The Nobel Prize: Origin Story, Categories, Most Famous Winners, & Significance

The Nobel Prize is one of the most prestigious international awards bestowed annually in recognition of outstanding achievements in various fields. According to the Nobel Foundation, the private institution that runs the Nobel Prize, the prize awards are given to “those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind”.

Here is an overview of the origin story, famous winners, and significance of the Nobel Prize:

Origin Story

Nobel Prize - history and facts

Each category of the Nobel Prize has its own committee or organization responsible for the selection process and awarding the prize.

The Nobel Prize was established by the will of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish inventor, engineer, and industrialist. In his will, Nobel left the majority of his fortune to fund the creation of the Nobel Prizes.

Categories of the Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prize is awarded in several categories, recognizing outstanding achievements in different fields. Here are the main categories of the Nobel Prize:

  1. Physics: This category acknowledges significant contributions to the field of physics, including discoveries, theories, and advancements in understanding the fundamental laws of nature.
  2. Chemistry: The Nobel Prize in Chemistry honors groundbreaking research and discoveries in the field of chemistry, ranging from the synthesis of new compounds to the development of innovative chemical processes.
  3. Physiology or Medicine: This category recognizes exceptional contributions to the field of medicine or medical research, including discoveries of new treatments, advancements in understanding diseases, or significant breakthroughs in the understanding of the human body.
  4. Literature: The Nobel Prize in Literature celebrates exceptional literary works, including novels, poetry, plays, and essays, that have made a substantial impact on the world of literature and contributed to the enrichment of literary heritage.
  5. Peace: The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to individuals, organizations, or movements that have made remarkable efforts to promote peace, prevent conflicts, and resolve disputes at both national and international levels.
  6. Economic Sciences: This category, officially known as the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, was established later in 1968. It recognizes outstanding contributions to the field of economics and economic sciences, including research on economic theories, policies, and the understanding of economic phenomena.

The Nobel Prizes are awarded annually in six categories: Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, Peace, and Economic Sciences.

The Nobel Foundation – the institution that runs the Nobel Prizes

The Nobel Foundation is a Swedish institution responsible for the administration and management of the funds donated by Alfred Nobel to establish the Nobel Prizes. The foundation was established on 29 June 1900, a few years after Alfred Nobel’s death, in accordance with his will.

The main purpose of the Nobel Foundation is to safeguard Nobel’s intentions and ensure the proper execution of the Nobel Prizes. It oversees the financial aspects of the prizes, manages the Nobel endowment, and organizes the Nobel Prize ceremonies. The foundation is based in Stockholm, Sweden.

The Nobel Foundation is governed by a board of trustees, known as the Nobel Assembly, which consists of individuals appointed by Swedish institutions such as the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Swedish Academy, and the Karolinska Institute. The Nobel Assembly is responsible for the selection of laureates in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, and Economic Sciences.

The foundation also collaborates with various institutions and organizations to promote research, education, and public engagement in areas related to the Nobel Prizes. Those institutions are: the Norwegian Nobel Committee, the Swedish Academy, the Karolinska Institute, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

The Nobel Foundation is controlled by a five-member board, which includes a chairperson who is appointed by the Swedish King in Council. The four other members are appointed by the trustees of the prize-awarding institutions.

Most Famous Winners (laureates) of the Nobel Prize

Numerous renowned individuals have been awarded Nobel Prizes throughout history. Some notable recipients include:

Marie Curie (1867-1934)

She received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 (shared with her husband Pierre Curie) and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 for her pioneering research on radioactivity.

Marie Curie, born Maria Skłodowska on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw, Poland (then part of the Russian Empire), was a pioneering physicist and chemist. She is renowned for her groundbreaking research on radioactivity and her significant contributions to the field of science.

Madame Curie’s accomplishments as a female scientist in a male-dominated field have inspired generations of women to pursue careers in science. Her determination, intellect, and perseverance in the face of adversity serve as a powerful example of overcoming barriers and challenging gender norms.

Read More: Greatest Achievements of Marie Curie

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

Nelson Mandela was a prominent South African anti-apartheid activist, politician, and philanthropist. The first black head of state of South Africa was born on July 18, 1918, in Mvezo, Cape Province, South Africa, and passed away on December 5, 2013, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Mandela is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in modern history and a symbol of the struggle against racial oppression and injustice.

