This Day in History – December 10th, 1901

Alfred Nobel

Alfred Nobel

For those time travelers who appreciate celebrations of scientific progress and world peace, we recommend that you set your controls for the year nineteen-o-one as we head to Sweden for the first ever Nobel Prize awards.

Alfred Nobel was a Swedish inventor who accumulated 350 patents during his life time, but the most noted is his invention of dynamite that earned him his fortunes.

In 1888 Alfred’s brother Ludvig died while visiting Cannes and a French newspaper erroneously published Alfred’s obituary. It condemned him for his invention of dynamite and is said to have brought about his decision to leave a better legacy after his death. The obituary stated, Le marchand de la mort est mort (“The merchant of death is dead”) and went on to say, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” Alfred was disappointed with what he read and concerned with how he would be remembered.

Alfred Nobel's will stated that 94% of his total assets should be used to establish the Nobel Prizes.

Alfred Nobel’s will stated that 94% of his total assets should be used to establish the Nobel Prizes.

When Alfred actually died, eight years later in 1896, provisions were made in his will that his fortunes be used to promote science, culture, and peace by establishing the Nobel Foundation and its famous Nobel Awards. On December 10th, 1901, the first three of these prizes are awarded for eminence in physical science, in chemistry and in medical science or physiology; the fourth is for literary work “in an ideal direction” and the fifth prize is to be given to the person or society that renders the greatest service to the cause of international fraternity, in the suppression or reduction of standing armies, or in the establishment or furtherance of peace congresses.

Frédéric Passy

Frédéric Passy

Once the Nobel Foundation and its guidelines were in place, the Nobel Committees began collecting nominations for the inaugural prizes. Subsequently they sent a list of preliminary candidates to the prize-awarding institutions. Originally, the Norwegian Nobel Committee appointed prominent figures including Jørgen Løvland, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and Johannes Steen to give the Nobel Peace Prize credibility. The committee awarded the Peace Prize to two prominent figures in the growing peace movement around the end of the 19th century. These were Frédéric Passy, co-founder of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and Henry Dunant the founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

640px-Röntgen,_Wilhelm_Conrad_(1845-1923)

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen

The Nobel Committee’s Physics Prize shortlist cited Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays and Philipp Lenard’s work on cathode rays. The Academy of Sciences selected Röntgen for the prize. In the last decades of the 19th century, many chemists had made significant contributions. Thus, with the Chemistry Prize, the Academy “was chiefly faced with merely deciding the order in which these scientists should be awarded the prize.” The Academy received 20 nominations, eleven of them for Jacobus van’t Hoff. Van’t Hoff was awarded the prize for his contributions in chemical thermodynamics.

Sully Prudhomme

Sully Prudhomme

The Swedish Academy chose the poet Sully Prudhomme for the first Nobel Prize in Literature. A group including 42 Swedish writers, artists and literary critics protested against this decision, having expected Leo Tolstoy to be awarded. Some, including Burton Feldman, have criticised this prize because they consider Prudhomme a mediocre poet. Feldman’s explanation is that most of the Academy members preferred Victorian literature and thus selected a Victorian poet. The first Physiology or Medicine Prize went to the German physiologist and microbiologist Emil von Behring. During the 1890s, von Behring developed an antitoxin to treat diphtheria, which until then was causing thousands of deaths each year.

Between 1901 and 2012, the Nobel Prizes and the Prize in Economic Sciences were awarded 555 times to 856 people and organizations. With some receiving the Nobel Prize more than once, this makes a total of 835 individuals (791 men and 44 women) and 21 organizations.

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