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The Nobel Prize – awarding great minds

In October every year, the Nobel Prize winners of that year are announced in Sweden and Norway. Then, in December, the award is celebrated in Stockholm and Oslo.

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Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

The Nobel Prize – awarding great minds

In October every year, the Nobel Prize winners of that year are announced in Sweden and Norway. Then, in December, the award is celebrated in Stockholm and Oslo.

A prestigious prize

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 have thrilled readers with works such as One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez) and The Grass is Singing (Doris Lessing).

Every year in early October, the world turns its gaze towards Sweden and Norway as the Nobel laureates are announced in Stockholm and Oslo. And on 10 December, the Nobel Day, award ceremonies take place in Stockholm and Oslo. Since 1901 prizes in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace have been awarded.

In 1968, Sweden’s central bank (Sveriges Riksbank) also 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. This prize is awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, following the same principles as the Nobel Prizes.

The man behind the prize

The Nobel Prize is the legacy of Alfred Nobel, a chemist, engineer, inventor and entrepreneur. Nobel was born on 21 October 1833 in Stockholm, Sweden, and died on 10 December 1896 in San Remo, Italy.

When he signed his last will in 1895, Nobel declared that his remaining assests – totalling more than SEK 31 million – should be converted into a fund and that the interest should be distributed annually as prizes to ‘those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind’.

Nobel’s own inventions include a blasting cap, dynamite and smokeless gunpowder. He 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 UK, Germany and Italy.

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

Credits: © Nobel Media AB 2015; photo: Pi Frisk

The Nobel institutions

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 over SEK 4.6 billion, more than double the value of the original estate when adjusted for inflation.

The Nobel Prize in each category is currently worth SEK 10 million. There can be up to three recipients for each prize, who share the sum between them.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awards the Nobel Prize in Physics, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. It is an independent organisation that aims to promote the sciences and enhance their influence in society. Founded in 1739, it has about 460 Swedish and 175 foreign members.

The Swedish Academy awards the Nobel Prize in Literature. The academy was founded in 1786 and consists of 18 chairs.

The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet awards the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Dating from 1977 in its current form, the assembly consists of 50 professors at Karolinska Institutet.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee awards the Nobel Peace Prize. The committee was founded in 1897 and consists of five members appointed by the Norwegian parliament.

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.

Photos: Shutterstock, Melker Dahlstrand/imagebank.sweden.se, Getty Images

A timeline of culture and science

From the first Nobel Prize in 1901 to 2020, Nobel Prizes have been awarded 603 times to 962 people and organisations.

1901: Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was awarded the first Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of X-rays.

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. In 1911 she also received a prize in chemistry for isolating and studying the new element radium.

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.

1912: Swedish inventor and industrialist Gustaf Dalén won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to lighthouse technology. He invented the AGA lighthouse, a type of automatic lighthouse that ran on acetylene gas. It made it possible to reduce gas consumption by 90 per cent compared with earlier constructions.

1945: Alexander Fleming was one of three laureates in Physiology or Medicine, in recognition of their discovery of penicillin, which saved millions of lives in the second half of the 20th century.

2018: No Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded. The Swedish Academy, in the midst of a crisis, cited their diminished number of active members and a reduced public confidence as the reasons for not handing out a Prize that year. The Academy instead announced the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2018 – Olga Tokarczuk – in parallel with the naming of the 2019 Laureate, Peter Handke.

Previous Laureates in Literature include Ernest Hemingway (1954), Toni Morrison (1993), Dario Fo (1997) and Mario Vargas Llosa (2010).

2019: The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed Ali for his efforts to resolve border conflicts between Ethiopia and neighbouring country Eritrea. The intent of the Prize was also to recognise all stakeholders working for peace and reconciliation in Ethiopia and in the East and Northeast African regions.

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

Stockholm City Hall is the venue of the Nobel Prize banquet.

Photo: Werner Nystrand/imagebank.sweden.se

The Nobel week in Stockholm

The Nobel Prize award ceremonies are held on 10 December, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death, in the Swedish capital of Stockholm and the Norwegian capital of Oslo. Several other activities take place the same week, called the Nobel week.

5–7 December
Press conferences and seminars are held in Stockholm.

7–8 December
The laureates give lectures.

8 December
A Nobel Prize concert in honour of the laureates is held at the Stockholm Concert Hall.

9 December
The Nobel Week Dialogue takes place.

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.

On the same day, the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo, Norway.

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

Last updated: 14 October 2020