Read More: Notable Achievements of Nelson Mandela

Albert Einstein (1879-1855)

The famous physicist was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for his explanation of the photoelectric effect, which laid the foundation for quantum theory. Born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Germany, Einstein is revered as one of the greatest physicists and thinkers of the 20th century.

His most famous contribution to science is the theory of relativity. His special theory of relativity, published in 1905, revolutionized our understanding of space, time, and the relationship between matter and energy. The equation E=mc², which demonstrates the equivalence of mass and energy, is one of the most iconic equations in physics.

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)

The influential civil rights leader and advocate of nonviolence was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his efforts to promote racial equality and social justice. King rose to national prominence during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-1956. The boycott, sparked by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, was a pivotal event in the civil rights movement and marked King’s emergence as a charismatic and influential leader.

In 1963, King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. His powerful words, emphasizing equality, justice, and unity, became a defining moment in American history and continue to inspire people around the world.

Read More: Major Achievements Martin Luther King Jr.

Wilhelm Röntgen (1845-1923)

This German mechanical engineer and physicist holds the distinguish honor of being the first laureate in the Nobel Prize in Physics. Known as the scientist who discovered X-rays, Röntgen received the Nobel Prize in 1901. Röntgen continued to make significant contributions to physics beyond his discovery of X-rays. He conducted research on the properties of cathode rays, investigated the phenomenon of fluorescence, and studied the polarization of X-rays.

Mother Teresa (1910-1997)

Mother Teresa, born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu on August 26, 1910, in Skopje (now part of North Macedonia), was a Roman Catholic nun and humanitarian. She dedicated her life to serving the poorest of the poor and became one of the most recognizable and revered figures of the 20th century. Mother Teresa received international recognition for her humanitarian work, and she was awarded numerous honors, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. Despite the accolades, she remained humble and committed to her mission of serving the most vulnerable. On 4 September 2016, she was canonised as Saint Teresa of Calcutta.

Jan Tinbergen (1903–1994)

Jan Tinbergen, born on April 12, 1903, in The Hague, Netherlands, and passed away on June 9, 1994, in The Hague, was a Dutch economist and one of the pioneers of econometrics and macroeconomic modeling. In 1969, Tinbergen shared the first Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences with Norwegian economist Ragnar Frisch. They were recognized for their contributions to the development and application of dynamic models for the analysis of economic processes. Tinbergen’s work in econometrics and macroeconomic modeling played a crucial role in establishing the field of modern economic analysis.

Bob Dylan (born: May 24, 1941)

The renowned American singer-songwriter was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, recognizing his profound impact on the music and literary world. He is considered one of the most influential figures in popular music and has made significant contributions to folk, rock, and the broader cultural landscape. Some of his most famous songs include “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” Dylan’s poetic lyrics, distinctive voice, and innovative songwriting style have earned him critical acclaim and a massive following. He has also won multiple Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.

Ernest Hemingway (1989-1961)

Ernest Hemingway was an American writer and journalist born on July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois. He is considered one of the most influential and celebrated authors of the 20th century. Hemingway’s distinctive writing style, characterized by concise and straightforward prose, had a profound impact on modern literature. Some of Hemingway’s most famous novels include “The Sun Also Rises” (1926), “A Farewell to Arms” (1929), “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1940), and “The Old Man and the Sea” (1952).

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924)

Woodrow Wilson was an American statesman and the 28th President of the United States, serving from 1913 to 1921. He was born on December 28, 1856, in Staunton, Virginia, and died on February 3, 1924, in Washington, D.C. Wilson is known for his progressive policies, his leadership during World War I, and his role in shaping the international order after the war.

He played a pivotal role in the creation of the League of Nations, an international organization aimed at preventing future wars. He was a strong advocate for the league and saw it as a means to maintain peace and resolve conflicts through diplomacy. However, the United States did not ultimately join the league due to opposition in Congress.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941)

Rabindranath Tagore, born on May 7, 1861, in Calcutta, British India (now Kolkata, India), and passed away on August 7, 1941, in Calcutta, was a polymath and one of the most celebrated figures in Bengali literature and Indian culture. He is best known for his collection of poems titled “Gitanjali” (Song Offerings), which earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, making him the first non-European to receive the award. His poetic works reflect a deep appreciation for nature, love, spirituality, and the human condition.

