Nobel Prize History
History of the world's most famous prizes
by Beth Rowen
Winning a Nobel Prize is a life-changing honor. Whether the laureate is an internationally known figure (such as Mother Teresa or Barack Obama, winners of the 1979 and 2009 Peace Prize, respectively) or a scientist plucked from obscurity (like Richard R. Ernst, who won the 1991 prize in chemistry for refinements in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy), the award brings with it worldwide recognition that highlights one's life work and provides the funds to continue and further the mission. For academics and institutions, a Nobel Prize is used to attract the best and the brightest minds, whether students or scholars.
2014 Nobel Prizes
Physiology or Medicine
Industrialist With a Conscience
Alfred B. Nobel (1833–1896), the Swedish chemist and engineer who invented dynamite, left $9 million in his will to establish the Nobel Prizes, which are awarded annually, without regard to nationality, in six areas (peace, literature, physics,chemistry, physiology or medicine, and economic science) "to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind."
At first glance, it seems odd that the inventor of a powerful explosive would endow a group of awards that includes a peace prize. But Nobel was an industrialist with a conscience. He is credited with creating a controllable combustible that made blasting rock and the construction of canals and tunnels a relatively safe process. Nobel also contributed to the inventions of synthetic rubber, artificial silk, and synthetic leather. He held more than 350 patents. His interests were not limited to science. In fact, he was a lover of English literature and poetry and wrote several novels and poems. At his death, he left a library of more than 1,500 books, from fiction to philosophy.
Family Members Contest Last Wishes
Family members were shocked when they learned that Nobel had dictated that his fortune be used to establish the Nobel Prizes. They contested his will, but his final wishes were executed and the first awards were distributed in 1901, on the fifth anniversary of his death. The prize in economics, however, was established in 1968 by Riksbank, the Swedish bank, in honor of its 300th anniversary. Stockholm's Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences administers the award in physics and chemistry, the Royal Caroline Medical Institute awards the prize in physiology or medicine, and the Swedish Academy oversees the prize in literature. The Norwegian Storting, or parliament, awards the peace prize.
The Peace Prize
The first female Nobel Peace prize winner, Baroness Bertha von Suttner, in 1905, was perhaps the inspiration for the award itself. Von Suttner, who organized the Austrian Peace Society and wrote the landmark anti-war novel Lay Down Your Arms, was a close friend of Alfred Nobel. When he established the peace prize, he wrote that it should go "to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses"—precisely the work the Baroness had been engaged in.
In 2014, Malala Yousafzai, the 17-year-old Pakistani activist who was shot by the Taliban in 2012 for promoting the education of women, shared the Nobel Peace Prize. She is the youngest recipient of a Nobel Prize.
Each winner of a Nobel Prize, which can go to individuals and institutions, takes home a medal, a diploma, and cash, which varies each year and depends on the income earned on the Nobel Foundation fund. In 2008, winners recipients receive 10 million Swedish kroners, or about $1.72 million.
The awards process begins an entire year before the awards are announced, with the administers of the awards inviting nominations from the fall through January 31 of the next year. On February 1, the six committees begin considering nominees and make recommendations to the prize-awarding subcommittees in September and early October. The winners must be announced by November 15. Nobel week begins in early October. The Nobel Prizes are awarded on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel's death.
Posthumous nominations for the prizes are not allowed. This has sparked controversy, with critics saying that people who deserved a Nobel Prize did not receive one because they died before being nominated. In two cases the Prize has been awarded posthumously to people who were nominated when they were still alive. This was the case with UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld (1961, Peace Prize) and Erik Axel Karlfeldt (1931, Literature)—both of whom were awarded the prize in the years they died. Since 1974, awards have not been allowed for a deceased person. William Vickrey (1996, Economics) died before he could receive the prize, but after it was announced.
Turning Down the Prize
Prizes are not automatically awarded each year. They can be withheld if there are no worthy candidates or when a world situation makes awarding the prizes impractical. Because of World War II, no awards were given from 1940–1942. Prizes can also be declined. Even if a prize is declined, the winner is entered in the books, but the cash gift reverts back to the fund. In 1937, Hitler issued a decree that forbade Germans from accepting Nobel Prizes. He considered pacifist journalist Carl von Ossietzky's 1935 peace prize a slap in the face. In 1973 Le Duc Tho refused the Nobel Peace Prize as he did not believe peace had been reached in Vietnam.