History of the Nobel Prizes

Alfred Nobel


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A pacifist at heart and an inventor by nature, Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel invented dynamite. However, the invention that he thought would end all wars was seen by many others as an extremely deadly product. In 1888, when Alfred's brother Ludvig died, a French newspaper mistakenly ran an obituary for Alfred which called him the "merchant of death."

Not wanting to go down in history with such a horrible epitaph, Nobel created a will that soon shocked his relatives and established the now famous Nobel Prizes.

Who was Alfred Nobel? Why did Nobel's will make establishing the prizes so difficult?

Alfred Nobel

Alfred Nobel was born on October 21, 1833, in Stockholm, Sweden. In 1842, when Alfred was nine years old, his mother (Andrietta Ahlsell) and brothers (Robert and Ludvig) moved to St. Petersburg, Russia to join Alfred's father (Immanuel), who had moved there five years earlier. The following year, Alfred's younger brother, Emil, was born.

Immanuel Nobel, an architect, builder, and inventor, opened a machine shop in St. Petersburg and was soon very successful with contracts from the Russian government to build defense weapons.

Because of his father's success, Alfred was tutored at home until the age of 16. Yet, many consider Alfred Nobel a mostly self-educated man. Besides being a trained chemist, Alfred was an avid reader of literature and was fluent in English, German, French, Swedish, and Russian.

Alfred also spent two years traveling. He spent much of this time working in a laboratory in Paris but also traveled to the United States. Upon his return, Alfred worked in his father's factory. He worked there until his father went bankrupt in 1859.

Alfred soon began experimenting with nitroglycerine, creating his first explosions in early summer 1862. In only a year (October 1863), Alfred received a Swedish patent for his percussion detonator - the "Nobel lighter."

Having moved back to Sweden to help his father with an invention, Alfred established a small factory at Helenborg near Stockholm to manufacture nitroglycerine. Unfortunately, nitroglycerine is a very difficult and dangerous material to handle. In 1864, Alfred's factory blew up - killing several people, including Alfred's younger brother, Emil.

The explosion did not slow down Alfred, and within only a month, he organized other factories to manufacture nitroglycerine.

In 1867, Alfred invented a new and safer-to-handle explosive - dynamite.

Though Alfred became famous for his invention of dynamite, many people did not intimately know Alfred Nobel. He was a quiet man who did not like a lot of pretense or show. He had very few friends and never married.

And though he recognized the destructive power of dynamite, Alfred believed it was a harbinger of peace. Alfred told Bertha von Suttner, an advocate for world peace,

My factories may make an end of war sooner than your congresses. The day when two army corps can annihilate each other in one second, all civilized nations, it is to be hoped, will recoil from war and discharge their troops. *

Unfortunately, Alfred did not see peace in his time. Alfred Nobel, chemist and inventor, died alone on December 10, 1896, after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage.

After several funeral services were held and Alfred Nobel's body was cremated, the will was opened. Everyone was shocked.

The Will

Alfred Nobel had written several wills during his lifetime, but the last one was dated November 27, 1895 - a little over a year before he died.

Nobel's last will left approximately 94 percent of his worth to the establishment of five prizes (physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace) to "those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind."

Though Nobel had proposed a very grandiose plan for the prizes in his will, there were a great many problems with the will.

  • Relatives of Alfred Nobel were so shocked that many wanted the will contested.
  • The format of the will had formal defects which could have caused the will to be contested in France.
  • It was unclear which country Alfred had his legal residence. He was a Swedish citizen until age nine, but after that he had lived in Russia, France, and Italy without becoming a citizen. Nobel had been making plans for a final home for himself in Sweden when he died. The location of residency would determine what country's laws would govern the will and the estate. If determined to be France, the will could have been contested and French taxes would have been taken.
  • Because Nobel had wanted the Norwegian Storting (parliament) to choose the peace prize winner, many charged Nobel with a lack of patriotism.
  • The "fund" that was to implement the prizes did not yet exist and would have to be created.
  • The organizations that Nobel named in his will to award the prizes had not been asked to take on these duties prior to Nobel's death. Also, there was no plan to compensate these organizations for their work on the prizes.
  • The will did not state what should be done if no prize winners for a year were found.

Because of the incompleteness and other obstacles presented by Alfred's will, it took five years of hurdles before the Nobel Foundation could be established and the first prizes awarded.

The First Nobel Prizes

On the fifth anniversary of Alfred Nobel's death, December 10, 1901, the first set of Nobel Prizes were awarded.

Chemistry: Jacobus H. van't Hoff
Physics: Wilhelm C. Röntgen
Physiology or Medicine: Emil A. von Behring
Literature: Rene F. A. Sully Prudhomme
Peace: Jean H. Dunant and Frédéric Passy

* As quoted in W. Odelberg (ed.), Nobel: The Man & His Prizes (New York: American Elsevier Publishing Company, Inc., 1972) 12.


Axelrod, Alan and Charles Phillips. What Everyone Should Know About the 20th Century. Holbrook, Massachusetts: Adams Media Corporation, 1998.

Odelberg, W. (ed.). Nobel: The Man & His Prizes. New York: American Elsevier Publishing Company, Inc., 1972.

Official Website of the Nobel Foundation. Retrieved April 20, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.nobel.se

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Rosenberg, Jennifer. "History of the Nobel Prizes." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/history-of-the-nobel-prizes-1779779. Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2021, February 16). History of the Nobel Prizes. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-nobel-prizes-1779779 Rosenberg, Jennifer. "History of the Nobel Prizes." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-nobel-prizes-1779779 (accessed March 31, 2023).