The Nobel Prize: History and Trivia

The Nobel Prizes have been awarded every year on December 10 since 1901 and are among the world’s most prestigious honors.

The Founder

Alfred Nobel was a Swedish industrialist who designated most of his estate to establish the prestigious prizes that bear his name. Nobel was born in Stockholm in 1833 and spent his childhood there and in St. Petersburg, Russia, where his father had established several business ventures. By the time he was a young man, Alfred spoke several languages fluently and had spent time in various European countries, as well as the United States. As an adult, Nobel became known as the inventor of dynamite and other chemically based creations such as synthetic rubber and leather. A successful businessman with factories throughout Europe, Nobel was also keenly interested in literature and social issues.

Alfred Nobel died on December 10, 1896, in San Remo, Italy. Although his will left numerous bequests to relatives and friends, it specified that the bulk of his fortune should be used to establish a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.

The Prizes

The five original Nobel Prizes — physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace — were all specifically designated in Alfred Nobel’s will. A sixth prize, in economics, was established in 1968 by Sveriges Riksbank (the Swedish central bank) and is more properly known as the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

Most of the Nobels are awarded by Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf in Stockholm, Alfred Nobel’s hometown. Nobel’s will specifically identified the various organizations that he wanted to be responsible for selecting the winners. Winners of the Literature Prize are selected by the Swedish Academy, while the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences chooses the laureates in chemistry and physics. The Nobel Prize in Medicine is awarded by Karolinska Institutet, the leading medical university. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences also awards the Economics Prize on behalf of Sveriges Riksbank.

The only one of the awards not presented in Stockholm is the Nobel Peace Prize, which is awarded in Oslo by the Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, with Norway’s King Harald V in attendance. Peace Prize laureates are selected by the Norwegian Nobel Committee appointed by the Norwegian Parliament. No one really knows for sure why Alfred Nobel wanted the Peace Prize given out in Norway, but one theory is that it was related to the fact that Norway and Sweden were in union at the time. The union was not dissolved until 1905, four years after the first awards were given.

The Stockholm ceremony is held at the Stockholm Concert Hall, Konserthuset, and is followed by a banquet and ball at City Hall. The Peace Prize ceremony is held in Oslo’s City Hall, followed by a banquet at Oslo’s Grand Hotel. Prize winners also deliver lectures during their time in Scandinavia. In Stockholm, the lectures take place in the days preceding the awards ceremony, while in Oslo, the Peace Prize laureates deliver their lectures as part of the ceremony itself.

Bird’s-eye view of the Nobel Prize ceremony. © Nobel Media AB / Alexander Mahmoud.

Nobel Trivia

According to the official Nobel Prize website, the Nobel Prizes, including the Prize in Economic Sciences, have been awarded 555 times, to 839 individuals and 24 organizations (through 2012). There have been a few years, notably during World War II, when no prizes were awarded, and other years in which only some of the prizes were given out. Prizes have often been divided between two or three laureates in the same category; Nobel Foundation statutes prohibit splitting the prize between more than three people.

Far more men have received the Nobel Prize than women. Including the economics prize, there have been 44 female winners (one of them twice) and 795 male winners (three of them twice).

The people and organizations who have received more than one Nobel Prize are:

  • John Bardeen – Physics, 1956 and 1972
  • Marie Curie – Physics, 1903, and Chemistry, 1911
  • Linus Pauling -Physics, 1954, and Peace, 1962 (the only person to win multiple unshared prizes)
  • Frederick Sanger – Chemistry, 1958 and 1980
  • International Committee of the Red Cross – Peace, 1917, 1944, and 1963 (in addition, founder Henry Dunant won the first Peace Prize, in 1901)
  • Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – Peace, 1954 and 1981

The youngest Nobel laureate is Lawrence Bragg, who won the Physics Prize in 1915 together with his father. He was 25. The oldest laureate is Leonid Hurwicz, who won the Economics Prize in 2007 at the age of 90.


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