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Alfred Nobel and His Prizes

Alfred Bernhard Nobel was a man of great contrasts. A Swede born in Stockholm in 1833, he spent most of his life abroad. The inventor of dynamite and other explosives, he was even called a ‘merchant of death’, but aimed to promote world peace. A skilled chemist, he wrote poetry in both Swedish and English, and prose in other languages too. The son of a man who twice went bankrupt, he became one of the wealthiest people in the Western world.

His great wealth did not bring him happiness, however. He never married, suffered from loneliness and was in delicate health from childhood. Only in the last three years of his life did he have a home of his own in Sweden, where he had bought the Bofors (pr. ‘Boo-fosh’) armaments factory. He nevertheless died in the Italian resort town of San Remo, on December 10 1896. And December 10 is the day on which the Nobel Prizes are ceremonially awarded each year, the Peace Prize in Oslo, the others at the Concert Hall in Stockholm.

His will was written in Swedish without legal guidance, which led to much delay in its implementation. It stipulated that the greater part of his estate should be invested and the income distributed annually in the form of prizes to those conferring the greatest har gobind khorana benefit on mankind during the preceding year within the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and what he called ‘brotherhood among nations’, but which we know as the Peace Prize.

Swedish institutions were to award the first four prizes: the Royal Academy of Sciences (physics and chemistry), Royal Caroline Institute (physiology or medicine) and the Swedish Academy (literature). The Peace Prize was to be awarded by a committee of the Norwegian Storting, or Parliament, as Norway was joined to Sweden in a union under the Swedish crown during Nobel’s lifetime. A sixth award, the Economics Prize, was added in 1968 by the Bank of Sweden in his memory.

There is no doubt that Nobel had a great interest in each of the fields he mentioned. The Peace Prize is the one that is most intriguing. Nobel fondly believed that when the great power of explosives was understood, nobody would use them for military purposes. He knew from personal experience what devastation they could cause. In 1864 the factory where he had been studying nitroglycerin was blown up killing everyone in it, including his 21-year-old brother Emil. Nevertheless, he maintained his factories could well put an end to wars sooner than all the peace congresses that were held.

He was also influenced by his friendship with the Austrian Baroness von Sutter, a pioneer in the peace movement. She was herself awarded the Peace Prize in 1905. But as with the Literature Prize, some of the laureates selected in Oslo, such as Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1973, and Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat in 1978, have been highly controversial, while others generally considered to deserve the award, such as Mahatma Gandhi, have been unacknowledged. And when the first Literature Prize was awarded to Sully Proudhomme in 1901, Sweden’s foremost author August Strindberg, who never received the prize, and more than forty other prominent Swedes, wrote a letter of apology to Tolstoy.

The stipulation about conferring the greatest benefit on mankind in the preceding year has been more closely observed for the Peace Prize than for the others, with juries tending to look back at what candidates have achieved during their careers as a whole and not only in the very recent past.

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