The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nobel Prizes started when one scientist chose to honor other innovators

Alfred Nobel, chemist and inventor of dynamite, left most of his fortune to create prizes for work that helps humans worldwide.

Economist Michael Kremer receives the Nobel Prize on December 10, 2019, in Stockholm, Sweden. The prizes were first awarded in 1901 to honor those who helped humanity in chemistry, physics, medicine, literature and peace. This year's honorees will receive their awards Saturday.

In December 1896, Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist, inventor and industrialist, died. He was 63 years old. He left behind no wife or children. What he did leave was money. A lot of money.

So it was with great interest that his relatives and friends awaited the reading of his will to see what would happen to all that wealth. Imagine their surprise, even shock, to learn that Nobel (pronounced no-BELL) had set aside most of it to fund annual awards to people working to benefit humanity in one of five areas: physics, chemistry, physiology/medicine, literature and peace.

Those who expected a large inheritance from Nobel were not happy. They fought the will for three years, but eventually his wish was realized and the Nobel Prizes were created.

The highly respected awards are given out each year on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death. Candidates are nominated by experts for work done in the previous year. The months-long selection process is hush-hush, with nominations kept secret for 50 years.

As many as three people can share one Nobel. The peace prize is also available to organizations.

The winners are known as Nobel laureates (LORE-ee-etts). Each one gets a gold medal, a diploma and money (split if there is more than one winner in an area). This year’s amount is about $970,000 (converted to U.S. dollars) for each medal category.

The first Nobels were awarded in 1901. In 1968, a sixth prize was added, for economics. Although technically not a Nobel, it is treated like one at the December awards ceremonies. They are held in Oslo, Norway (for the peace prize) and Stockholm, Sweden (the other five). Why did Nobel pick two countries? Possibly because they had been united as nations during his lifetime.

As of this year, 959 individuals and 30 organizations have received Nobel Prizes, including a few with more than one. Women, historically underrepresented in the sciences, account for fewer than 1 of every 15 winners.

Nominations are open to all people, with a few exceptions such as: You must be alive when nominated, and you cannot nominate yourself.

So, how and why did Alfred Nobel start these awards?

Like his father, Alfred had a lifelong interest in the dangerous explosives used in construction and mining. After many risky experiments, including one that killed Alfred’s younger brother, in 1866 he developed a paste that was much safer to handle than the liquid explosive then in use. He called it dynamite. This and another invention, a “blasting cap” used to set off big explosions, launched his reputation — and his fortune.

Dynamite made it much less expensive to blast rock when building tunnels, canals and railways. But it quickly found another use: as a weapon of war. Nobel later invented a more powerful form of dynamite and a smokeless powder used in firearms and artillery. He also worked on technology for rockets and cannons.

A complex man, Nobel said he wanted to produce a material or weapon so destructive it would make war impossible. Some think it’s why his awards include one for peace.

Nobel received 355 patents (licenses protecting one’s inventions) in his lifetime. He had labs and factories in more than 20 countries and experimented with making artificial silk and synthetic rubber. But when you mention Nobel’s name today, it’s dynamite most people think of — and the prizes that bear his name.

Laureate lore

⋅ Children’s education advocate Malala Yousafzai is the youngest Nobel laureate. She was 17 when she won the peace prize in 2014.

⋅ Polish-born Marie Curie is the only woman to win two Nobels and the only person to win in physics (1903) and chemistry (1911). She shared the 1903 award with her husband, Pierre. Keeping it all in the family, the Curies’ daughter Irene and her husband shared the chemistry prize in 1935.

⋅ The number of women laureates in the sciences has increased to 8.5 percent in the past 20 years (13 women to 140 men).

⋅ Four U.S. presidents have received the peace prize: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.

⋅ In June, Russian newspaper editor Dmitry Muratov sold his 2021 peace prize for $103.5 million. He said the money will be used to help refugees from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.