893 laureates, 5 categories, one extraordinary legacy. The annual prize set up by Alfred Nobel to reward people whose work “confers the greatest benefit on mankind" is one of the most famous awards in the world. First established in 1895, it recognises achievements in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace.
Who has won the most awards? Who was the first woman or the youngest winner and who was nominated a phenomenal 84 times? Read on to find out more about the fascinating work of the Nobel laureates and interesting facts about the awards, courtesy of the Nobel Museum Stockholm.
Born in 1833, Alfred Nobel was a Swedish chemist, engineer and armaments manufacturer. A prolific inventor, he held over 350 patents, but made his fortune from the invention of dynamite and other explosives. The idea of setting up the Nobel Prize came to him in 1888: after his brother Ludvig died, a French newspaper published Alfred’s obituary by mistake, under the title “‘The merchant of death is dead”. It went on to say “"Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” Needless to say, reading his own obituary prompted Alfred Nobel to think about his reputation and legacy. As a result, he left most of his fortune to the Nobel Foundation and the Nobel Prize was born.
The awards have been given to 870 individuals (822 men and 48 women) and 23 organizations, with some winning more than once. Although each winner has made a unique contribution, there are some names that stand out:
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Marie Curie, a French and Polish physicist and chemist, is the only person ever to have won two prizes in different sciences. In 1903, she was awarded the Physics prize for the discovery of radioactivity, with her husband Pierre, and in 1911, she won the Chemistry Nobel for isolating radium. She accomplished many other ‘firsts’, becoming the first woman to receive a Nobel prize or to become a professor at the University of Paris, as well as discovering the chemical element polonium, named after the country of her birth. Both of her daughters were also Nobel laureates: Irene JoliotCurie won the Chemistry prize with her husband Frédéric in 1935 and Eve Curie was director of UNICEF when it won the Peace prize in 1965.
AN ACCIDENTAL DISCOVERY
The 1945 Nobel prize for Medicine was given to Alexander Fleming, along with Howard Florey and Edward Boris Chain. In September 1928, he had returned to his rather untidy laboratory after a summer holiday, to continue his research on staphylocacci bacteria. In one petri dish, the bacteria had grown around a fleck of mould this mould was the source of penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic. Other notable Medicine laureates include the discoverers of the DNA double helix, Francis Circk, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, as well as Hermann Müller, whose work on the effects of radiation was very important to the antinuclear movement.
A RELUCTANT WINNER
JeanPaul Sartre was awarded the Nobel prize in Literature in 1964 and was one of only two people to turn it down. His reason? He always declined awards and said that "a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution". Did you know that Winston Churchill also won a Literature Nobel? He was given the nod in 1953, for his “mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory".
FROM XRAYS TO ATOMS
William Röntgen was the very first winner of the Physics Nobel, for his discovery of Xrays. In fact, Xrays are still known as Röntgen rays in Germanspeaking countries. He was followed by many other famous names: from Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr (ever heard of bohrium?) and Werner Heisenberg, to François Englert and Peter Higgs, for the Higgs Boson theory.
KEEPING THE PEACE
The Nobel Peace prize is the only one awarded by a Norwegian committee, as set out in Alfred Nobel’s will. It’s also the only medal that can be won by an organisation: the International Committee of the Red Cross has won the award a record three times, in 1917, 1944 and 1963. Other famous winners include Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa who famously turned down the celebratory dinner and asked that the money be donated to charity instead. The youngest ever Nobel prize winner, Malala Yousoufzai, was also awarded the Peace prize, for her work as an education activist.
A NEW PRIZE CATEGORY
The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel was introduced in 1968. Economics was not mentioned in Nobel’s will, although the prize is now commonly referred to as the Nobel prize for Economics. Since its inception, economists from the United States have won in most years only 11 awards went to teams or individuals of other nationalities.
However, some award decisions have been surrounded by controversy. For example, Norwegian Committee members have expressed regret that Mahatma Gandhi never received the Peace prize for his commitment to nonviolent resistance. Some people are also plain unlucky physicist Arnold Sommerfeld was nominated 84 times, but never received the prize!
WHAT MAKES A WINNER?
The diverse list of laureates from the Stockholm Nobel Prize raises thoughtprovoking questions: what is creativity and how can creative activity best be encouraged? What is more important in terms of the creative process: the individual or the environment? A visit to the Nobel Prize Stockholm Museum is a great place to start exploring these ideas, as well as discovering fascinating insights about the winners, their work and lives.