Nobel Prize

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The Nobel Prize
A golden medallion with an embossed image of Alfred Nobel facing left in profile. To the left of the man is the text "ALFR•" then "NOBEL", and on the right, the text (smaller) "NAT•" then "MDCCCXXXIII" above, followed by (smaller) "OB•" then "MDCCCXCVI" below.
Awarded forOutstanding contributions in Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Peace, Physiology or Medicine, and Economic Sciences
Norway (Peace Prize only)
Presented bySwedish Academy
Nobel committee of Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
Nobel committee of Karolinska Institutet
Norwegian Nobel Committee
First awarded1901
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The Nobel Prize
A golden medallion with an embossed image of Alfred Nobel facing left in profile. To the left of the man is the text "ALFR•" then "NOBEL", and on the right, the text (smaller) "NAT•" then "MDCCCXXXIII" above, followed by (smaller) "OB•" then "MDCCCXCVI" below.
Awarded forOutstanding contributions in Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Peace, Physiology or Medicine, and Economic Sciences
Norway (Peace Prize only)
Presented bySwedish Academy
Nobel committee of Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
Nobel committee of Karolinska Institutet
Norwegian Nobel Committee
First awarded1901

The Nobel Prize (Swedish pronunciation: [noˈbɛl], Swedish definite form, singular: Nobelpriset; Norwegian: Nobelprisen) is a set of annual international awards bestowed in a number of categories by Swedish and Norwegian committees in recognition of cultural and/or scientific advances. The will of the Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel established the prizes in 1895. The prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace were first awarded in 1901.[1] The related Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences was created in 1968. Between 1901 and 2012, the Nobel Prizes and the Prize in Economic Sciences were awarded 555 times to 856 people and organizations. With some receiving the Nobel Prize more than once, this makes a total of 835 individuals and 21 organizations. Individual recipients have been overwhelmingly male – the award has been given to a woman on 45 occasions.[2]

The Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo, Norway, while the other prizes are awarded in Stockholm, Sweden. The Nobel Prize is widely regarded as the most prestigious award available in the fields of literature, medicine, physics, chemistry, peace, and economics.[3]

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awards the Nobel Prize in Physics, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences; the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet awards the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; the Swedish Academy grants the Nobel Prize in Literature; and the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded not by a Swedish organisation but by the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

The various prizes are awarded yearly. Each recipient, or laureate, receives a gold medal, a diploma and a sum of money, which is decided by the Nobel Foundation. As of 2012, each prize was worth 8 million SEK (c. US$1.2 million, €0.93 million). The prize is not awarded posthumously; however, if a person is awarded a prize and dies before receiving it, the prize may still be presented.[4] Though the average number of laureates per prize increased substantially during the 20th century, a prize may not be shared among more than three people.[5]


A black and white photo of a bearded man in his fifties sitting in a chair.
Alfred Nobel had the unpleasant surprise of reading his own obituary, titled The merchant of death is dead, in a French newspaper.

Alfred Nobel (About this sound listen ) was born on 21 October 1833 in Stockholm, Sweden, into a family of engineers.[6] He was a chemist, engineer, and inventor. In 1894, Nobel purchased the Bofors iron and steel mill, which he made into a major armaments manufacturer. Nobel also invented ballistite. This invention was a precursor to many smokeless military explosives, especially the British smokeless powder cordite. As a consequence of his patent claims, Nobel was eventually involved in a patent infringement lawsuit over cordite. Nobel amassed a fortune during his lifetime, with most of his wealth from his 355 inventions, of which dynamite is the most famous.[7]

In 1888, Nobel was astonished to read his own obituary, titled The merchant of death is dead, in a French newspaper. As it was Alfred's brother Ludvig who had died, the obituary was eight years premature. The article disconcerted Nobel and made him apprehensive about how he would be remembered. This inspired him to change his will.[8] On 10 December 1896, Alfred Nobel died in his villa in San Remo, Italy, from a cerebral haemorrhage. He was 63 years old.[9]

Nobel wrote several wills during his lifetime. He composed the last over a year before he died, signing it at the Swedish–Norwegian Club in Paris on 27 November 1895.[10][11] To widespread astonishment, Nobel's last will specified that his fortune be used to create a series of prizes for those who confer the "greatest benefit on mankind" in physics, chemistry, peace, physiology or medicine, and literature.[12] Nobel bequeathed 94% of his total assets, 31 million SEK (c. US$186 million, €150 million in 2008), to establish the five Nobel Prizes.[13] Because of scepticism surrounding the will, it was not until 26 April 1897 that it was approved by the Storting in Norway.[14] The executors of Nobel's will, Ragnar Sohlman and Rudolf Lilljequist, formed the Nobel Foundation to take care of Nobel's fortune and organise the award of prizes.[15]

