History Of the Nobel Prize

Winning a Nobel Prize is a life-changing honour. The award brings with it worldwide recognition that highlights one’s life work and provides the funds to continue and further the mission.

History of the world’s most famous prizes

The Nobel prizes were established by Alfred B. Nobel (1833–1896), the Swedish chemist and engineer who invented dynamite. He left $9 million in his will to establish the Prizes, which are awarded annually, without regard to nationality, in six areas (peace, literature, physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, and economic science) ‘to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.’

Industrialist with a conscience

At first glance, it seems odd that the inventor of a powerful explosive would endow a group of awards that includes a peace prize. But Nobel was an industrialist with a conscience. His invention of dynamite made blasting rock and the construction of canals and tunnels a relatively safe process. Nobel also contributed to the inventions of synthetic rubber, artificial silk, and synthetic leather. He held more than 350 patents.

Family members contest last wishes

Family members were shocked when they learned that Nobel had, in his will, set aside his fortune to establish the Nobel Prizes. They contested his will, but his final wishes were executed and the first awards were distributed in 1901, on the fifth anniversary of his death. The prize in economics, however, was established in 1968 by a Swedish bank. Stockholm’s Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences administers the award in physics and chemistry, the Royal Caroline Medical Institute awards the prize in physiology or medicine, and the Swedish Academy oversees the prize in literature. The Norwegian Storting, or parliament, awards the peace prize.

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The prizes

The Nobel Prize can go to individuals and institutions. Each winner takes home a medal, a diploma, and cash. Prizes are not automatically awarded each year. They can be withheld if there are no worthy candidates. Prizes can also be declined. Even if a prize is declined, the winner is entered in the books, but the cash gift reverts back to the fund.

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