History and Information About the Nobel Prize Award

About the history of the Nobel Prize Award from its creation to the present day.


Alfred Bernhard Nobel, inventor of dynamite, hated prizes. He never took seriously the ones he himself received.

"I owe my Swedish Order of the North Star to my cook, whose skill won the approval of an eminent stomach," he once said. "And my French Order was conferred upon me as the result of a close personal acquaintance with a minister."

Nevertheless, because he did not wish to leave his fortune to relatives, Nobel created the most prestigious prizes in history.

One of the world's richest men, Nobel owned 15 factories and 53 oil tankers. He took out, in addition to the one on dynamite, 355 other patents, including those on smokeless powder, synthetic rubber, blasting gelatin, and a rocket projectile. He dwelt alone in Paris, a shy, unhappy man who never married.

On Nov. 27, 1896, before four witnesses in the Swedish Club of Paris, Nobel wrote his last will on a torn half-sheet of paper and in it created the five major Nobel Prizes. Almost two weeks later, on the night of Dec. 10, 1896, Nobel died in his Italian villa. On his desk were plans for new instruments of war and some jottings about how to achieve peace. He had a phobia about being buried alive and had asked that his veins be opened and his body cremated. All that remained of Nobel was the will giving the interest from his $9 million to "those persons who shall have contributed most materially to the benefit of mankind during the year immediately preceding."

Nobel's will was positive on one point: that in the granting of the awards, no consideration whatsoever was to be paid to the nationality of the candidates. But it was assumed from the beginning that Nobel did not really mean this. Nobel's family and friends reminded the committees of his personal tastes and distastes in world affairs and literature, and argued that both should be respected. Thus, in death, Nobel dominated the awards.

Since 1901, the five original prizes have been given annually on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death, at glittering ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo, where each winner receives a gold medal, an illuminated diploma, and an envelope containing a pledge of anywhere from $30,000 to $145,000 in cash (tax-free for American winners).

The awards in physics and chemistry are decided by the Royal Academy of Science, 175 members strong. The entire staff of 30 doctors and instructors at the Caroline Medico-Surgical Institute, Sweden's leading medical foundation, votes the medicine award. The Swedish Academy, with a membership of 18 writers selected for life, chooses the literature winner. The peace prize is given out by a committee of five Norwegians appointed for a six-year term by the Storting, Norway's governing body. Nobel had at first meant to have his fellow Swedes bestow the peace prize, too. But at the last moment he turned its control over to Norway, partly because he felt this award might be handled more impartially outside his own homeland. In 1969 a sixth award--in economic science--was established, and it is voted upon by the Royal Academy of Science.

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