Nobel's instructions named a Norwegian Nobel Committee to award the Peace Prize, the members of whom were appointed shortly after the will was approved in April 1897. Soon thereafter, the other prize-awarding organisations were designated or established. These were Karolinska Institutet on 7 June, the Swedish Academy on 9 June, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on 11 June.[16] The Nobel Foundation reached an agreement on guidelines for how the prizes should be awarded; and, in 1900, the Nobel Foundation's newly created statutes were promulgated by King Oscar II.[12] In 1905, the personal union between Sweden and Norway was dissolved. Thereafter, Norway's Nobel Committee was responsible for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize and the Swedish institutions retained responsibility for the other prizes.[14]

Nobel Foundation

A paper with stylish handwriting on it with the title "Testament"
Alfred Nobel's will stated that 94% of his total assets should be used to establish the Nobel Prizes.

The Nobel Foundation was founded as a private organisation on 29 June 1900. Its function is to manage the finances and administration of the Nobel Prizes.[17] In accordance with Nobel's will, the primary task of the Foundation is to manage the fortune Nobel left. Robert and Ludwig Nobel were involved in the oil business in Azerbaijan and, according to Swedish historian E. Bargengren, who accessed the Nobel family archives, it was this "decision to allow withdrawal of Alfred's money from Baku that became the decisive factor that enabled the Nobel Prizes to be established".[18] Another important task of the Nobel Foundation is to market the prizes internationally and to oversee informal administration related to the prizes. The Foundation is not involved in the process of selecting the Nobel laureates.[19][20] In many ways, the Nobel Foundation is similar to an investment company, in that it invests Nobel's money to create a solid funding base for the prizes and the administrative activities. The Nobel Foundation is exempt from all taxes in Sweden (since 1946) and from investment taxes in the United States (since 1953).[21] Since the 1980s, the Foundation's investments have become more profitable and as of 31 December 2007, the assets controlled by the Nobel Foundation amounted to 3.628 billion Swedish kronor (c. US$560 million).[22]

According to the statutes, the Foundation consists of a board of five Swedish or Norwegian citizens, with its seat in Stockholm. The Chairman of the Board is appointed by the Swedish King in Council, with the other four members appointed by the trustees of the prize-awarding institutions. An Executive Director is chosen from among the board members, a Deputy Director is appointed by the King in Council, and two deputies are appointed by the trustees. However, since 1995, all the members of the board have been chosen by the trustees, and the Executive Director and the Deputy Director appointed by the board itself. As well as the board, the Nobel Foundation is made up of the prize-awarding institutions (the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institute, the Swedish Academy, and the Norwegian Nobel Committee), the trustees of these institutions, and auditors.[22]

First prizes

A black and white photo of a bearded man in his fifties sitting in a chair.
Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen received the first Physics Prize for his discovery of X-rays.

Once the Nobel Foundation and its guidelines were in place, the Nobel Committees began collecting nominations for the inaugural prizes. Subsequently they sent a list of preliminary candidates to the prize-awarding institutions. Originally, the Norwegian Nobel Committee appointed prominent figures including Jørgen Løvland, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and Johannes Steen to give the Nobel Peace Prize credibility.[23] The committee awarded the Peace Prize to two prominent figures in the growing peace movement around the end of the 19th century. These were Frédéric Passy, co-founder of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and Henry Dunant the founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross.[24][25][26]

The Nobel Committee's Physics Prize shortlist cited Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen's discovery of X-rays and Philipp Lenard's work on cathode rays. The Academy of Sciences selected Röntgen for the prize.[27][28] In the last decades of the 19th century, many chemists had made significant contributions. Thus, with the Chemistry Prize, the Academy "was chiefly faced with merely deciding the order in which these scientists should be awarded the prize."[29] The Academy received 20 nominations, eleven of them for Jacobus van't Hoff.[30] Van't Hoff was awarded the prize for his contributions in chemical thermodynamics.[31][32]

