The Nobel Prize


Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, established the Nobel Prize in his will in 1895. For over a century the prize has stood for extraordinary accomplishment in a variety of fields throughout the world. Join Active Minds as we trace the history of the Nobel Prize, highlighting notable laureates, notable omissions, and a controversy here and there. We will also take a look at recent and possible future winners and the political impact the prize can have in the world.

Key Lecture Points

  • Alfred Nobel (1833-96) was a scientist and industrialist who invented dynamite in 1866.  A shrewd businessman, he amassed a fortune by building an empire of some 90 factories and laboratories in more than 20 countries—one of the first multinationals.  Throughout his life, Nobel maintained an interest in science as well as literature and languages.  He was fluent in 5 languages by the time he was 17.
  • In his will, Nobel left most of his fortune to endow the Nobel Prizes to recognize individuals who have benefited humanity by scientific advances, literary contributions and promotion of peace.  His will calls upon (and endows) committees from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to award the Prizes in Physics and Chemistry.  (The prize in Economics, also chosen by the Academy, was established in 1969, by way of a separate endowment from Sweden’s Central Bank.)    The Swedish Academy is responsible for the Literature Prize.  The Medicine or Physiology Prize is selected by the Karolinska Institute, a medical university in Stockholm.  The Peace Prize is the responsibility of the Storting, the Norwegian Parliament.  All Prizes are presented to the new laureates on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death. The first awards were given in 1901.
  • The Nobel Prizes started in controversy and continue to cause controversy.  Although the general public may not be able to judge the worthiness of a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, many have an opinion regarding the Prize for Literature or Peace.  Examples of awards that sparked criticism are the 1973 Peace Prize given to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho.
  • In 2016, Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize for Literature, a surprising choice that set off debate as to whether song lyrics have the same artistic value as poetry or novels.  Additionally, the choice of Dylan’s was made controversial for the reluctant manner with which Dylan accepted the award.  Dylan was the first American to receive the literature prize since 1993.
  • In recent years, subsequent actions by Peace Prize recipients Aung Sang Suu Kyi and Abiy Ahmed have caused many to question their ongoing worthiness and call for revocation of the prize.  (There is no mechanism for revoking the prize.)

Exploration Questions

  • What were the influences in Alfred Nobel’s life that led him to create the Nobel Prize?
  • In what ways has the Nobel Prize been a positive influence?

Reflective Questions

  • With all the tumultuous events in the last year, who do you think should receive the next Peace Prize?
  • Whom would you pick for the literature prize?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Charles River Editors.  Alfred Nobel: The Life and Legacy of the Famous Scientist and the Nobel Prizes.  Createspace, 2018.  90 pages.  This short work examines the perplexing story of how a noted scientist, often called a “merchant of death” could leave a legacy of fostering peace.
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  • McGrayne, Sharon Bertsch.  Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries.  Joseph Henry Press, 2001.  472 pages.  From Marie Curie onward, women who have received the Nobel Prizes in science have struggled not only to advance the sciences but also to overcome gender bias such that their contributions can be rightfully recognized and honored.  This book examines the public and private challenges that notable women in science have overcome.
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