Wednesday, December 10, 2014

December 10th: Alfred Nobel Day and the Nobel Prizes

December 10th is Alfred Nobel Day in Sweden. We are all familiar with the Nobel Prizes. They are handed out every year in five categories: physics, chemistry, literature, physiology or medicine and peace. Although many of us probably don’t pay much attention to the awards, but they are awards for great achievements in the chosen categories. The Nobel Prizes have been handled out almost every year for the past 113 years all because one man wanted to change his legacy. Here are some interesting facts I learned:

Alfred Nobel was born October 21, 1833 in Stockholm, Sweden. He would become a chemist, engineer and inventor. He would amass a fortune from his 355 inventions with dynamite being the most famous. In 1888, Nobel read his own obituary in a French newspaper which called him “the merchant of death” due to his inventions which would be the precursors for military grade explosives. The article would state that Nobel “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.” The obituary would be eight years premature as the newspaper mistaken him for his brother, Ludvig, who had died. The article left him concerned about how he would be remembered. He changed his will and he would die on December 10, 1896 from a cerebral hemorrhage in San Remo, Italy. He was 63 years old.

His will would specify that 94% of his fortune would be used to create a series of prizes for those who work for the “greatest benefit of mankind.” He stated that the prizes would be in the categories of physics, chemistry, peace, physiology/medicine and literature. There was a great skepticism about the validity of the will and the prize would not be approved until April 1897. The Nobel Foundation would be formed by Nobel’s will executors, Ragnar Sohlman and Rudolf Lilljequist. The first prizes were handed out in 1901 to: Wilhelm Rontgen (Physics: X-rays), Sully Rudhomme (Literature: Poetry), Emil von Bhering (Physiology/Medicine: an antitoxin for diphtheria), Jacobus van’t Hoff (Chemistry: chemical thermodynamics) and Henry Dunant and Frederic Passy (Peace: their role in the founding of the International Red Cross).

There are a lot of interesting facts about the Nobel prices. The Curie family would be the most decorated family with five prizes. Marie Curie would receive prizes in Physics (1903) with her husband, Pierre Curie and in Chemistry in 1911. Their daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frederic Joliot-Curie, would receive the prize in Chemistry (1935). The Curie’s son-in-law, Henry Labouisse, would receive the prize in Peace (1965) as director of UNICEF. President Theodore Roosevelt would be the first American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his successful mediation of the peace treaty that ended the Russo-Japanese War.

To some receiving the Nobel Prize is a high honor and accomplishment; however, there have been some who have said, thanks but no thanks. Jean-Paul Sartre declined the prize for Literature in 1964. He said, “A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honorable form.” Le Duc Tho was awarded the 1973 Peace Prize for his role in the Paris Accords which ended the Vietnam War. He won the award with Henry Kissinger but he declined, claiming that there wasn’t an actual peace in Vietnam.