The Nobel Prize – awarding great minds

Every year in early October, the world turns its gaze towards Sweden and Norway as the Nobel Laureates are announced in Stockholm and Oslo. The Nobel Prize, which has been awarded for discoveries such as radioactivity and penicillin, is arguably the world’s most prestigious award.

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The prestigious award that captures the world’s attention

The Nobel Prize is considered the most prestigious award in the world. Prize-winning discoveries include X-rays, radioactivity and penicillin. Peace Laureates include Nelson Mandela and the 14th Dalai Lama. Nobel Laureates in Literature, including Gabriel García Márquez and Doris Lessing, have thrilled readers with works such as ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ and ‘The Grass is Singing’.

Every year in early October, the world turns its gaze towards Sweden and Norway as the Nobel Laureates are announced in Stockholm and Oslo. Millions of people visit the website of the Nobel Foundation during this time.

The Nobel Prize has been awarded to people and organisations every year since 1901 (with a few exceptions such as during World War II) for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. Nobel Day is 10 December. For the prize winners, it is the crowning point of a week of speeches, conferences and receptions.

At the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in Stockholm on that day, the Laureates 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 the same day.

Prize in Economic Sciences

In 1968, Sweden’s central bank (Sveriges Riksbank) established the Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. The prize is based on a donation received by the Nobel Foundation in 1968 from the central bank to mark the bank’s 300th anniversary. The Prize in Economic Sciences is awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, following the same principles as the Nobel Prizes.

Legacy of Alfred Nobel

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.’ When he signed his last will in 1895, Nobel 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 (the two countries were united between 1814 and 1905) conferring the prizes were to be the Swedish Academy of Sciences, Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, the Academy in Stockholm and a committee of five people to be elected by the Norwegian parliament (Stortinget).

The Nobel Foundation

In 1900, the four institutions awarding the prizes agreed to create the Nobel Foundation, a private institution based on Alfred Nobel’s will. The Nobel Foundation would administer Nobel’s estate, totalling SEK 31 million, make public announcements and arrange the prize ceremonies. The total amount awarded each year is based on the most recent return on investment. The capital is currently worth around SEK 3.4 billion, almost double the value of the original estate when adjusted for inflation.

The Nobel Prize in each category is currently worth SEK 8 million. There can be up to three recipients for each prize, who share the sum between them.

Organisations affiliated with the prize

The Nobel Prize is affiliated with several organisations and institutions entrusted with different tasks related to the prize. The Nobel Foundation Rights Association was established in 1999 to provide information through a variety of media about the Nobel Laureates and their achievements.

This non-profit association serves as an umbrella organisation for four other entities:

  • Nobel Media AB, which manages media rights for the Nobel Prize in connection with TV and web production, distribution, publishing and events.
  • The Nobel Museum AB, housed in the Old Stock Exchange Building (Börshuset) in Stockholm’s Old Town, which depicts a century of creativity through the Nobel Prize and the achievements of the Nobel Laureates.
  • The Nobel Peace Center, at Rådhusplassen in Oslo, Norway, which presents the Nobel Peace Prize and the work of the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates.
  • The Nobel Prize Education Fund, which supports educational outreach focused on the achievements of Nobel Laureates.

Alfred Nobel.

Photo: Nobelmuseet

The father of dynamite

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, Italy. 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 in the Swiss Alps was completed in 1881 and dynamite was used for the first time on a large scale.

At the time of his death, Nobel held 355 patents in different countries. There were Nobel companies in more than 20 countries, with explosives of all kinds being manufactured under his patents in around 90 factories worldwide. Nobel lived and worked in many countries, including Sweden, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy. He spoke five languages, had a passionate interest in literature, and wrote poetry and drama. He could never have imagined how important his prize would become, or how much media attention future Nobel Laureates would attract.

Prize-winning discoveries (clockwise from left): X-rays; AGA lighthouse, a type of automatic lighthouse that runs on acetylene gas; the molecular structure of DNA – the double helix; penicillin.

Photo: Getty Images

A history of culture and science

Between 1901, when the first Nobel Prize was awarded, and 2014, a total of 889 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to individuals and organisations. Together, they represent a major contribution to the cultural and scientific history of the world.

There have been 864 prizes awarded to individuals and 25 to organisations. Only a few recipients have been honoured more than once, which means that a total of 860 individuals and 22 unique organisations have received prizes to date.

The first Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1901, went to Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen for his discovery of X-rays, used every day by health care providers around the world.

In 1903, Marie Curie became the first female Laureate when she was named a joint winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics for her research into radioactivity. She received her second prize in 1911 – this time in chemistry – for isolating and studying the new element radium.

In 1905, Austrian baroness and author Bertha von Suttner became the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of her work with the pacifist movements in Germany and Austria. She was also widely seen as inspiring Alfred Nobel, with whom she corresponded, to create the Peace Prize.

In 1912, Swedish inventor and industrialist Gustaf Dalén won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to lighthouse technology. In the early 1900s, he invented the AGA lighthouse, a type of automatic lighthouse that ran on acetylene gas. The gas supply was controlled by a sun valve that shut off the gas in daylight, and a revolving light apparatus that allowed the beacon to flash by switching the gas off and on at brief, regular intervals. The two innovations made it possible to reduce gas consumption by 90 per cent compared with earlier constructions.

In the autumn of 1945, the Nobel Assembly of professors at Karolinska Institutet gathered to select a Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine. They chose three Laureates, including Alexander Fleming, for their discovery of penicillin, which saved millions of lives in the second half of the 20th century.

In 2014, the Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai for their struggle for the benefit of children. Satyarthi is a child right activist from India who has spearheaded the global movement against child labour. Seventeen-year old Yousafzai – the youngest Nobel Laureate to date – is a Pakistani human rights activist principally known for her advocacy for young women’s right to education.

Previous Nobel Peace Prize Laureates include Martin Luther King (1964), Mother Teresa (1979) and Barack Obama (2009).

Nobel Laureates in Literature include Ernest Hemingway (1954), Toni Morrison (1993), Dario Fo (1997) and Mario Vargas Llosa (2010). The oldest Laureate in literature was Doris Lessing, who won the prize in 2007 at the age of 87.

The Nobel Prize calendar

The Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in Stockholm is held on 10 December, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. On the same day, the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo, Norway.

Several other activities take place the same week, with receptions and dinners hosted by the institutions awarding prizes, the Nobel Foundation and the Swedish Royal Family. The Laureates deliver lectures and talk about their work, with panel discussions and other public appearances usually arranged.

Traditionally, the Laureates and their spouses sit with the Royal Family at the Nobel Banquet. They are also invited to a more intimate dinner at the Royal Palace, where they meet the Royal Family again. The visit to the Nobel Foundation is a great symbolic event.

The Laureates receive a document confirming the prize amount and sign their names in a guestbook, thereby joining hundreds of famous predecessors.

Nobel week in Stockholm

5 December
The Laureates (except for the Nobel Peace Laureate) arrive in Stockholm.

6-8 December
The Laureates deliver their lectures. The institutions awarding the prizes arrange press conferences, receptions and dinners.

9 December
The Nobel Foundation and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences host a joint reception for all the Laureates at the Nordic Museum.

10 December
The Nobel Prize Award Ceremony is held in the Stockholm Concert Hall, where the King of Sweden presents each Laureate with a Nobel Prize Medal and a Nobel Prize Diploma. A televised banquet is then held at Stockholm City Hall.

11 December
The festivities conclude with dinner at the Royal Palace.

Last updated: 7 September 2015