The Swedish Academy chose the poet Sully Prudhomme for the first Nobel Prize in Literature. A group including 42 Swedish writers, artists and literary critics protested against this decision, having expected Leo Tolstoy to be awarded.[33] Some, including Burton Feldman, have criticised this prize because they consider Prudhomme a mediocre poet. Feldman's explanation is that most of the Academy members preferred Victorian literature and thus selected a Victorian poet.[34] The first Physiology or Medicine Prize went to the German physiologist and microbiologist Emil von Behring. During the 1890s, von Behring developed an antitoxin to treat diphtheria, which until then was causing thousands of deaths each year.[35][36]

Second World War

In 1938 and 1939, Adolf Hitler's Third Reich forbade three laureates from Germany (Richard Kuhn, Adolf Friedrich Johann Butenandt, and Gerhard Domagk) from accepting their prizes.[37] Each man was later able to receive the diploma and medal.[38] Even though Sweden was officially neutral during the Second World War, the prizes were awarded irregularly. In 1939, the Peace Prize was not awarded. No prize was awarded in any category from 1940–42, due to the occupation of Norway by Germany. In the subsequent year, all prizes were awarded except those for literature and peace.[39]

During the occupation of Norway, three members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee fled into exile. The remaining members escaped persecution from the Germans when the Nobel Foundation stated that the Committee building in Oslo was Swedish property. Thus it was a safe haven from the German military, which was not at war with Sweden.[40] These members kept the work of the Committee going, but did not award any prizes. In 1944, the Nobel Foundation, together with the three members in exile, made sure that nominations were submitted for the Peace Prize and that the prize could be awarded once again.[37]

Prize in Economic Sciences

Map of Nobel laureates by country

In 1968, Sveriges Riksbank celebrated its 300th anniversary by donating a large sum of money to the Nobel Foundation to be used to set up a prize in honor of Nobel. The following year, the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences was awarded for the first time. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences became responsible for selecting laureates. The first laureates for the Economics Prize were Jan Tinbergen and Ragnar Frisch "for having developed and applied dynamic models for the analysis of economic processes."[41][42] Although not a Nobel Prize, it is intimately identified with the other awards; the laureates are announced with the Nobel Prize recipients, and the Prize in Economic Sciences is presented at the Swedish Nobel Prize Award Ceremony.[43] The Board of the Nobel Foundation decided that after this addition, it would allow no further new prizes.[44]

Award process

The award process is similar for all of the Nobel Prizes; the main difference is in who can make nominations for each of them.[45]

The announcement of the laureates in Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2009 by Gunnar Öquist, permanent secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
2009 Nobel Prize in Literature announcement by Peter Englund in Swedish, English and German


Nomination forms are sent by the Nobel Committee to about 3,000 individuals, usually in September the year before the prizes are awarded. These individuals are often academics working in a relevant area. For the Peace Prize, inquiries are sent to governments, members of international courts, professors and rectors, former Peace Prize laureates and current or former members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. The deadline for the return of the nomination forms is 31 January of the year of the award.[45][46] The Nobel Committee nominates about 300 potential laureates from these forms and additional names.[47] The nominees are not publicly named, nor are they told that they are being considered for the prize. All nomination records for a prize are sealed for 50 years from the awarding of the prize.[48][49]


The Nobel Committee then prepares a report reflecting the advice of experts in the relevant fields. This, along with the list of preliminary candidates, is submitted to the prize-awarding institutions.[50] The institutions meet to choose the laureate or laureates in each field by a majority vote. Their decision, which cannot be appealed, is announced immediately after the vote.[51] A maximum of three laureates and two different works may be selected per award. Except for the Peace Prize, which can be awarded to institutions, the awards can only be given to individuals.[52] If the Peace Prize is not awarded, the money is split among the scientific prizes. This has happened 19 times so far.[53]

Posthumous nominations

Although posthumous nominations are not permitted, individuals who die in the months between their nomination and the decision of the prize committee were originally eligible to receive the prize. This has occurred twice: the 1931 Literature Prize awarded to Erik Axel Karlfeldt, and the 1961 Peace Prize awarded to UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld. Since 1974, laureates must be thought alive at the time of the October announcement. There has been one laureate, William Vickrey, who in 1996 died after the prize (in Economics) was announced but before it could be presented.[54] On 3 October 2011, the laureates for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine were announced; however, the committee was not aware that one of the laureates, Ralph M. Steinman, had died three days earlier. The committee was debating about Steinman's prize, since the rule is that the prize is not awarded posthumously.[4] The committee later decided that as the decision to award Steinman the prize "was made in good faith", it would remain unchanged.[55]

