The Establishment of the Nobel Prize

Let’s play a game. I’ll say a word and you say what comes to your mind.

Ready? Go!

Cat… Kitchen… Doctor… Airplane… Nobel…

I have no idea what you said when I said cat but I’d say most of you said “prize” when I said Nobel.

Alfred Nobel’s name is most often remembered because of the 5 Nobel prizes (one each in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace). What’s interesting is that he never picked any Nobel Prize winners, he never went to a prize-giving ceremony, and he wasn’t even alive when the Nobel Prize was established! Why then are they called the Nobel Prizes? Why not the Olwen Prizes?!

The simple answer is he came up with the idea and had the money to fund it.

Okay, well fair enough but why was his wish that these prizes be set up? Why did he donate almost all of his enormous estate to the establishment of what is now an award that is arguably the most distinguished among those granted in literature, certain areas of science, peace efforts and economics? And why did it almost not happen?

A scandalous will

Alfred Nobel was born on the 21st of October, 1833 in Stockholm, Sweden. He was an inventor like his father and also a poet and businessman.

Nobel devoted his life to improving explosives and had almost 100 armament factories worldwide. He held 350 patents including those for several explosives like dynamite.

He had also invested in his two brother’s company oilfields in the Caspian Sea and in naphtha production. This left him with an impressive empire and a sizable fortune.

Nobel died of a stroke as an extremely wealthy man. So you can imagine his family was anxious to read his will. Unfortunately they weren’t going to get the will they wanted.

He left each of them modest sums of money that totaled 6% of his fortune. And the rest of it? He left 94% of his vast fortune, some 31 million SEK (US$186 million or 150 million euro in 2008) for the establishment and maintenance of the prizes. As written in his will:

“[T]he capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind”.

A change of heart?

Nobel’s final will was the third he wrote and he signed it just over a year before he passed away. What made him change his will? Why didn’t he leave his fortunes to his family?

Eight years prior to his death, Nobel read something that most of us would never have to: he read his own obituary.

A French newspaper had mixed him and his brother, Ludvig, up and published an obituary for the wrong man. In this obituary, the journalist wrote “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead”). The obituary went on to state that he had made his fortune by creating ways to quickly kill as many people as possible.

Nobel was horrified that this might be how he might be remembered. From that point he started to think about what his legacy would be.

The prizes that almost weren’t

Several obstacles had to be overcome before the prizes could be awarded:

The family

Upon learning of the contents of his will, Nobel’s family realized they were receiving far smaller amounts of money than they expected. As you can imagine, there was an uproar of protest. His extended family (Nobel never married nor had children) vehemently opposed the establishment of the prizes mentioned in his will. They questioned the authenticity of the will, which wasn’t helped by the fact that although he signed his will in the presence of 4 witnesses, he wrote it without a lawyer.

The academies

The academies were reluctant to take up the responsibility of awarding the prizes. Nobel didn’t leave any specific instructions as to how the winners should be chosen.

The politics

There was political concern over awarding the peace prizes by a committee appointed by the Swedish parliament. Nobel was a resident of many countries, therefore the Swedish courts needed to be convinced that they were the appropriate body to establish the prizes.

In addition, although Swedish newspapers were generally complementary and commended him, leading conservative and left wing politicians called him “unpatriotic” – they took issue with his desire to make the prizes a global rather than national series of awards.

The legality

Since Nobel had written his will without the help of a lawyer, it was also uncertain if it was legally binding. One of his executors was so fearful that a Parisian court of law would not recognize it, he smuggled the will and relevant papers out of France and brought them to Sweden where he hoped the Swedish courts would be more lenient. (He also hoped to avoid French tax authorities and Nobel’s family).

As a result of all this, it wasn’t until 5 years after Nobel died that his wishes were fully followed (and after his family were paid to drop their formal objections and the relevant institutions had agreed to their roles). Find out the whole story on the Nobel Prize website.

One man’s legacy

In establishing these prizes, Nobel hoped to stimulate scientific progress and improve human conditions. He spent much of his life alone, suffering bouts of depression and self-loathing. The three women he loved declined his advances and he spent his last years in deep thought questioning his decisions in life.

However, it is thanks to him that over a century later we are giving recognition to and acknowledging the value of people or groups that have made this world of ours grow, fostering our innate human desire to strive towards global betterment and to learn more about each and every thing.

How would you like to be remembered? Perhaps each of us should ask ourselves if we died tomorrow, would we have made the world a better place? Perhaps if we all did this daily, the answer to this question would increasingly be “yes.”

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