Max Theiler (1899-1972)

Max Theiler, born on January 30, 1899, in Pretoria, South Africa, and died on August 11, 1972, in New Haven, Connecticut, was a South African-American virologist and physician who made significant contributions to the field of medicine, particularly in the development of a vaccine for yellow fever. In 1951, Theiler was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his development of the yellow fever vaccine. His work significantly contributed to the control and prevention of yellow fever, a viral disease transmitted by mosquitoes that had devastating effects in many tropical regions.

Yasser Arafat (1929-2004)

Yasser Arafat, born Mohammed Yasser Abdel Rahman Abdel Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini, was a Palestinian political leader and the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). He was born on August 24, 1929, in Cairo, Egypt, and died on November 11, 2004, in Paris, France.

Arafat also engaged in diplomatic efforts, including negotiations with Israel and the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, which aimed to establish a framework for peace and Palestinian self-rule. In 1994, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres for their roles in the peace process.

Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama (born: July 6, 1935)

Tenzin Gyatso, commonly known as the 14th Dalai Lama, is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and an influential figure in global affairs. He was born on July 6, 1935, in Taktser, a small village in northeastern Tibet. The Dalai Lama has received numerous awards and honors, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. The Dalai Lama has garnered international recognition and respect for his efforts in promoting human rights, interfaith dialogue, and environmental conservation. He has engaged in numerous dialogues and initiatives, emphasizing the need for compassion and understanding across religious, cultural, and national boundaries.

Wole Soyinka (born: 1934)

Wole Soyinka, born on July 13, 1934, in Abeokuta, Nigeria, is a Nigerian playwright, poet, essayist, and critic. He is widely regarded as one of Africa’s most distinguished and influential writers. Soyinka’s literary works span various genres, including drama, poetry, novels, and essays. His plays, such as “A Dance of the Forests,” “Death and the King’s Horseman,” and “The Bacchae of Euripides,” blend African cultural themes, myth, and symbolism with social and political commentary. In 1986, Wole Soyinka became the first African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, recognizing his exceptional literary contributions. The Nobel Committee commended his wide range of artistic expression and his ability to blend poetic language, drama, and satire to address the complexities of contemporary African society.

Paul Samuelson (1915–2009)

Paul Samuelson, born on May 15, 1915, in Gary, Indiana, and passed away on December 13, 2009, in Belmont, Massachusetts, was an American economist and one of the most influential figures in the field of economics in the 20th century. Samuelson was an advocate of Keynesian economics, which emphasizes the role of aggregate demand and the government’s role in stabilizing the economy through fiscal policy. He helped popularize Keynesian ideas in the United States through his widely used textbook, “Economics: An Introductory Analysis,” first published in 1948. In 1970, Samuelson became the third recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. He received the prize “for the scientific work through which he has developed static and dynamic economic theory and actively contributed to raising the level of analysis in economic science”.

Malala Yousafzai (born: July 12, 1997)

The Pakistani activist and advocate for girls’ education became the youngest Nobel laureate when she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 at the age of 17. Born in Mingora, Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai gained international recognition for her advocacy for girls’ education in Pakistan, where the Taliban had banned girls from attending school in the Swat Valley region.

She became an outspoken critic of the Taliban’s oppressive regime and spoke out against their attempts to deny education to girls. In 2012, when she was just 15 years old, Malala was targeted by the Taliban for her activism. She was shot in the head by a gunman while returning home from school. Miraculously, she survived the attack after receiving medical treatment in Pakistan and later in the United Kingdom. The Nobel committee acknowledged her “struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”

Orhan Pamuk (born: 1952)

Orhan Pamuk, born on June 7, 1952, in Istanbul, Turkey, is a renowned Turkish writer and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006. The Turkish poet is primarily known for his novels, which have gained international recognition for their literary quality and exploration of themes such as identity, memory, love, and politics. Some of his notable works include “My Name Is Red,” “Snow,” “The Museum of Innocence,” and “A Strangeness in My Mind.” Pamuk’s literary works have been translated into numerous languages, gaining him a wide readership around the world.