Recognition time lag

Nobel's will provides for prizes to be awarded in recognition of discoveries made "during the preceding year". Early on, the awards usually recognised recent discoveries.[56] However, some of these early discoveries were later discredited. For example, Johannes Fibiger was awarded the 1926 Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his purported discovery of a parasite that caused cancer.[57] To avoid repeating this embarrassment, the awards increasingly recognised scientific discoveries that had withstood the test of time.[58][59][60] According to Ralf Pettersson, former chairman of the Nobel Prize Committee for Physiology or Medicine, "the criterion ‘the previous year’ is interpreted by the Nobel Assembly as the year when the full impact of the discovery has become evident."[59]

A room with pictures on the walls. In the middle of the room there is a wooden table with chairs around it.
The committee room of the Norwegian Nobel Committee

The interval between the award and the accomplishment it recognises varies from discipline to discipline. The Literature Prize is typically awarded to recognise a cumulative lifetime body of work rather than a single achievement.[61][62] The Peace Prize can also be awarded for a lifetime body of work. For example 2008 laureate Martti Ahtisaari was awarded for his work to resolve international conflicts.[63][64] However, they can also be awarded for specific recent events.[65] For instance, Kofi Annan was awarded the 2001 Peace Prize just four years after becoming the Secretary-General of the United Nations.[66] Similarly Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres received the 1994 award, about a year after they successfully concluded the Oslo Accords.[67]

Although Nobel's will stated that prizes should be awarded for contributions made "during the preceding year", awards for physics, chemistry, and medicine are typically awarded once the achievement has been widely accepted. Sometimes, this takes decades – for example, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar shared the 1983 Physics Prize for his 1930s work on stellar structure and evolution.[68][69] Not all scientists live long enough for their work to be recognised. Some discoveries can never be considered for a prize if their impact is realised after the discoverers have died.[70][71][72]

Award ceremonies

Two men standing on a stage. The man to the left is clapping his hands and looking towards the other man. The second man is smiling and showing two items to an audience not seen on the image. The items are a diploma which includes a painting and a box containing a gold medal. Behind them is a blue pillar clad in flowers.
A man in his fifties standing behind a desk with computers on it. On the desk is a sign reading "Kungl. Vetensk. Akad. Sigil".
Left: Barack Obama after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo City Hall from the hands of Norwegian Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland; Right: Giovanni Jona-Lasinio presenting Yoichiro Nambu's Nobel Lecture at Aula Magna, Stockholm in 2008

Except for the Peace Prize, the Nobel Prizes are presented in Stockholm, Sweden, at the annual Prize Award Ceremony on 10 December, the anniversary of Nobel's death. The recipients' lectures are normally held in the days prior to the award ceremony. The Peace Prize and its recipients' lectures are presented at the annual Prize Award Ceremony in Oslo, Norway, usually on 10 December. The award ceremonies and the associated banquets are typically major international events.[73][74] The Prizes awarded in Sweden's ceremonies' are held at the Stockholm Concert Hall, with the Nobel banquet following immediately at Stockholm City Hall. The Nobel Peace Prize ceremony has been held at the Norwegian Nobel Institute (1905–1946), at the auditorium of the University of Oslo (1947–1989) and at Oslo City Hall (1990–present).[75]

The highlight of the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in Stockholm occurs when each Nobel Laureate steps forward to receive the prize from the hands of the King of Sweden. In Oslo, the Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee presents the Nobel Peace Prize in the presence of the King of Norway.[74][76] At first King Oscar II did not approve of awarding grand prizes to foreigners. It is said that his mind changed once his attention had been drawn to the publicity value of the prizes for Sweden.[77]

Nobel banquet

A set table with a white table cloth. There are many plates and glasses plus a menu visible on the table.
Table at the 2005 Nobel Banquet in Stockholm

After the award ceremony in Sweden, a banquet is held at the Stockholm City Hall, which is attended by the Swedish Royal Family and around 1,300 guests. The banquet features a three-course dinner, entertainment, and dancing, and is covered extensively by Swedish media.

