By Susan Russo
Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1833. He is best remembered for the invention of dynamite and for leaving the major part of his fortune for the establishment of prizes for a person or persons who accomplished discoveries resulting in the “greatest benefit on mankind.” Nobel’s father was an engineer, manufacturer, and inventor. One of his inventions was modern plywood. The family factories were in St. Petersburg, Russia, where Albert was educated by tutors, showing marked interest in chemistry and languages. From 1841 to 1842, Albert was sent to Sweden to the Jacobs Apologistic [sic] School. Albert’s studies in chemistry continued in Russia, then Paris, then four years in the United States. Albert’s interests also included explosives, taught to him by his father. His 355 inventions included a gas meter in 1857, a detonator in 1863, and a blasting cap in 1865. Nobel’s additional interest in physiological research led to his starting laboratories in France and Italy for experiments in blood transfusions, as well as his making donations to the Pavlov laboratory in Russia.
Nobel died in 1896, but when his brother Ludvig died in 1888, one newspaper mistakenly wrote Albert’s obituary, characterizing him as the “merchant of death.” Before his own death, Albert Nobel wrote a will that set aside most of his fortune to create the Nobel prizes. This will was contested by members of his family, so that the prizes were not legally authorized until 1897. In 1900, the Nobel Foundation was established by order of Sweden’s King Oscar II.
Because of these delays, the initial Nobel Prizes were not awarded until 1901, the first in physics to Wilhelm Roentgen, and also in the will’s stated fields of chemistry, peace, physiology or medicine, and literature.
The Nobel Foundation selects professionals in these fields from around the world to nominate individuals for the prizes (including at least one professor at Rockefeller). The Swedish Academy of Sciences awards the prizes for physics and chemistry; the Karolinska Institute awards prizes for physiology or medicine; and the Academy in Stockholm awards prizes for Literature. The Peace price is awarded by the Norwegian Storting, the legislature of Norway. In 1968, a Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel was established by Sweden’s central bank, Sveriges Riksbank.
The gold Nobel prize medals are minted in Sweden, with a profile of Albert Nobel on one side. On the prizes presented in Sweden there is a Latin verse from Virgil which is translated as “inventions enhance life which is beautified through art.” The original 1901 prize money for the award was 150,782 Swedish kronor, which as of this writing is $19,948. Nobel prizes are not awarded every year, if there are no discoveries deemed to be of significance, nor, frequently, during times of war.
The youngest Nobel Laureate was Malala Yousfzai, who, at 17, received the Peace prize in 2014. The oldest Nobel Laureate was Leonid Hurwicz, who, at 90, received the Economic Sciences prize in 2007. Only two Nobel Laureates refused the Nobel prizes: Jean-Paul Sartre, in 1964, for Literature, and Le Duc Tho, in 1973, for Peace. Three Nobel Laureates were forced to decline their Nobel prizes by Adolph Hitler: Richard Kuhn in 1938 for Chemistry; Adolf Butenadt in 1939 for Chemistry; and Gerhard Domagk in 1939 for Physiology or Medicine. In 1958, Boris Pasternak was denied his prize in Literature by the Soviet Union.
The prizes were specified in Nobel’s original will to be awarded only to living persons, but two notable exceptions have been awarded posthumously, to Dag Hammarskjold, for the Peace prize in 1961, and to Rockefeller University Professor Ralph Steinman for Physiology or Medicine in 2011.
The formal elegant ceremony for most of the prizes are held in Stockholm, at the Karolinska Institute, followed by a lavish banquet originally held in the Hall of Mirrors at the Grand Hotel, and held currently in the 1,300-seat Blue Hall of Stockholm’s City Hall. Attending the ceremonies and banquets are members of Sweden’s royal family, members of the Swedish government, representatives of the Nobel family, as well as the honored families and guests of the Nobel Laureates. The banquet’s five courses were reduced to three courses after World War II. The Peace prize ceremonies are held in Oslo in Norway’s City Hall, followed by the banquets in Oslo’s Grand Hotel.
Additional historical details and descriptions of the ceremonies and banquets can be found at www.nobelprize.org and www.nobelprize.org/ceremonies/menus/soderlind. The latter link will give you the amazing and amusing panoply of indigenous and foreign menus in Stockholm over the first 100 years of the prizes, which included sandwiches in the austere years during and after World Wars I and II. (Shades of Eleanor Roosevelt’s tuna fish sandwiches during Churchill’s visit to the United States during World War II….)