his executors, Swedish scientists Ragnar Sohlman and Rudolf Lilljequist, established the Nobel Foundation in 1900  to manage the fortune and distribute the prizes.

In his will, Nobel specified exactly who would be awarding the prizes. 

At the time of Nobel’s death, Norway and Sweden were a single country. The Peace Prize was to be awarded by the Norwegian Parliament. They created the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which consists of five members appointed by the Norwegian parliament. 

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences was responsible for the awards in physics and chemistry.

The Karolinska Institute awards the prize in medicine. The Karolinska Institute is a medical and research university outside of Stockholm. 

Finally, the prize in literature is awarded by the Swedish Academy, which is the organization that has the highest authority over the Swedish language. 

It should be noted that none of these organizations were notified about being responsible for these awards before the will was written. There is nothing about being compensated for the work involved in handing out the awards.  The responsibility for doing this was simply dropped on them. 

One of the things that has been a mystery is why Nobel chose the fields he did for his prizes.

Physics and chemistry make sense, but why not mathematics? Medicide makes sense, but there is no award explicitly for biology. 

If you are going to have an award for literature, why not one for music or painting?

There have been rumors that the reason no award was given for mathematics is because Nobel’s finance had an affair with a mathematician. However, there is proof of this whatsoever.

It would seem that the awards were just in subjects that interested Nobel. Alfred Nobel just wasn’t interested in math. 

The peace prize may have been a nod to his long-term friend Bertha von Suttner, who, not surprisingly, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905. 

With all the legal issues with the will out of the way and with the Nobel Foundation established the first awards were presented on the fifth anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel on December 10, 1901. 

December 10th is still the day of the official awards ceremony today. 

The first recipients were: 

Jacobus van’t Hoff of the Netherlands, in Chemistry for his “discovery of the laws of chemical dynamics and osmotic pressure in solutions.”

Wilhelm Röntgen of Germany in physics for the discovery of X-rays.

Emil A. von Behring of Germany in medicine “for his work on serum therapy, especially its application against diphtheria…”

Rene Prudhomme of France “in special recognition of his poetic composition…”

The Peace Prize was divided between two Frenchmen, Jean H. Dunant and Frédéric Passy. Dunant was honored “for his humanitarian efforts to help wounded soldiers and create international understanding,” and Passay “for his lifelong work for international peace conferences, diplomacy, and arbitration.”

The award quickly rose in prominence due to the money that was associated with the prize.

Nobel Prize recipients receive a medal, which has a profile of Alfred Nobel, a diploma from the King of Sweden or the Norwegian Parliament in the case of the Peace Prize, and a cash stipend. As of today, the amount awarded is eight million Swedish Kronor, which is the equivalent of about $900,000 US dollars. If a prize is split, then the cash award is split as well. 

Nominations are received for Nobel Prizes from a select group of experts in the field as determined by the committees. There are about 3,000 nomination forms sent out to individuals around the world. 

There is a rule that prizes are not to be awarded posthumously. So, Isaac Newton will not be winning a Nobel Prize. 

However, there have been two cases where recipients have died after their nomination. The 1931 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Erik Axel Karlfeldt, who died after he was nominated. In 1961, the Peace Prize was awarded UN Secretary General  Dag Hammarskjöld, who was killed in a plane crash after his nomination. 

Since 1971, award recipients have to be alive at the time it is announced. However, in 2011, one of the winners of the prize for chemistry, Ralph Steinman, died three days before the announcement, but the committee was not aware. They did not rescind the award, as it was given in good faith. 

The award was originally supposed to be given for things done within the previous year. However, this caused problems. There have been two cases where Nobel Prizes have been given for discoveries, which later were proven to be false. 

The 1926 Prize in Medicine was awarded to Johannes Fibiger, who discovered a parasite that caused cancer. It was later found that the parasites had absolutely nothing to do with cancer. 

In 1906, the prize in medicine was given jointly to Camillo Golgi and Santiago Ramón y Cajal “in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system.”  The problem was they each had diametrically opposed views on how the nervous system worked. Golgi thought the nervous system was a single network, whereas Cajal thought it was a collection of cells known as neurons. 

Golgi’s acceptance speech was mostly cutting down Cajal, even though it was Cajal who was later proven correct. 

There have only been four people in history who have been awarded two Nobel Prizes. 

Marie Curie was awarded a prize in physics in 1903 and chemistry in 1911.

Linus Pauling won the prize in chemistry in 1954 and peace in 1962.

John Bardeen won the prize in physics in 1956 and 1972.

Frederick Sanger won the prize in chemistry in 1958 and 1980.

There has been controversy surrounding many who have received prizes and those who have not received them. 

Lise Meitner, the Swedish-Austrian physicist who co-discovered nuclear fission, was never awarded a Nobel Prize. She was nominated 29 times in physics and 19 times in chemistry. 

Jocelyn Bell Burnell helped discover pulsars, a discovery that was awarded the 1974 Nobel Prize in physics. However, the award went to her supervisor, not her. 

The most controversial prizes have always been in literature and peace, where the subject is far more subjective. 

Mahatma Gandhi was never given a Nobel Prize in Peace. However, when he was killed in 1948, the Nobel committee decided not to award a medal, saying “there was no suitable living candidate.”

There is one thing that you might have noticed is missing. The Nobel Prize in Economics. 

The prize in economics wasn’t part of the original will of Alfred Nobel. It was created in 1968 when the Central Bank of Sweden donated a large sum to the Nobel Foundation for the establishment of an award in economics in honor of Alfred Nobel. 

After the creation of this award, the Nobel Foundation committee determined that there would be no new awards. 

One of the problems that has developed is that awards in science can only be awarded to up to three individuals. This worked fine in the early 20th century when teams were much smaller. However, research today, such as the search for the Higgs Boson Particle, involves teams of thousands of people. Determining who should get a prize for their collective work is often more about politics than it is about science. 

The Nobel Prize has become one of the most prestigious awards in the world, recognizing and promoting significant contributions to science, literature, and peace efforts.  There is probably no greater distinction in the world today than to be known as a Nobel laureate. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.

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