Past notes: the No­bel Prize

BBC History Magazine - - Contents -

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

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