Small prize for man, a giant leap for mankind

September 29, 2000

The Nobel Foundation is 100 next month. Asa Briggs looks for patterns in a history of excellence, while, below, laureates reveal what winning meant to hem

When a bestselling American book, In Search of Excellence, appeared in 1982, its subtitle read Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies. Inside, the book's authors, Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman, made reference to the concept of "hard-headed rationality". The decision by Swedish businessman Alfred Nobel (left), who died in 1896, to leave the bulk of his substantial estate to provide prizes for persons whose work had been "of the greatest benefit to mankind", might have led to a search for excellence, but Nobel's approach to business would hardly have fitted Peters and Waterman's "rational model".

Nobel's fortune came from dynamite, yet he was a pacifist. He depended on science, but one of his main interests was literature - the beginnings of a novel were found among his papers on his death. He accumulated 355 patents, many of which could never have been described as useful, and some of which drew him into expensive lawsuits. He travelled widely, but seemed shy to many of the people who met him. He died not where he wished to die - in Sweden - but in San Remo in Italy.

His handwritten testament, at least, was specific - even rational - and its implementation was left firmly in Scandinavian hands. Interest on the "fund" Nobel bequeathed was to be divided into five equal parts. The first four were to be apportioned between physics, chemistry, physiology/medicine, and literature - to go to the author of "the most outstanding work of an idealist tendency". The fifth prize, which was to prove by far the most publicised and the most controversial, was to be awarded to "the person who has done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses".

During the late 1890s such conferences were in the air, as peace processes are now. While the Nobel Foundation was being created, the Hague Conference of 1899, proposed, surprisingly, by tsarist Russia, was unsurprisingly proving largely a failure. It was to be described after the first world war - a war when for three years no prizes were given - as "the dress rehearsal for open diplomacy", but not all the Nobel peace prizewinners, even after the second world war, made their names through that.

Before the outbreak of the first world war they included Jean Henri Dunant, founder of the Red Cross, and Theodore Roosevelt, the first American to win a Nobel prize. The winner in 1905 was the Austrian Baroness von Suttner, a friend of Nobel. In fact, it is likely that von Suttner had influenced Nobel's decision to establish the prize for peace.

The first four prizes were, and always have been, awarded ceremoniously by Swedish institutions, but the peace prize was awarded instead by a committee of five persons elected by the Norwegian Storting. Until 1905, Sweden and Norway were united.

The prizes were first offered in 1901. That year, the physics prize went to the German Wilhelm Rontgen, whose discovery of X-rays led to almost as much argument as the invention of dynamite.

The first British prizewinner was Sir Ronald Ross, who won the physiology/medicine prize in 1902 for his work on malaria. The next Briton to win was Rudyard Kipling, awarded the literature prize in 1907. Both Ross and Kipling were men of empire.

It is tempting to think of Nobel prizewinners in terms of a galaxy, like Olympic medallists, rather than as a cluster or a group. Yet the prizes have been awarded to institutions as well as to individuals and, increasingly in science, the work for which prizes have been awarded has depended on an institutional context.

From 1988 to 1998, nine of the 11 physics prizes, nine of the 11 physiology/medicine prizes and eight of the chemistry prizes went to citizens of the United States or were shared by them.

One of the most famous Nobel-winning teams was based in Britain: the 1962 team of Francis Crick and James Watson who, with Maurice Wilkins, won the physiology/medicine prize for the discovery of DNA. At this time it was rare for an individual to get the physiology/medicine prize.

Great individuals had starred in the inter-war years, beginning with the physicists Max Planck in 1918, Albert Einstein in 1921, Niels Bohr in 1922 and Robert Millikan in 1923. Werner Heisenberg followed in 1932, Erwin Schrodinger in 1933, Sir James Chadwick in 1935, Sir G. P. Thomson in 1937, and Enrico Fermi in 1938. Four British physicists won Nobels between 1947 and 1951, but another British winner did not emerge until 1972.

Hitler had forbidden Germans to accept Nobel prizes in 1937 and the subsequent list of prizewinners reflects the effects of the diaspora. The Soviet Union did not figure on any lists until 1956, and it never figured on the lists for physiology/medicine. Ivan Pavlov, who won in 1904, was Russian as opposed to Soviet. The most famous Soviet physicist, Andrei Sakharov, who had helped to develop the hydrogen bomb and who became a prominent fighter for human rights, won the peace prize not the physics prize, in 1975. The Russian Boris Pasternak, poet and novelist, had been forced to decline the Nobel literature prize. Mikhail Gorbachev accepted the peace prize in 1990. "Openness" had been one of his major themes. A British physicist, Joseph Rotblat (see box below) - who devoted his energies working behind the scenes to get American, Russian and other physicists to cooperate in order to prevent nuclear disaster - received the peace prize in 1995.

One man, the American Linus Pauling, received two Nobel prizes - for chemistry in 1954 and for peace in 1962.

All these names entered what came to be thought of, whatever its omissions and its ambivalences, as a 20th-century roll of honour. The list also included Winston Churchill, who won the literature prize in 1953, Martin Luther King, who won the peace prize in 1964, and Nelson Mandela, who, with F. W. de Klerk, won the peace prize in 1993.

A Nobel economics prize was not added to the lists until 1969: it was endowed by the Central Bank of Sweden. But lines often crossed and one of the first prizewinners, Sir John Hicks (1972), was an English economist who had a love and knowledge of English poetry that had been shared by Nobel.

Many prizewinners invested their winnings; some gave them away, but anyone going "in search of excellence" through the history of the Nobel prizes would find far fewer "lessons" than Peters or Waterman discovered in their book about business.

Lord Briggs is former provost, Worcester College, Oxford. Nobel e-Museum:

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