Noble convictions that founded the Nobels

December 7, 2001

The Nobel prizes are the world's most widely recognised and most coveted rewards for intellectual endeavour. Michael de Laine surveys how the awards have grown in stature since Alfred Nobel bequeathed his fortune to establish them more than a century ago.

When he wrote his will in 1895, Alfred Bernhard Nobel gave no reason for bequeathing most of his fortune to a fund for awarding five annual prizes "to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind" in the realms of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace.

But, according to Michael Sohlman, executive director of the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, the Swedish industrialist and dynamite inventor's convictions and philosophical attitude to life, his interests and his acquaintances played a large role.

"Alfred Nobel learnt physics and chemistry at St Petersburg and worked with them as an inventor," Sohlman says. "He was interested in physiology later in life, supporting and investing in medical research. When his mother died in 1889, Nobel gave his inheritance to the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and to the Institute of Experimental Medicine at St Petersburg, where Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov worked."

Nobel - who leant towards pacifism despite developing arms technology - was inspired by Austrian writer and pacifist Bertha von Suttner to include the quest for peace among the prizes, Sohlman says. Von Suttner founded an Austrian Society of Friends of Peace in 1891 and was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1905.

Literature was Nobel's real love, however. "We know he wanted to become a writer. He started writing as a young man, but his father redirected him towards more practical things," Sohlman says. "What is rather moving is that, at the end of his life, this person, who had such enormous success and was managing a world empire with 94 production sites in 20 countries, considered himself to be a failure because he had not done what he wanted to do - write. So at about the age of 60, he started writing again. This frenetic workaholic and compulsive inventor started out and ended up writing."

Literary figures such as Shelley and Voltaire influenced Nobel's political views. He believed that inherited wealth encouraged laziness and profligacy. This, perhaps, suggests why Nobel put the burden of selecting laureates on institutions in small, peripheral European countries. "Up there in the north," he said, "people tend to be least corrupt."

Nobel never explained why Norway and its parliament, rather than Sweden, should select the peace prizewinner. Sohlman thinks the most probable reason is that he felt the Norwegian parliament was "more democratically elected and had quite a high profile in different pacifist initiatives, supporting the establishment of the International Court at the Hague and so on, while the Swedish parliament was busy discussing how much Sweden should re-arm and strengthen its already strong defence".

In 1968, another discipline was added when the Bank of Sweden - the world's oldest central bank - decided to celebrate its 300th anniversary by establishing a prize for economic science in Nobel's memory. According to a document supporting the decision, the prize acknowledges the international recognition that Sweden, though a small country, is economically and industrially highly developed, enjoys a high standard of living and is progressive in social and economic areas.

"The bank convinced the Nobel Foundation (which administers the prizes and is responsible for the investments that finance them) and the Swedish Academy (which awards most of them) to set up machinery such as that dealing with the physics and chemistry prizes," Sohlman says.

"There's an interesting discrepancy between the title of the prize in Swedish - prize for economic science - and the official English title - prize for economic sciences," he adds. "The economics prizes therefore cover a rather broad area - economics and philosophy, economics and sociology, economics and mathematics, economics and history and so on."

Over the years, the emphasis of all the Nobel prizes has reflected social and intellectual developments. The literature prizes, for example, have tended to mirror the intellectual environment of the Swedish Academy. "In literature in the time before the first world war, the secretary of the academy used the prize for his own literary-political purposes," Sohlman says. "At different stages in the 1920s and 1930s, the prizes gradually moved towards new genres. But the real liberation came after the second world war, when the members of the academy broadened the scope of their focus. Now it's absolutely wide open."

In medicine there is a clear trend towards physiology, whereas earlier the emphasis was more on medicine or medical treatment.

The prizes reflect the selection process itself, which involves committees in Sweden and Norway selecting winners from nominations from all over the world. "The Nobel prizes aren't just the first truly international prizes, awarded to people from all countries, they're also international at the nomination and evaluation stages," Sohlman says.

The prestige of the Nobels has spawned a number of other honours. Most notorious was Adolf Hitler's introduction in 1937 of a German prize for science and culture after the Nobel peace prize was awarded to anti-Nazi journalist Carl von Ossietzky. There has also been the Japan prize, the Polar prize and the Ig Nobel prize - which honours "people who have done remarkably goofy things, some of them admirable, some perhaps otherwise" and whose achievements "cannot or should not be reproduced".

"I think Alfred Nobel would have appreciated the Ig Nobel prize as he was a practical joker and had a sense of humour," Sohlman says. "If a phenomenon can't stand humour, it's not great enough."

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