The History of the Nobel Prize

Moira Gorman-Fisk   LinkedIn

Moira Gorman-Fisk


       Early October is an exciting time for many people. Football fans eagerly anticipate big rivalry games, those who love all things pumpkin line up at Starbucks, kids change their mind daily about what they want to be for Halloween, and an international community of scholars impatiently awaits the announcement of the years’ Nobel Prizes. Even those who are not employed in the recognized fields (Peace, Literature, Physics, Physiology/Medicine, Chemistry, and Economic Sciences) have likely heard reference to these awards and know that to win one is a momentous achievement. However, few people know how the tradition began and the history behind the awards.

Alfred Nobel (

Alfred Nobel (


       They are named for Alfred Nobel, a 19th century Swedish scientist and entrepreneur, who is best known for being the person that invented dynamite. He passed away in 1896 and in his will left behind 31 million Swedish Krona to be used to fund the Nobel Prizes. With inflation, that amount would now be equal to about 265 million dollars. Alfred never issued a definitive statement on why he decided to leave such a generous portion of his will to be dedicated to these awards; however, there is speculation that it stemmed from his guilt surrounding the way in which his inventions led to increased violence and death. Dynamite and other explosives that he designed were often used to enhance warfare and resulted in many lost lives.

        The first prizes were awarded in December of 1901 in the fields of Peace, Literature, Physics, Physiology/Medicine, and Chemistry. In 1968, Sweden’s Central Bank created an Economic Sciences prize in honor of Alfred Nobel. Between 1901 and 2015, 573 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to those who have made impressive gains and progress in their fields in order to benefit humanity as a whole. These awards are not only diverse in the fields they recognize, but in the population of recipients they honor. Nobel Prize winners hail from all over the world and represent different genders, faiths, sexualities, and political parties. Though hundreds have been distributed, there have been years when no prizes have been awarded in certain categories and the money has been saved to be awarded the following year. Most of these lulls occurred during World War I and World War II. Not surprisingly, if one examines these gaps more closely, it becomes obvious that the prize that has been withheld most often is the Nobel Peace Prize.


       Often times, winners can be predicted and are widely accepted and supported by the public; however, at times there have been controversial choices. For example, on three occasions the Peace Prize was awarded to someone who was under arrest at the time of the announcement. In 1973, Le Duc Tho shocked the world when he declined the Prize for his role in negotiating the Vietnam Peace Accord. Moreover, in 1976, protests erupted around the world when Milton Friedman was awarded the Prize in economics because of his association with Chilean dictator, Augosto Pinochet. More recently, people questioned the timing and legitimacy of awarding Barrack Obama the Peace Prize in 2009. Many felt that it was politically motivated and premature considering he had only recently become active as President of the United States. However, one of the biggest controversies arose due to lack of recognition. Many find it outrageous the Mahatma Gandhi never received the Peace prize despite dedicating his life to the cause. 

       So far, three 2016 winners have been announced in the categories of Chemistry, Physics, and Medicine. Keep your eyes open for the rest of the announcements that will conclude today. Given that there tends to be so much focus placed on the negative and the bad in this world, it is nice to highlight positive contributions of people from across the globe and recognize ways in which we are connected.


Feldman, Burton. The Nobel Prize: a history of genius, controversy, and prestige. Arcade Publishing, 2001.

"The Nobel Foundation - History". Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 7 Oct 2016. <>