Luis F. Leloir (1906-1987)

Luis Federico Leloir, born on September 6, 1906, in Paris, France, and passed away on December 2, 1987, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, was an Argentine biochemist and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1970 for his discoveries concerning the role of sugar nucleotides in the biosynthesis of carbohydrates. The Nobel Committee recognized his groundbreaking research, which had wide-ranging implications for biochemistry and medicine.

Yoichiro Nambu (1921–2015)

Yoichiro Nambu, born on January 18, 1921, in Tokyo, Japan, and passed away on July 5, 2015, in Osaka, Japan, was a Japanese physicist who made significant contributions to the field of theoretical physics, particularly in the area of elementary particle physics. In 2008, Nambu was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his pioneering work in the field of particle physics and the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics.

Significance

The Nobel Prize holds great significance due to its recognition of exceptional achievements across various fields. It serves to honor and encourage individuals who have made groundbreaking contributions to human knowledge, culture, and peace. The prize brings international attention to important scientific, literary, and humanitarian advancements, elevating the laureates’ work and inspiring future generations.

Overall, the Nobel Prize has become a symbol of extraordinary accomplishment and serves as a testament to human ingenuity, dedication, and the pursuit of excellence in various domains, making it one of the most prestigious recognitions in the world.

The Nobel Prizes honor those who have made significant contributions to humanity, advancing knowledge, promoting peace, and fostering cultural and scientific progress. Past winners include notable figures such as Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr., Malala Yousafzai, and Bob Dylan.

The Nobel Prize medal

The Nobel Prize is an internationally renowned award that recognizes individuals and organizations for exceptional achievements in various fields. It was established by the will of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish inventor and philanthropist. Image: Front side of one of the Nobel Prize medals

The Nobel Prize Medal was designed by Swedish sculptor and engraver Erik Lindberg. The design features the image of Alfred Nobel, the founder of the Nobel Prizes, along with the dates of his birth and death.

The front side of the medal depicts the profile portrait of Alfred Nobel, facing left. The inscription “Alfred Nobel” and the years of his birth and death are engraved on this side. The reverse side of the medal varies depending on the category of the Nobel Prize. It generally showcases a scene or motif related to the specific field.

The Nobel Prize Medal is made of 18-karat green gold (an alloy of gold and silver) and weighs around 175 grams. It has a diameter of 66 millimeters.

The Nobel Prize Medals are minted by Myntverket (the Swedish Mint) in Eskilstuna, Sweden. Each medal is individually handcrafted, ensuring its uniqueness and quality.

The Nobel Prize Medals are presented annually to the laureates during the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony held in Stockholm, Sweden, on December 10th, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. The medals are presented along with a diploma and a cash prize.

The Nobel Prize ceremonies

The ceremonies in honor of Nobel Prize laureates are held annually at the Stockholm Concert Hall in Stockholm, Sweden; except for the Nobel Peace Prize, which is presented in Oslo City Hall in Oslo, Norway). The Nobel banquet, on the other hand, takes place at Stockholm City Hall.

The laureates receive a diploma, a gold medal, and a monetary award, which is funded by the endowment left by Alfred Nobel.

Except for the Peace Prize, the Nobel Prizes are presented in Stockholm, Sweden annually on December 10, which is the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. Also on that day, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient (s) delivers a lecture in Oslo, Norway.

At the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in Stockholm, the laureates receive the prize from the monarch of Sweden. However, in Oslo, the honor is given to the laureates by the chairperson of the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

The years when the Nobel Prizes weren’t awarded

In 1939, the Nobel Peace Prize was not awarded. And from 1940 to 1942, no Nobel Prize was awarded in any of the category. This was primarily due to Nazi Germany’s occupation of Norway.

Years without the Nobel Prizes:

  • Physics: 1916, 1931, 1934, 1940, 1941, 1942
  • Chemistry: 1916, 1917, 1919, 1924, 1933, 1940, 1941, 1942
  • Physiology or Medicine: 1915, 1916, 1917, 1918, 1921, 1925, 1940, 1941, 1942
  • Literature: 1914, 1918, 1935, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943
  • Peace: 1914, 1915, 1916, 1918, 1923, 1924, 1928, 1932, 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1948, 1955, 1956, 1966, 1967, 1972

The Nobel Peace Prize

According to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, the Nobel Peace Prize is given “to the person who has done the most or best to advance fellowship among nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and the establishment and promotion of peace congresses”.