The Nobel Peace Prize banquet is held in Norway at the Oslo Grand Hotel after the award ceremony. Apart from the laureate, guests include the President of the Storting, the Prime Minister, and, since 2006, the King and Queen of Norway. In total, about 250 guests attend for a five-course meal.[78] All aspects of the Nobel Banquet are carefully thought through including the experience from and round the meal. The colour and lighting of the banquet venue and the ambience it creates, the music being played, the acoustic of the venue, the design of the cutlery, furniture and glass are all taken into serious consideration.[79]

For the first time in its history, the banquet was cancelled in Oslo in 1979 because the laureate, Mother Teresa, refused to attend, saying the money would be better spent on the poor. Mother Teresa used the US$7,000 that was to be spent on the banquet to hold a dinner for 2,000 homeless people on Christmas Day.[80][81]

Nobel lecture

According to the statutes of the Nobel Foundation, each laureate is required to give a public lecture on a subject related to the topic of their prize.[82][83] The Nobel lecture as a rhetorical genre took decades to reach its current format.[84] These lectures normally occur during Nobel Week (the week leading up to the award ceremony and banquet, which begins with the laureates arriving in Stockholm and normally ends with the Nobel banquet), but this is not mandatory. The laureate is only obliged to give the lecture within six months of receiving the prize. Some have happened even later. For example, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt received the Peace Prize in 1906 but gave his lecture in 1910, after his term in office.[85] The lectures are organized by the same association which selected the laureates.[86]



It was announced on 30 May 2012 that the Nobel Foundation had awarded the contract for the production of the five (Swedish) Nobel Prize medals to Svenska Medalj AB. Formerly, the Nobel Prize medals were minted by Myntverket (the Swedish Mint) in between 1902–2010. Myntverket, Sweden's oldest company, ceased operations in 2011 after 1,017 years. In 2011 the Mint of Norway, located in Kongsberg, made the medals. The Nobel Prize medals are registered trademarks of the Nobel Foundation.[87] Each medal features an image of Alfred Nobel in left profile on the obverse. The medals for physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, and literature have identical obverses, showing the image of Alfred Nobel and the years of his birth and death. Nobel's portrait also appears on the obverse of the Peace Prize medal and the medal for the Economics Prize, but with a slightly different design. For instance, the laureate's name is engraved on the rim of the Economics medal.[88] The image on the reverse of a medal varies according to the institution awarding the prize. The reverse sides of the medals for chemistry and physics share the same design.[89]

A heavily decorated paper with the name "Fritz Haber" on it.
Laureates receive a heavily decorated diploma together with a gold medal and the prize money. Here Fritz Haber's diploma is shown, which he received for the development of a method to synthesise ammonia.

All medals made before 1980 were struck in 23 carat gold. Since then they have been struck in 18 carat green gold plated with 24 carat gold. The weight of each medal varies with the value of gold, but averages about 175 grams (0.386 lb) for each medal. The diameter is 66 millimetres (2.6 in) and the thickness varies between 5.2 millimetres (0.20 in) and 2.4 millimetres (0.094 in).[90] Because of the high value of their gold content and tendency to be on public display, Nobel medals are subject to medal theft.[91][92][93] During World War II, the medals of German scientists Max von Laue and James Franck were sent to Copenhagen for safekeeping. When Germany invaded Denmark, chemist George de Hevesy dissolved them in aqua regia, to prevent confiscation by Nazi Germany and to prevent legal problems for the holders. After the war, the gold was recovered from solution, and the medals re-cast.[94]


Nobel laureates receive a diploma directly from the hands of the King of Sweden or the Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Each diploma is uniquely designed by the prize-awarding institutions for the laureates that receive them.[88] The diploma contains a picture and text which states the name of the laureate and normally a citation of why they received the prize. None of the Nobel Peace Prize laureates has ever had a citation on their diplomas.[95][96]

Award money

The laureates are given a sum of money when they receive their prizes, in the form of a document confirming the amount awarded.[88] The amount of prize money depends upon how much money the Nobel Foundation can award each year. The purse has increased since the 1980s, when the prize money was 880 000 SEK (c. 2.6 million SEK, US$350 000 or €295,000 today) per prize. In 2009, the monetary award was 10 million SEK (US$1.4 million, €950,000).[97][98] In June 2012, it was lowered to 8 million SEK.[99] If there are two laureates in a particular category, the award grant is divided equally between the recipients. If there are three, the awarding committee has the option of dividing the grant equally, or awarding one-half to one recipient and one-quarter to each of the others.[100][101][102] It is not uncommon for recipients to donate prize money to benefit scientific, cultural, or humanitarian causes.[103][104]

