The Swedish Nobel Prize
Great minds think differently. The Nobel Prize is a celebration of excellence.
The Nobel Prize is considered the most prestigious award in the world in its field. It 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 Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel was established by Sweden’s central bank (Sveriges Riksbank) in 1968. The prize is based on a donation to 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 (Kungl. vetenskapsakademin), following the same principles as the Nobel Prizes.
Prize-winning discoveries include X-rays, radioactivity and penicillin. Peace laureates include Nelson Mandela and the 14th Dalai Lama. Nobel Prize winners in literature have thrilled readers with works such as One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez) and The Grass is Singing (Doris Lessing).
Nobel Prize winners announced in October
Every year in early October, the winners are announced. And on 10 December, the so-called Nobel Day, award ceremonies take place in the Swedish capital of Stockholm and the Norwegian capital of Oslo.
The year 2020, however, was an exception to the rule. With the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the laureates received their diplomas and medals in their countries of residence. Nobel Week was staged as a digital event, with award ceremonies and lectures held online and the usual banquets in Stockholm and Oslo cancelled.
The same routines will apply in Sweden for the 2021 prizes, while the Norwegian Nobel Committee have opted for an in-person award ceremony for the Peace Prize in Oslo City Hall.
Some winner statistics
Women have won the Nobel Prize and the Prize in Economic Sciences 58 times from 1901 to 2021. One woman, Marie Curie, was honoured twice, receiving the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics and the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. And in 1909, Swede Selma Lagerlöf became the first female literature laureate.
The oldest winner to date is John B. Goodenough, who was 97 when he was awarded the Prize in Chemistry in 2019.
The youngest winner to date is Malala Yousafzai, who was 17 when she was awarded the Peace Prize in 2014.
Four winners have been forced to decline the prize: Germans Richard Kuhn (Chemistry), Adolf Butenandt (Chemistry) and Gerhard Domagk (Physiology/Medicine) were forbidden by Adolf Hitler from accepting their prizes. Russian Boris Pasternak initially accepted the 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature, but was later coerced into declining by Soviet authorities.
The three Germans later received their awards, but not the prize money.
Two Nobel Prize winners declined
Jean-Paul Sartre declined the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature because he had consistently declined all official honours.
Lê Ðức Thọ declined the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize that he and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were awarded for negotiating the Vietnam peace agreement. He said he could not accept the prize due to the situation in Vietnam.
The man behind the Nobel 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 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.
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.
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 capital is currently worth over SEK 4.9 billion.
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.
The Swedish Academy awards the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet awards the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee, consisting of five members appointed by the Norwegian parliament, awards the Nobel Peace Prize.
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 Nobel Banquet
It is tradition that the Nobel Prize award ceremonies on 10 December are followed by a Nobel Banquet. It is held at Stockholm City Hall and some 1,300 guests are invited. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic the banquet has had to be cancelled in 2020 and 2021.
A timeline of culture and science
From the first Nobel Prize in 1901 to 2021, Nobel Prizes have been awarded 609 times to 975 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.
1914–1918: World War I results in fewer Nobel Prizes being awarded. Only one Peace Prize is awarded during this period, to the International Committee of the Red Cross, 'for the efforts to take care of wounded soldiers and prisoners of war and their families', in 1917. The International Committee of the Red Cross was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1944 and 1963, on the third occasion jointly with the League of Red Cross Societies.
1922: Albert Einstein is awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics – for 1921, technically. The Nobel Committee for Physics' decision to give Einstein the award a year later is shortly explained here. Einstein is awarded '...for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect'.
1939–1945: Several Nobel Prizes are not awarded as usual during World War II.
1945: Alexander Fleming is 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.
1952: The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is awarded to Selman Abraham Waksman, for his discovery of streptomycin – the first antibiotic effective against tuberculosis.
1968: The Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel is introduced as a Nobel Prize category.
1975: The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is awarded jointly to David Baltimore, Renato Dulbecco and Howard Martin Temin, 'for their discoveries concerning the interaction between tumour viruses and the genetic material of the cell'.
1983: American Barbara McClintock is awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of mobile genetic elements.
1993: The Nobel Prize in Literature 1993 is awarded to Toni Morrison, who '...in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality', according to the Swedish Academy.
2004: Aaron Ciechanover, Avram Hershko and Irwin Rose are jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation.
2010: Robert G. Edwards of the United Kingdom is awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the development of in vitro fertilization.
2011: Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. 'Because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality', wrote the Swedish Academy.
2018: No Nobel Prize in Literature is 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.
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.
Other Nobel Peace Prize Laureates include Martin Luther King (1964), Mother Teresa (1979) and Barack Obama (2009).
(countries denote place of birth)
Benjamin List (Germany), David W.C. MacMillan (Scotland, UK)
‘For the the development of asymmetric organocatalysis.’
Abdulrazak Gurnah (Zanzibar, Tanzania)
‘For his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.’
Maria Ressa (Philippines), Dmitry Muratov (Russia)
‘For their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.’
Syukuro Manabe (Japan), Klaus Hasselmann (Germany)
‘For the physical modelling of Earth’s climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global warming.’
Giorgio Parisi (Italy)
‘For the discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales.’
Physiology or Medicine
David Julius (the US), Ardem Patapoutian (Lebanon)
‘For their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch.’
The Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel
David Card (Canada)
‘For his empirical contributions to labour economics.’
Joshua D. Angrist (the US), Guido W. Imbens (the Netherlands)
‘For their methodological contributions to the analysis of causal relationships.’