Nobel Prize - A Brief History


Nobel Prize, any of the prizes (five in number until 1969, when a sixth was added) that are awarded annually from a fund bequeathed for that purpose by the Swedish inventor and industrialist Alfred Nobel. The Nobel Prizes are widely regarded as the most prestigious awards given for intellectual achievement in the world.

In the will he drafted in 1895, Nobel instructed that most of his fortune be set aside as a fund for the awarding of five annual prizes “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” These prizes as established by his will are the Nobel Prize for Physics, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the Nobel Prize for Peace. The first distribution of the prizes took place on December 10, 1901, the fifth anniversary of Nobel’s death. 

An additional award, the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, was established in 1968 by the Bank of Sweden and was first awarded in 1969. Although not technically a Nobel Prize, it is identified with the award; its winners are announced with the Nobel Prize recipients, and the Prize in Economic Sciences is presented at the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony.

Also read:  History

The Nobel Foundation’s Establishment

After Nobel’s death, the Nobel Foundation was set up to carry out the provisions of his will and to administer his funds. In his will, he had stipulated that four different institutions—three Swedish and one Norwegian—should award the prizes. From Stockholm, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences confers the prizes for physics, chemistry, and economics, the Karolinska Institute confers the prize for physiology or medicine, and the Swedish Academy confers the prize for literature. 

Also read: Establishment

The Norwegian Nobel Committee based in Oslo confers the prize for peace. The Nobel Foundation is the legal owner and functional administrator of the funds and serves as the joint administrative body of the prize-awarding institutions, but it is not concerned with the prize deliberations or decisions, which rest exclusively with the four institutions.

The Prizes

Each Nobel Prize consists of a gold medal, a diploma bearing a citation, and a sum of money, the amount of which depends on the income of the Nobel Foundation. A Nobel Prize is given entirely to one person, divided equally between two persons, or shared by three persons. In the latter case, each of the three persons can receive a one-third share of the prize, or two together can receive a one-half share. 

Sometimes a prize is withheld until the following year; if not then awarded; it is paid back into the funds, which happens also when a prize is neither awarded nor reserved. Two prizes in the same field—i.e., the prize withheld from the previous year and the current year’s prize—can thus be awarded in one year. If a prize is declined or not accepted before a set date, the prize money goes back into the funds. Some prizes have been declined by their winners, and in certain instances, governments have refused to allow their citizens to accept them. 

Those who win a prize are nevertheless entered into the list of Nobel laureates with the remark “declined the prize.” Motives for non-acceptance may vary, but most often the reason has been external pressure; for example, in 1937 Adolf Hitler forbade Germans in the future from accepting Nobel Prizes because he had been infuriated by the award of the 1935 Peace Prize to the anti-Nazi journalist Carl von Ossietzky, who at the time was a political prisoner in Germany. In some cases, the refuser later explained the real reason behind the refusal and was granted the Nobel gold medal and the diploma—but not the money, which invariably reverts to the funds after a certain period.

Also read: List of prizes

In 1847 a breakthrough came with the development of nitroglycerin, an extraordinarily strong—and terribly dangerous—compound. Its volatility gave it power but led to deadly accidents. The challenge for inventors was to marry the power of nitroglycerin to the stability of gunpowder. The man who did it was Alfred Nobel. It was an achievement that made him not only rich but also troubled. Nobel’s complex mixes of genius, business acumen, and conscience led to the creation of the world’s most famous awards for positive contributions to humanity. 

Travels and Tragedy

Alfred’s father, Immanuel Nobel, was a Swedish businessman and inventor who set himself up in Russia in the service of the tsars. His factory provided arms for the Russian Army during the Crimean War in the 1850s. But in 1859, a few years after the war ended and the demand for arms fell away, the business went bankrupt. Alfred, who was living with his parents in St. Petersburg and had begun his chemistry studies there, now returned to Stockholm, where he pursued research into explosives, including work with nitroglycerin.

The Nobel’s experienced nitroglycerin’s devastating power in 1864. An explosion at the Nobel factory in Stockholm killed several people, among them Alfred’s younger brother, Emil. Far from discouraging Nobel, the tragedy may even have galvanized him in his research and strengthened his resolve to find a safer alternative.

Three years later, in 1867, Nobel stumbled on the discovery that would make him a household name. Purely by chance, he observed that the porous sedimentary rock known as diatomaceous earth has the property of absorbing nitroglycerin. On testing the resulting mixture he found, to his excitement, that it was an effective explosive but far more stable than pure nitroglycerin. Nobel termed the compound “dynamite” from the Greek dynamis, meaning “power.”

Dynamite Discovery Impacts on Nobel:

The discovery brought him immediate wealth and recognition. While others might have rested on their laurels, Nobel continued researching more effective weapons. In 1875 he invented a mixture of nitroglycerin and nitrocellulose that was more resistant to water and even more powerful than the original formulation of dynamite.

Alfred Nobel was only 63 when died at a villa in San Remo, Italy, in 1896. When his will was read to his relatives, there was, understandably, a huge interest in who would inherit his fortune. To their astonishment and anger, they have left only a fraction of it. Nobel had bequeathed the lion’s share to endow a new foundation that would, every year, award prizes to outstanding figures in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace.

Also read:  First Nobel prizes awarded

Written By - Mohammed Ghattas

Edited By - Sravanthi Cheerladinne


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