Controversies and criticisms

Controversial recipients

Among other criticisms, the Nobel Committees have been accused of having a political agenda, and of omitting more deserving candidates. They have also been accused of Eurocentrism, especially for the Literature Prize.[105][106][107]

When it was announced that Henry Kissinger was to be awarded the Peace Prize two of the Norwegian Nobel Committee members resigned in protest.
Peace Prize

Among the most criticised Nobel Peace Prizes was the one awarded to Henry Kissinger and Lê Ðức Thọ. This led to the resignation of two Norwegian Nobel Committee members. Lê Ðức Thọ declined the prize.[108] Kissinger and Thọ were awarded the prize for negotiating a ceasefire between North Vietnam and the United States in January 1973. However, when the award was announced, both sides were still engaging in hostilities.[109] Many critics were of the opinion that Kissinger was not a peace-maker but the opposite, responsible for widening the war.[48][110]

Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin received the Peace Prize in 1994 for their efforts in making peace between Israel and Palestine.[48][111] However, many issues, such as the plight of Palestinian refugees, had not been addressed on the negotiations,[112] and no final status agreement was reached.[113] Immediately after the award was announced, one of the five Norwegian Nobel Committee members denounced Arafat as a terrorist and resigned.[114] Additional misgivings about Arafat were widely expressed in various newspapers.[115]

Another controversial Peace Prize was that awarded to Barack Obama in 2009.[116] Nominations had closed only eleven days after Obama took office as President, but the actual evaluation occurred over the next eight months.[53] Obama himself stated that he did not feel deserving of the award,[117][118] or worthy of the company it would place him in.[119] Past Peace Prize laureates were divided, some saying that Obama deserved the award, and others saying he had not yet earned it. Obama's award, along with the previous Peace Prizes for Jimmy Carter and Al Gore, also prompted accusations of a left-wing bias.[120]

Literature Prize

The award of the 2004 Literature Prize to Elfriede Jelinek drew a protest from a member of the Swedish Academy, Knut Ahnlund. Ahnlund resigned, alleging that the selection of Jelinek had caused "irreparable damage to all progressive forces, it has also confused the general view of literature as an art." He alleged that Jelinek's works were "a mass of text shovelled together without artistic structure."[121][122] The 2009 Literature Prize to Herta Müller also generated criticism. According to The Washington Post many US literary critics and professors were ignorant of her work.[123] This made those critics feel the prizes were too Eurocentric.[124]

Science prizes

In 1949, the Portuguese neurologist António Egas Moniz received the Physiology or Medicine Prize for his development of the prefrontal leucotomy. The previous year Dr. Walter Freeman had developed a version of the procedure which was faster and easier to carry out. Due in part to the publicity surrounding the original procedure, Freeman's procedure was prescribed without due consideration or regard for modern medical ethics. Endorsed by such influential publications as The New England Journal of Medicine, leucotomy or "lobotomy" became so popular that about 5,000 lobotomies were performed in the United States in the three years immediately following Moniz's receipt of the Prize.[125][126]

Overlooked achievements

The Norwegian Nobel Committee declined to award a prize in 1948, the year of Gandhi's death, on the grounds that "there was no suitable living candidate."
James Joyce, one of the controversial omissions of the Literature Prize

The Norwegian Nobel Committee confirmed that Mahatma Gandhi was nominated for the Peace Prize in 1937–39, 1947 and a few days before he was assassinated in January 1948.[127] Later members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee expressed regret that he was not given the prize.[128] Geir Lundestad, Secretary of Norwegian Nobel Committee in 2006 said, "The greatest omission in our 106 year history is undoubtedly that Mahatma Gandhi never received the Nobel Peace prize. Gandhi could do without the Nobel Peace prize. Whether Nobel committee can do without Gandhi is the question".[129] In 1948, the year of Gandhi's death, the Nobel Committee declined to award a prize on the grounds that "there was no suitable living candidate" that year.[128][130] Later, when the Dalai Lama was awarded the Peace Prize in 1989, the chairman of the committee said that this was "in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi."[131] Other high profile individuals with widely recognised contributions to peace have been missed out. Foreign Policy lists Eleanor Roosevelt, Václav Havel, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Sari Nusseibeh and Corazon Aquino as people who "never won the prize, but should have.".[132] The physicist Arnold Sommerfeld was nominated 81 times but an award was never made.[133]

