Mar 16, 2013

The Inauguration of Nobel Prizes

When he died in 1896 the Swedish chemist and industrialist Alfred Nobel bequeathed the greater part of his vast fortune, some £2 million, to provide annual prizes for those who had "conferred the greatest benefit on mankind". They were to be in five categories: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. The first four categories were not surprising, for Nobel himself was an able scientist and a man with some literary pretensions. The fifth did, however, excite comment, for most of his money had been made in armaments. In his later years, however, he had reached the conclusion that armaments might serve better to preserve peace than "revolutions, banquets and long speeches".

Surprisingly, for as an industrialist he was well aware of the need for precision in legal documents, he drafted his will himself, without advice, and in terms so vague and controversial that it took several years to set up the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm. The first prizes were not awarded until 1901: the value of each was £8,000, a very handsome sum in those days, and since greatly increased.

The prizes quickly attracted popular interest worldwide, which grew in 1903 when the physics prize was awarded to the pioneers in radioactivity, Marie and Pierre Curie and Antoine Becquerel. Scientific communities, however, were slow to value the awards. At first they feared that the selectors would be influenced by national or political interest groups. Two factors gradually commended the prizes: first, that most were given to scientists who had already been honored by their national scientific communities; second, the size of the sums given which could be used to fund research and stimulate the award of grants from other sources.

The first prize winners in science and medicine were W.C. Rontgen for his discovery of X-rays; J.H. van't Hoff, for his work on stereochemistry; and E.A. von Behring, who discovered antitoxins and pioneered their use in the treatment of diphtheria. The presentations were made by the Crown Prince of Sweden before a distinguished international audience, and the ceremony has since been repeated annually, apart from interruptions during the world wars.

By 1990 some 400 such prizes had been awarded and they had become universally recognized as the supreme scientific accolade. Only four people have been awarded two separate Nobel prizes: J. Bardeen (1956, 1972), Marie Curie (1903, 1911), Linus Pauling (1954, 1962) and F. Sanger (1958, 1980). In the early years of the century the prizes were almost always awarded to individuals but from the 1950s onward they were often shared between two or three candidates. (‘Science A History of Discovery in the Twentieth Century’, and ‘Encyclopedia Britannica’)