What is the Nobel Prize? The story behind the dynamite’s inventor’s last wish

When I was writing about the invention of dynamite, I discovered that the same person behind the explosive substance was also behind the famous prize. At that time, I left a note to myself to write about the Nobel prize! So now, finally, I’m doing it.

The Idea Behind the Nobel Prize

Born in 1833, Alfred Nobel became known as a gifted chemist, refining his skills through education in Russia, Paris, and the US. His breakthrough came with his idea to control the volatile substance called nitroglycerin, paving the way for the invention of dynamite. A tragic explosion at his nitroglycerin factory, resulting in deaths, compelled Nobel to seek even safer alternatives, eventually leading to the creation of blasting gelatin and smokeless powder.

In 1895, when his brother Ludvig died, a French newspaper made a mistake and published an obituary for Alfred in which he was called a “merchant of death.” This incident stirred his desire to leave behind him a better legacy—he also became more concerned with the peace movement, inspired by his friend Bertha von Suttner, author of the book “Lay Down Your Arms.” After all, he only wanted to find a better way to blast rocks when he invented dynamite, he was not thinking of killing people.

On December 10, 1896, Alfred passed away in San Remo, Italy. In his final will, written a year earlier, he stipulated that a significant portion of his wealth should be dedicated to awarding individuals who had made remarkable contributions to humanity in the realms of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace.

However, not everyone embraced this idea. His relatives expressed opposition and authorities in different countries raised questions about the will’s validity. It was a protracted process, lasting four years, for his appointed executors to successfully persuade all concerned parties to honor Alfred’s intentions.

Alfred Nobel, Inventor of the Dynamite, and creator of the Nobel Prize.
Alfred Nobel

“The whole of my remaining realisable estate shall be disposed of in the following way: the capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually awarded as prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. The interest shall be divided into five equal parts, to be apportioned as follows: one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention in the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or invention; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who in the field of literature shall have produced the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations and the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace congresses. The prizes for physics and chemistry shall be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; for physiological or medical works by the Caroline Institute in Stockholm; for literature by the Academy in Stockholm, and for advocates of peace by a committee of five persons to be selected by the Norwegian Storting. It is my express wish that in the awarding of the prizes no consideration shall be given to national affiliations of any kind, so that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be Scandinavian or not.” (source)

When was the first Nobel prize awarded and to whom?

The chosen executors, Ragnar Sohlman and Rudolf Lilljequist, eventually succeeded in addressing the complicated legal complexities after laborious and difficult talks in which the Swedish Government was also forced to participate. King Oscar II gave his approval to the newly established Nobel Foundation’s bylaws on June 29, 1900. Alfred Nobel’s wish became a reality.

On December 10, 1901, the inaugural Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, and Literature were awarded in Stockholm and Oslo, marking a significant milestone in honoring exceptional contributions across various fields.

  • The first Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen for the discovery of X-rays.
  • The first Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Jacobus Henricus Van’t Hoff for his contributions to the field of chemical thermodynamics.
  • The first Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Emil von Behring for his discovery of a diphtheria antitoxin
  • The first Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to poet Sully Prudhomme.
  • The first Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Jean Henry Dunant and Frédéric Passy.

The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel was added to the list in 1969, Ragnar Frisch and Jan Tinbergen were the first recipients “for having developed and applied dynamic models for the analysis of economic processes.”

Marie Curie was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize (in Physics in 1903), but also the only person awarded Nobel Prizes in two different sciences (the second one was in the field of chemistry in 1911).

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