It is awarded annually to individuals, organizations, or movements that have made significant contributions to the promotion of peace and the resolution of conflicts.

The Nobel Peace Prize is unique among the Nobel Prizes in that it is awarded by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, while the other prizes are awarded by Swedish institutions. This distinction was specified by Alfred Nobel himself in his will. The Norwegian Nobel Committee is appointed by the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget) and consists of five members chosen from among its members.

The Nobel Peace Prize recognizes a wide range of peace-building efforts, including diplomatic negotiations, disarmament initiatives, human rights advocacy, humanitarian work, and efforts to prevent or resolve conflicts. The prize has been awarded to individuals, such as prominent leaders, activists, and peacemakers, as well as organizations and movements dedicated to promoting peace and justice.

The selection process for the Nobel Peace Prize is confidential, and nominations can be made by a select group of qualified individuals and organizations, including politicians, academics, previous laureates, and members of certain international organizations. The Norwegian Nobel Committee reviews the nominations, conducts investigations, and makes the final decision on the laureate(s) for each year.

The Nobel Peace Prize ceremony takes place annually on December 10th in Oslo, Norway, on the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. The laureate(s) receive a diploma, a gold medal, and a monetary award, which varies from year to year and is funded by the endowment left by Alfred Nobel.

Institutions that have won the Nobel Peace Prize

  • Institute of International Law in 1904
  • Permanent International Peace Bureau in 1910
  • International Committee of the Red Cross – in 1917, 1944 and 1963
  • Nansen International Office for Refugees in 1938
  • Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – 1954 and 1981
  • The United Nations Peace-Keeping Forces in 1988
  • The United Nations – 2001
  • The World Food Programme (WFO) – 2020
  • Centre for Civil Liberties (Ukraine) – 2022

Mahatma Gandhi and the Nobel Peace Prize

Mahatma Gandhi, India’s famous anti-colonial activist and one of the greatest proponents of nonviolence, was nominated a whopping five times for the Nobel Peace Prize – in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947, and 1948. In what is perhaps the most obvious overlooked individual for the Prize, Gandhi never won the prize.

In the year that Gandhi was assassinated, the Norwegian Nobel Committee did not award the Peace Prize. This was done in honor of Gandhi as well as some kind of way to make up for the numerous times that the nonviolence icon was overlooked for the Prize. The committee stated that “there was no suitable living candidate” that year. Gandhi has therefore gone down in history as the most famous icon not to receive the Nobel Prize.

Other notable individuals that were overlooked for the Peace Prize or perhaps died before they could win the honor are: Former US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), Nigerian environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941-1995), and former Filipino president Maria Corazon (1933-2009).

Read More: Major Accomplishments of Eleanor Roosevelt

Did you know…?

Only two recipients have won multiple Peace Prizes: International Committee of the Red Cross – three times – in 1917, 1944 and 1963; and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – twice – 1954 and 1981.

As of 2022, the number of times that the Nobel Peace Prize was not awarded is 19 times.

As of 2022, 110 individuals and 27 organizations have won the Peace Prize. Of those individuals, 18 were women.

Some notable winners of the Nobel Peace Prize are:

Dag Hammarskjöld was the Secretary-General of the United Nations from 10 April 1953 – 18 September 1961, when he died. The top UN official was en route to the DRC to broker peace in the country when his crashed, killing all of the 15 other passengers. Dag Hammarskjöld was posthumously honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, making him the only person to receive the prize after dying.

The Nobel Prize in Economic Science – the sixth category of the Nobel Prize

This category was established in 1968 under the auspices of Sweden’s Central Bank, Sveriges Riksbank. This means that the bank is the one that pays for the prize money in the category.

The first recipients of the Nobel memorial Prize in Economics were Norwegian economist Ragnar Frisch (1895–1973) and Dutch economist Jan Tinbergen (1903–1994) “for having developed and applied dynamic models for the analysis of economic processes”.

The Economic Sciences prize category was intended to honor the memory of Alfred Nobel. It was agreed that this category, like the other five key categories, would be administered by the Nobel Foundation.