In 1965, UN Secretary General U Thant was informed by the Norwegian Permananent Representative to the UN that he would be awarded that year's prize and asked whether or not he would accept. He consulted staff and later replied that he would. At the same time, Chairman Gunnar Jahn of the Nobel Peace prize committee, lobbied heavily against giving U Thant the prize and the prize was at the last minute awarded to UNICEF. The rest of the committee all wanted the prize to go to U Thant, for his work in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis, ending the war in the Congo, and his ongoing work to mediate an end to the Vietnam War. The disagreement lasted three years and in 1966 and 1967 no prize was given, with Gunnar Jahn effectively vetoing an award to U Thant.[134][135]

The Literature Prize also has controversial omissions. Adam Kirsch has suggested that many notable writers have missed out on the award for political or extra-literary reasons. The heavy focus on European and Swedish authors has been a subject of criticism.[136][137] The Eurocentric nature of the award was acknowledged by Peter Englund, the 2009 Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, as a problem with the award and was attributed to the tendency for the academy to relate more to European authors.[138] Notable writers that have been overlooked for the Literature Prize include Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Émile Zola, Jorge Luis Borges, Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabokov, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, August Strindberg, Simon Vestdijk, John Updike, Arthur Miller, Chinua Achebe and Mark Twain.[139]

The strict rule against awarding a prize to more than three people is also controversial.[140] When a prize is awarded to recognize an achievement by a team of more than three collaborators, one or more will miss out. For example, in 2002, the prize was awarded to Koichi Tanaka and John Fenn for the development of mass spectrometry in protein chemistry, an award that did not recognize the achievements of Franz Hillenkamp and Michael Karas of the Institute for Physical and Theoretical Chemistry at the University of Frankfurt.[141][142] Similarly, the prohibition of posthumous awards fails to recognise achievements by an individual or collaborator who dies before the prize is awarded. In 1962, Francis Crick, James D. Watson, and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Physiology or Medicine Prize for discovering the structure of DNA. Rosalind Franklin, a key contributor in that discovery, died of ovarian cancer four years earlier.[143] Lise Meitner, a physicist who co-discovered nuclear fission along with Otto Hahn and his assistant Fritz Strassmann, was also denied the award[according to whom?] due to having to flee Germany when the Nazis came to power. Her role in the research was not fully understood until years later, when the team was awarded the U.S.'s Enrico Fermi Award. According to one of the nominees for the Nobel Prize in physics, the three limit rule deprived him and two other members of his team of the honor in 2013. The team of Carl Hagen, Gerald Guralnik, and Tom Kibble published a paper in 1964 that gave answers to how the Cosmos began. British physicist Peter Higgs and Belgian physicist François Englert, both laureates of the 2013 prize, had also published papers in 1964 concerning the subject. All five physicists arrived at the same conclusion, albeit from different angles. However, Hagen believed that his team of Guralnik and Kibble had more thorough explanations. Hagen further states that the team of Hagen, Guralnik, and Kibble weren't even acknowledged by the Nobel panel for their contributions. Hagen contends that an equitable solution is to either abandon the three limit restriction, or expand the time period of recognition for a given achievement to two years.[144]

Emphasis on discoveries over inventions

Alfred Nobel left his fortune to finance annual prizes to be awarded "to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind."[145] He stated that the Nobel Prizes in Physics should be given "to the person who shall have made the most important 'discovery' or 'invention' within the field of physics." Nobel did not emphasise discoveries, but they have historically been held in higher respect by the Nobel Prize Committee than inventions: 77% of the Physics Prizes have been given to discoveries, compared with only 23% to inventions. Christoph Bartneck and Matthias Rauterberg, in papers published in Nature and Technoetic Arts, have argued this emphasis on discoveries has moved the Nobel Prize away from its original intention of rewarding the greatest contribution to society.[146][147]

Specially distinguished laureates

A black and white portrait of a woman in profile.
Marie Skłodowska-Curie, one of four people who have received the Nobel Prize twice (Physics and Chemistry)

