The history of the Nobel Prizes

On 27 November 1895, Swedish chemist and engineer Alfred Nobel signed a new last will and testament in a bid to reinvent his image, establishing the Nobel Prizes

Alfred Nobel (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Regarded among the planet’s most prestigious awards, the Nobel Prizes are the pinnacle of intellectual achievement.

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The man who created them – Alfred Nobel – was a Swedish chemist, inventor and industrialist who had started out in his father’s factory, which built sea mines and military equipment, before making his fortune developing high explosives.

Why did Nobel create the Nobel Prizes?

His greatest success was dynamite. He believed it would be seen as a force for good, declaring: “As soon as men will find that in one instant, whole armies can be utterly destroyed, they surely will abide by golden peace.”

Nobel was wrong and he came to regret deeply the impact of his inventions on warfare. One, possibly apocryphal, story goes that when his brother died and a newspaper mistakenly printed his own obituary, Nobel was hit hard by the moniker he had been given: “the merchant of death”.

In his will, he left most of his vast wealth to fund annual prizes “to those who shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”, perhaps to atone for his work with instruments of death and destruction.

He succeeded in retrospectively rewriting his legacy. The first Nobel Prizes were handed out at a ceremony in Stockholm on 10 December 1901, the fifth anniversary of his death.

Nobel Prize categories: what Nobel Prizes are there?

Alfred Nobel established five prizes, awarded for Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature and Peace.

In 1968, Sveriges Riksbank established the associated Prize for Economic Sciences, in Alfred Nobel’s memory. It was first awarded in 1969.

How many Nobel Prize winners are there?

As of 2020, there have been 930 individual Laureates. Of these, just 57 of them (6.1 per cent) are women.

Why do we say ‘Laureate’?

Once an individual has won a Nobel Prize, they are referred to as a Laureate. This harks back to the ancient Greek use of laurel wreaths – circular crowns awarded to victors as a sign of honour, both in athletic meets and in poetic competitions.

How much do Nobel Prize winners win?

For the first Nobel Prizes in 1901, the fund was 150,782 Swedish Krona (SEK). That’s approximately SEK 8.1 million today. The amount for 2020 is set at SEK 10 million per full prize, which is in the region of £885,000.

Nobel Prizes facts: did you know…

Two Nobel Laureates have chosen to decline the prize

The first was French philosopher and author Jean-Paul Sartre (Literature, 1964), who declined all official honours. The other was Vietnamese politician Le Duc Tho, (Peace, 1973), who felt that peace was too far away from being reached.

Three Nobel Peace Prize Laureates were under arrest at the time of their award

They are Carl von Ossietzky (1935), a pacifist arrested for exposing German re-armament, Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi (1991) and Chinese writer and activist Liu Xiaobo (2010).

Nobel Prize history

1895 | Alfred Nobel, Swedish chemist, engineer and industrialist, signs his third will, establishing the Nobel Prizes. He dies the following year.

1901 | After years of opposition from Alfred Nobel’s family, the first awards are given out.

1911 | Marie Curie is the first (and only) person to receive a prize in two sciences. In 1903 – when she became the first woman to receive any prize at all – she and her husband were named Physics Laureates. Eight years later, she takes the Chemistry prize.

1914 | With Europe at war, the Peace award is withheld for the first time, as no suitable candidate can be found. The allocated money goes back into the savings pot.

1921 | Aged 42, Swiss scientist Albert Einstein becomes a Laureate “for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect”.

1925 | Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw bags the Literature prize. The committee says that his work “is marked by both idealism and humanity… stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty”.

1939 | Adolf Hitler stops two German Laureates – Adolf Butenandt (Chemistry), and Gerhard Domagk (Medicine) – from accepting their Nobel Prizes. The Führer had applied the same restrictions the previous year, to Richard Kuhn (Chemistry). All three later got the Diploma and Medal, but not the funds.

1945 | Sir Alexander Fleming and his colleagues, Ernst Boris Chain and Sir Howard Florey, win the Medicine award “for the discovery of penicillin”.

1948 | After Gandhi’s assassination, the committee considers awarding the Peace prize to the Indian leader – who had been nominated five times in his lifetime – posthumously. As this would go against the regulations, the award was withheld: “there was no suitable living candidate”.

1953 | Sir Winston Churchill is awarded not for his work in the field of peace, but Literature. According to the committee, he was a master of “historical and biographical description”.

1958 | Boris Pasternak, Laureate for Literature, accepts the prize, but later reluctantly declines it under pressure from the authorities of the Soviet Union, his home country.

1963 | The Red Cross institution wins the Prize for Peace for the third time – a record yet to be beaten.

1964 | American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr wins the prize for Peace, the year after his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. His acceptance speech is just as rousing: “I accept this prize on behalf of all men who love peace and brotherhood”.

1969 | The first Prize for Economic Sciences is founded is awarded to Norwegian Ragnar Frisch and Dutchman Jan Tinbergen, for their work in econometrics.

1979 | After Mother Teresa becomes the Peace Laureate, she requests that the standard celebratory banquet be cancelled. Instead, she spends its $7,000 budget feeding 2,000 of the poor on Christmas Day.

1981 | The prize for Medicine goes to Roger W Sperry for his work, much of which was conducted 60 years earlier. on the “specialization of the cerebral hemispheres”.

2009 | US President Barack Obama wins the Peace award, somewhat controversially as he had not been in office for long. His efforts to strengthen international diplomacy are described.

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This aritcle was curated from the January 2020 and November 2014 issues of BBC History Revealed. Figures last updated in December 2020