Interesting fact about Sveriges Riksbank

Sveriges Riksbank, the central bank of Sweden, is the world’s oldest central bank. Headquartered in Stockholm, Sweden, the bank began operations in 1668. The bank also holds the honor of being the fourth oldest bank in continuous operation, behind the likes of Italy’s Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena and Germany’s Berenberg Bank.

Questions and Answers about the Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prize serves as a testament to human ingenuity, dedication, and the pursuit of excellence, elevating the laureates’ work and inspiring positive change in the world. Image: Nobel Prize diploma in Chemistry given to German chemist Fritz Haber for his for his invention of the Haber–Bosch process, a method used in industry to synthesize ammonia from nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas.

When was the Nobel Prize established?

The highly coveted Nobel Prizes were established in 1895 kind courtesy of the funds left in the will of Alfred Nobel, a renowned 19th-century Swedish engineer and philanthropist. The first Nobel Prize was awarded in 1901, about five years after the death of its benefactor.

Who was Alfred Nobel and why did he establish the Nobel Prize?

Alfred Bernhard Nobel was a Swedish inventor, engineer, chemist, and industrialist born on October 21, 1833, in Stockholm, Sweden. He is best known for inventing dynamite, a groundbreaking invention that revolutionized construction, mining, and warfare.

Born on October 21, 1833 in Stockholm, Sweden, Alfred Nobel was a famous engineer and industrialist who held over 350 different patents in his lifetime, with dynamite being his most famous invention. However, he became increasingly concerned about the destructive potential of his invention and its impact on human life. For example, in 1888 a newspaper accidentally published his obituary, describing him as “The Merchant of Death”. This concern led him to establish the Nobel Prizes in his will.

Alfred Nobel passed away on December 10, 1896, in San Remo, Italy. He was 63 years old. The cause of death was said to be stroke (i.e. a cerebral haemorrhage). The Swedish engineer and philanthropist was buried in a cemetery called Norra begravningsplatsen in Solna Municipality, Stockholm, Sweden. The burial site is home of quite a number of distinguished Swedish figures, including Swedish playwright and poet Johan August (1849-1912), Olympic figure skating champion Ulrich Salchow (1877-1949), and Swedish politician Per Albin Hansson (1885-1946).

Undoubtedly, Alfred Nobel’s legacy lives on through the prestigious Nobel Prizes, which have been awarded since 1901 and continue to be regarded as one of the highest honors in various fields of human achievement.

How much did Alfred Nobel bequeath to the prize?

Nobel’s will, written in 1895, left the majority of his fortune to fund the Nobel Prizes, which were to be awarded annually in six different fields: Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, Peace, and later, Economic Sciences. The prizes were intended to honor individuals or organizations that made significant contributions to humanity.

Nobel donated about 94% of his wealth to the prizes. At the time, that amount at the time was in the region of 31 million SEK (Swedish Krona), which is roughly 185 million in today’s US Dollar or 151 million in Euros.

Who were the executors of Alfred Nobel’s will?

Alfred Nobel’s will was executed by Swedish chemical engineer Ragnar Sohlman (1870-1948) and Rudolf Lilljequist. The former, who served as Alfred Nobel’s assistant in San Remo, went on to devote the remainder of his life in making sure that the Nobel Foundation functioned effectively. Nobel compensated him handsomely with “One Hundred Thousand Crowns” for his “pains and attention” in executing the will. Sohlman served as the executive director of the Nobel Foundation from 1929 to 1946.

Swedish engineer and philanthropist Alfred Nobel bequeathed about more than 90% of his total assets towards the establishment of the Nobel Prizes.

What are the five main categories of the Nobel Prize?

The Nobel Prizes are awarded annually in six categories: Peace, Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, and Literature.

How many Nobel Committees are there?

There are five Nobel Committees – one for each Nobel Prize. The committees’ job is only to come out with nominees. The final decision for the prize is made by a larger assembly, which is made up of many scholars from different academies.

What categories of the Nobel Prize have proved to be a huge topic of debate?

It is often the case that the Nobel Prize in Literature and Nobel Peace Prize have over the decades been deeply debated. The reason is because those categories are usually broad in nature and as result lend themselves to a lot of subjective interpretation.