Multiple laureates

Four people have received two Nobel Prizes. Marie Skłodowska-Curie received the Physics Prize in 1903 for the discovery of radioactivity and the Chemistry Prize in 1911 for the isolation of pure radium,[148] making her the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences. Linus Pauling won the 1954 Chemistry Prize for his research into the chemical bond and its application to the structure of complex substances. Pauling also won the Peace Prize in 1962 for his anti-nuclear activism, making him the only laureate of two unshared prizes. John Bardeen received the Physics Prize twice: in 1956 for the invention of the transistor and in 1972 for the theory of superconductivity.[149] Frederick Sanger received the prize twice in Chemistry: in 1958 for determining the structure of the insulin molecule and in 1980 for inventing a method of determining base sequences in DNA.[150][151]

Two organisations have received the Peace Prize multiple times. The International Committee of the Red Cross received it three times: in 1917 and 1944 for its work during the world wars; and in 1963 during the year of its centenary.[152][153][154] The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has won the Peace Prize twice for assisting refugees: in 1954 and 1981.[155]

Family laureates

The Curie family has received the most prizes, with five. Marie Skłodowska-Curie received the prizes in Physics (in 1903) and Chemistry (in 1911). Her husband, Pierre Curie, shared the 1903 Physics prize with her.[156] Their daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, received the Chemistry Prize in 1935 together with her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie. In addition, the husband of Marie Curie's second daughter, Henry Labouisse, was the director of UNICEF when it won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965.[157]

Although no family matches the Curie family's record, there have been several with two laureates. The husband-and-wife team of Gerty Radnitz Cori and Carl Ferdinand Cori shared the 1947 Prize in Physiology or Medicine.[158] J. J. Thomson was awarded the Physics Prize in 1906 for showing that electrons are particles. His son, George Paget Thomson, received the same prize in 1937 for showing that they also have the properties of waves.[159] William Henry Bragg and his son, William Lawrence Bragg, shared the Physics Prize in 1915.[160] Niels Bohr won the Physics prize in 1922, as did his son, Aage Bohr, in 1975.[157][161] Manne Siegbahn, who received the Physics Prize in 1924, was the father of Kai Siegbahn, who received the Physics Prize in 1981.[157][162] Hans von Euler-Chelpin, who received the Chemistry Prize in 1929, was the father of Ulf von Euler, who was awarded the Physiology or Medicine Prize in 1970.[157] C.V. Raman won the Physics Prize in 1930 and was the uncle of Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who won the same prize in 1983.[163][164] Arthur Kornberg received the Physiology or Medicine Prize in 1959. Kornberg's son, Roger later received the Chemistry Prize in 2006.[165] Jan Tinbergen, who won the first Economics Prize in 1969, was the brother of Nikolaas Tinbergen, who received the 1973 Physiology or Medicine Prize.[157] Alva Myrdal, Peace Prize laureate in 1982, was the wife of Gunnar Myrdal who was awarded the Economics Prize in 1974.[157] Economics laureates Paul Samuelson and Kenneth Arrow were brothers-in-law.

Refusals and constraints

A black and white portrait of a man in a suit and tie. Half of his face is in a shadow.
Richard Kuhn, who was forced to decline his Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Two laureates have voluntarily declined the Nobel Prize. In 1964 Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Literature Prize but refused, stating, "A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honourable form."[166] The other is Lê Ðức Thọ, chosen for the 1973 Peace Prize for his role in the Paris Peace Accords. He declined, stating that there was no actual peace in Vietnam.[167]

During the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler hindered Richard Kuhn, Adolf Butenandt, and Gerhard Domagk from accepting their prizes. All of them were awarded their diplomas and gold medals after World War II. In 1958, Boris Pasternak declined his prize for literature due to fear of what the Soviet Union government might do if he travelled to Stockholm to accept his prize. In return, the Swedish Academy refused his refusal, saying "this refusal, of course, in no way alters the validity of the award."[167] The Academy announced with regret that the presentation of the Literature Prize could not take place that year, holding it until 1989 when Pasternak's son accepted the prize on his behalf.[168][169] Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, but her children accepted the prize because she had been placed under house arrest in Burma; Suu Kyi delivered her speech two decades later, in 2012.[170] Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 while he and his wife were under house arrest in China as political prisoners.


The memorial symbol "Planet of Alfred Nobel" was opened in Dnipropetrovsk University of Economics and Law at in 2008. On the globe there are 802 Nobel laureates' reliefs made of a composite alloy obtained when disposing military strategic missiles.[171][172]

See also

Articles related to the Nobel Prize
Other high-honor prizes



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Further reading

External links