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A short guide to the Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prize is widely considered the world’s most prestigious award. It is awarded for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, peace and economics.

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Medicine Laureate Michael Rosbash at Nobel Prize Award Ceremony, 2017

Photo: Alexander Mahmoud ©Nobel Media AB 2017.

A short guide to the Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prize is widely considered the world’s most prestigious award. It is awarded for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, peace and economics.

The prize

The Nobel Prize is awarded to ‘those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind’. Prizes in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace have been awarded since 1901 – and economic sciences since 1968.

The party

On 10 December – Nobel Day – award ceremonies take place in both Stockholm, Sweden, and Oslo, Norway. At the Stockholm Concert Hall, the winners in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and economic sciences 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 at Stockholm City Hall.

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

The man

The Nobel Prize is the legacy of Sweden’s Alfred Nobel (1833–1896). A chemist, engineer, inventor and entrepreneur, Nobel was devoted to the study of explosives, and his inventions include a blasting cap, dynamite and smokeless gunpowder.

When Nobel died, he held 355 patents in different countries and had made a fortune. His last will, signed in 1895, is the reason that the Nobel Prize is awarded every year. He had an idea about an annual prize that would go to brilliant minds around the world.

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

Photo: The Nobel Foundation

The money

In his last will, Nobel declared that he wanted the bulk of his assets to go to a fund, and that the interest from that fund should be distributed as annual prizes. He also declared that 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).

The Nobel Prize sum is currently SEK 9 million (around EUR 845,000) for each prize category, even when the prize is shared. There may be no more than three winners, or laureates, for each prize category.

The foundation

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 foundation would administer Alfred Nobel’s assets, totalling more than SEK 31 million (quite a sum of money at the time), make public announcements and arrange the prize ceremonies.

The Peace Prize

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.

The gender gap

The Nobel Prize and the Prize in Economic Sciences have been awarded to 54 women between 1901 and 2019. Altogether, there have been 950 prize winners.

One woman, Marie Curie, has been honoured twice, receiving the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics and the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

In 1909, Swede Selma Lagerlöf became the first female literature laureate.

The age gap

The youngest Nobel Prize winner to date is Malala Yousafzai, who was 17 years old when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. The oldest prize winner to date is John B. Goodenough, who was 97 when he was awarded the Prize in Chemistry in 2019.

Rudyard Kipling is the youngest literature laureate to date. The Englishman, best known for The Jungle Book, was 41 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 decliners

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.

Lê Ðức Thọ 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: 19 November 2019


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