For example, in 1973, there was a huge uproar when it was announced that then-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. The US diplomat received the honor jointly with Vietnamese military general and diplomat Lê Đức Thọ (1911-1990).

The Norwegian Nobel Committee honored them with the award for “jointly having negotiated a cease fire in Vietnam in 1973.” Critics, including two Norwegian Nobel Committee member, were shocked that the award went to those two men since the Vietnam War was still raging at the time that the award was announced. Owing to the sheer criticism, Tho turned down the award, stating that peace had not yet been established in Vietnam.

Who were the first individuals to receive the Nobel Prizes?

The Nobel Peace Prize was first awarded in 1901 to Frédéric Passy and Henry Dunant, who shared a prize of 150,782 Swedish kronor (equal to 7,731,004 kronor in 2008), Swiss humanitarian Dunant was praised for his role in establishing the International Red Cross Movement, while French economist and pacifist Passy was praised “for his lifelong work for international peace conferences, diplomacy and arbitration.”

German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen was the first recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics. Röntgen received the honor for his discovery of X-rays.

Dutch chemist Jacobus Henricus van ‘t Hoff (1852-1911) was the first recipient of the honor in chemistry. The honor was for his discovery of the laws of chemical dynamics and osmotic pressure in solutions.

German physiologist Emil Adolf von Behring (1854-1917) the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1901. The honor was for his work on serum therapy.

The first Nobel Prize in Literature laureate was French poet and essayist Sully Prudhomme (1839–1907). The Paris-born poet was given the honor for “his poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect”.

How are the nominations for the Nobel Prize awards done?

In collaboration with four institutions – the Karolinska Institute, the Swedish Academy, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and the Norwegian Nobel Committee – the Nobel Foundation invites more than 2500 individuals to nominate distinguished people in their professions for the coveted Nobel Prize awards. These individuals are generally distinguished academics in their respective fields. Those forms are sent in September the year before the awards are given; and the deadline for the completion and submission of the nomination forms is usually 31 January of the year of the award.

The Nobel Committee does not publicly disclose the list of nominees. Additionally, the nominees are not informed about their nominations. Names of nominees are only disclosed 50 years from the awarding of the prize.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which was formed in June 1739, is the institution in charge of selecting the winners of the Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and Physics. Sweden’s central bank, Sveriges Riksbank, consults with the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to select the winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics.

The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute, which is also headquartered in Stockholm, Sweden, is in charge of selecting the winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

For the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy is the institution in charge of selecting the winners.

Finally, the Norwegian Nobel Committee is the body that chooses the laureates for the annual Nobel Peace Prize. In keeping up with the instructions in the Alfred Nobel’s will, the committee is made up five individuals who appointed by the Norwegian Parliament.

For nominations for the Peace Prize, governments and former Peace Prize laureates also receive nomination forms from the Nobel Committee.

Committee room of the Norwegian Nobel Committee

How are the winners of the Nobel Prize selected?

When it comes to selecting the final winners of the awards, the Foundation consults with leading experts in the particular field.

It must be noted that the awards can either go to an individual (s) or groups or an organization. Regarding the latter, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded multiple times to a number of organizations. As of 2022, 27 organizations have received the peace honor, including United Nations (in 2001), the World Food Programme (in 2020), and the United Nations Peace-Keeping Forces (in 1988).

When the award is given to a group, the rules state that the maximum number of individuals is three. Those three individuals receive a gold medal each and have to share the prize money three ways.

In many cases, the winners of the Prizes tend to donate their prize money to a charitable cause or research work in an institution of higher learning.

Less than a year into his first tenure, Barack Obama was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize. Image: U.S. President Obama proudly shows his Nobel Peace Prize (2009)

How much prize money does the winner of the Nobel Prize receive?

The prize money given to Nobel Prize winners has been reviewed over the decades. For example, the first time the prize was awarded, which was in 1901, the winners received around 150,000 SEK (equal to around 8,000,000 SEK today).

As of 2022, the prize money given by the Nobel Foundation to the Nobel Prize winner is 10,000, 000 SEK.

It must be noted that if the prize goes to two people, the prize money is split equally. However, if the prize is received by three individuals, the Nobel Prize awarding committee decides on how the money is shared.

Kofi Annan with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001

Why does the Nobel Laureate have to give a speech?

