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A short guide to the Nobel Prize

More than one aspiring student will admit to dreaming of one day winning a Nobel Prize, widely considered the world’s most prestigious award. The Nobel Prize has been given to people and organisations every year since 1901 for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. Since 1968, it has also been given for achievements in economics.

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On 10 December, the Nobel Prizes are awarded in the Stockholm Concert Hall. The ceremony is followed by the Nobel Banquet at City Hall.

Photo: Fredrika Berghult/
NobelMediaAB/imagebank.sweden.se

The world’s most prestigious award

The Nobel Prize is the legacy of Sweden’s Alfred Nobel (1833–1896). Prizes are awarded to ‘those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.’

10 December is Nobel Day, both in Sweden and in Norway. For the prize winners, it is the climax of a week of speeches, conferences and receptions. At the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in the Stockholm Concert Hall that day, the winners in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, and Literature receive a medal from the King of Sweden, as well as a diploma and a cash award. The ceremony is followed by a gala banquet.

The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo City Hall on the same day.

The Nobel Prize is currently SEK 8 million (USD 1.1 million, EUR 0.8 million) for each prize category, even when the prize is shared. There may be no more than three winners, or laureates, for each prize category.

Who was Alfred Nobel?

Swede Alfred Nobel was a chemist, engineer, inventor and entrepreneur. He was born on 21 October 1833, in Stockholm and died on 10 December 1896, in San Remo. He was devoted to the study of explosives, and his inventions include a blasting cap, dynamite and smokeless gunpowder. Nobel became famous across the world when the St. Gotthard Tunnel was built in 1882 and dynamite was used for the first time on such a large scale.

At the time of his death, Nobel held 355 patents in different countries. There were Nobel parent companies in some 20 countries and explosives of all kinds were being manufactured under his patents in around 100 factories worldwide.

Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) made a fortune off dynamite – his most known invention.

Photo: The Nobel Foundation

What happened with Nobel’s money?

Nobel, who had no children, signed his last will in 1895 and declared that the bulk of his estate should be converted into a fund and invested in safe securities. The four institutions in Sweden and Norway conferring the prizes were to be ‘the Swedish Academy of Sciences, Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, the Academy in Stockholm’ and ‘a committee of five persons to be elected by the Storting’ (the Norwegian Parliament).

In 1900, the four institutions awarding the prizes agreed to create the Nobel Foundation, a private institution based on the will of Alfred Nobel. The Nobel Foundation would administer Alfred Nobel’s willed assets, totalling SEK 31 million (quite a sum of money at the time), make public announcements and arrange the prize ceremonies. The prize amount each year is based on the most recent return on investment. The capital is currently worth around SEK 3.1 billion (EUR 354 million, USD 474 million), which is almost twice the amount of the initial capital, taking inflation into account.

Why Norway?

Sweden and Norway were still in union (1814–1905) at the time of Alfred Nobel’s will, and exactly why Nobel wanted the Peace Prize in particular to be awarded by a Norwegian committee remains unclear.

Gender Gap

The Nobel Prize and the Prize in Economic Sciences have been awarded to women just 45 times between 1901 and 2013. One woman, Marie Curie, has been honoured twice, receiving the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics and the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. This means 44 women in total have been awarded the Nobel Prize between 1901 and 2013.

In 1905, the Austrian baroness and author Bertha von Suttner became the first female laureate, winning the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the peace movement in Germany and Austria. Four years later, in 1909, Swede Selma Lagerlöf became the first female Literature Laureate.

Youngest versus oldest

The youngest Nobel Prize winner to date is Lawrence Bragg, who was 25 years old when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics with his father in 1915. The oldest prize winner to date is Leonid Hurwicz, who was 90 years old when he was awarded the Prize in Economic Sciences in 2007.

Rudyard Kipling is the youngest Literature Laureate to date. The Englishman, best known for The Jungle Book, was 42 years old when he was awarded the Literature Prize in 1907. The oldest Literature Laureate is Doris Lessing, who won the prize in 2007 at the age of 87.

Two have declined

Two winners have declined the Nobel Prize. Jean-Paul Sartre, awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature, declined the award because he had consistently declined all official honours. Le Duc Tho was awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for negotiating the Vietnam peace agreement. Le Duc Tho said he was not in a position to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, due to the situation in Vietnam.

Last updated: 25 March 2014

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