Past notes: the Nobel Prize
Who was Nobel?
Born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1833, Alfred Nobel was, like his father, an engineer and inventor. He’s best known for inventing dynamite, which he patented in 1867. When he died in San Remo, Italy in 1896, he’d acquired more than 350 patents.
How did he set up the prize?
Nobel never married and in his will he specified that the bulk of his fortune should be divided into five parts and be used to fund prizes in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace for “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind”. A sixth prize, for economics, was established in his memory and has been awarded since 1969.
Who decides the winners?
In his will, Nobel specifically designated the institutions responsible for selecting the laureates (prize winners): the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences selects the laureates in physics, chemistry and economics; the Karolinska Institute awards the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine; the Swedish Academy chooses the Nobel Prize in literature; and a committee of five persons elected by the Norwegian parliament awards the Nobel Peace Prize.
Who was the first British winner?
It was Ronald Ross (1857–1932), who received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1902 for his work on the transmission of malaria. Ross, who was born in Almora, India, was also the first laureate to be born outside Europe.
Has anyone declined the prize?
Two laureates have voluntarily declined. French existentialist author Jean-Paul Sartre turned down the 1964 literature prize, stating: “A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution.” Le Duc Tho, who was jointly awarded the 1973 peace prize with Henry Kissinger for negotiating the Vietnam armistice, also declined as he thought that Kissinger had violated the truce.
Four Nobel laureates have been forced to decline. Adolf Hitler forbade three German laureates, Richard Kuhn, Adolf Butenandt and Gerhard Domagk, from accepting their prizes. Boris Pasternak, the 1958 laureate in literature, initially accepted the award but he was then coerced into declining by the Soviet authorities.
Alfred Nobel, Swedish chemist and inventor of dynamite, pictured in c1885