It’s a tradition for the Nobel Prize winner (s) to give a speech during the Nobel Prize ceremony held in Stockholm, Sweden.

Why is the Nobel Peace Prize awarded by the Norwegian Nobel Committee?

Per the instructions contained in Alfred Nobel’s will, the Norwegian Nobel Committee is the body tasked with selecting the laureates for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Is the Nobel Prize awarded posthumously?

No. The Nobel Foundation does not award the Nobel Prizes posthumously. However, if the winner of the prize dies before receiving the honor, the committee still goes ahead to present the prize. For example, Swedish poet Erik Axel Karlfeldt and UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld unfortunately passed away before they could receive their prizes – in Literature and Peace, respectively.

Which organization manages the Nobel Prizes?

For more than a century, the Nobel Foundation, a Swedish private institution, has managed the finances and administration of the Nobel Prizes. The funding of the institution came from the finances provided by Alfred Nobel in his last will.

Through its work, the Nobel Foundation ensures the continuation of Alfred Nobel’s vision to honor exceptional contributions to humanity in various fields and to promote the advancement of knowledge, peace, and cultural progress.

What does the Nobel Prize winner receive?

The Nobel Prize ceremonies, held annually in Stockholm, Sweden (except for the Nobel Peace Prize, which is presented in Oslo, Norway), are widely recognized and celebrated. Laureates receive a diploma, a gold medal, and a monetary award, which is funded by Nobel’s endowment.

Through its work, the Nobel Foundation ensures the continuation of Alfred Nobel’s vision to honor exceptional contributions to humanity in various fields and to promote the advancement of knowledge, peace, and cultural progress.

Other interesting facts about the Nobel Prize

  • The Nobel Foundation’s statutes were promulgated in 1900 by Oscar II, King of Sweden (reign: 1872-1907) and King of Norway (reign: 1872-1905).
  • During the Second World War and as Nazi Germany marched through Europe, Nazi leader and bloodthirsty dictator Adolf Hitler forbade three Germany winners of the Nobel Prize from accepting the awards. The German winners were the biochemist Richard Johann Kuhn [Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1938], Adolf Friedrich Johann Butenandt [Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1939], and Gerhard Domgagk [Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1939]. When the curtain closed on the war and Germany was defeated, the three German scientists were able to receive their Nobel Prizes.
  • Although a private institution that invests the money left behind by Alfred Nobel, the Nobel Foundation has been exempted from paying all taxes in Sweden since 1946. In the United States, the foundation has enjoyed tax exemptions since 1953. The managers of the wealth have made very good investments in order to make the Nobel Prize awards sustainable. Majority of those investments are in shares, with many of those stocks in the US and Europe. It’s estimated that the Nobel Foundation controls more than half a billion US dollars in assets.

A towering figure in the modern world of literature and African studies, Wole Soyinka is sub-Saharan Africa’s first Nobel Laureate in Literature. The playwright and poet won the honor in 1986.

  • As of 2022, the Nobel Prize has been awarded 609 times to precise. The total number of laureates between 1901 and 2022 is more than 970.
  • The Nobel Foundation spends in the region of 21 million SEK during the Nobel Week in Oslo and Stockholm.
  • As of 2022, five individuals and two organizations have received the prize awards more than once. Perhaps the most famous multiple recipient of the Nobel Prize is the renowned scientist Marie Curie who won the honors in chemistry (in 1911) and physics (in 1903). Madame Curie, as she was popularly known as, was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize. As of 2022, she is the only woman to receive the prize twice. She is also the only scientist to receive the two Nobel Prizes in two different sciences.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating women of the early 21st century.

  • As of 2022, Malala Yousafzai, the renowned Pakistani education and peace activist, is the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. At the time that she received it, which was in 2014, she was just 17 years old.
  • As of 2022, Nigerian playwright and poet Wole Soyinka is the only sub-Saharan African to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Yoruba, Abeokuta-born received the prize in 1986, becoming the first African laureate. In his Nobel acceptance speech, Soyinka dedicated the honor to anti-Apartheid icon and South African Nelson Mandela.

The Nobel Prize represents the pinnacle of achievement in fields ranging from science and literature to peace and economics. Image (L-R): Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin presenting their 1994 Nobel Peace Prize

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