We all know about Nobel Prize – the most prestigious award available in the fields of chemistry, literature, peace activism, physics, and physiology or medicine. But the revered Nobel Prize – held today as an echelon of celebrating the human spirit at his highest potential – has rather dark origin of destruction and confusion. Lets have a blast from past on what exactly happened on this day 123 years ago.
It was year 1888, when a humble Swede by the name of Ludwig Nobel died, the French press confused him with his younger brother Alfred – famed Swedish inventor and entrepreneur who made vast fortune by making such deadly delight as dynamite in 1866 – and ran an eviscerating epitaph about this “Tradesman of Death”.
He was heartbroken as he had the rare misfortune of witnessing his legacy while still alive. Determined to change his story before it was too late he took action. It was November 27, 1895 he went to Swedish Norwegian club in the Marais in Paris, sat down at a writing desk – which is still there (the venue is now called simply the Swedish club) – and wrote his last will and testament.
The interest was to be divided into five equal parts given to the person who had made the most important discovery each year in four fields and finally, “One part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations for the abolition and for the holding and promotion of peace congress” – The Nobel Peace Prize.
The will which is now kept in a vault at the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm and has never been on display, was so impromptu that Nobel asked 4 random gentlemen who happened to be in the club that day to witness the document.
This translation of the passage from Nobel’s will outlining the ideals and practical execution of the prize.
The whole of my remaining realizable estate shall be dealt with in the following way: the capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind. The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses. The prizes for physics and chemistry shall be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; that for physiological or medical work by the Caroline Institute in Stockholm; that for literature by the Academy in Stockholm, and that for champions of peace by a committee of five persons to be elected by the Norwegian Storting. It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not.
He died the following year, his 25-year-old assistant Ragnar Sohlman was entrusted with executing Nobel’s wishes. He raced around Paris in a horse-drawn carriage, collecting cash, papers and bonds from different banks. He packed everything into boxes and shipped it to Sweden, from Gare du nord, Paris, as registered luggage. Back in Sweden, he began slowly to sell Nobel’s shares, so the companies he had invested in didn’t crash.
As executors of my testamentary dispositions, I appoint Mr Ragnar Sohlman, resident in Bofors, Varmland, and Mr Rudolf Liljequist, of 31 Malmskillnadsgatan, Stockholm, and Bengtsfors, close of Uddevalla. As compensation for their attention and efforts, I grant to Mr Ragnar Sohlman, who will probably devote most time to this matter, one hundred thousand crowns, and to Mr Rudolf Liljequist, fifty thousand crowns;
Yet his will met enormous resistance, his relatives unaware were in great shock. The Swedish Royal family condemned him for being unpatriotic by setting up nationality – blind prize fund rather than rewarding Swedes only. His staff was outraged by the enormous operation, which they thought Nobel didn’t consider when he made his will.
Despite of the outrages and resistance the idea also stirred quite a few hearts. Ragnar found more and more support as he worked steadily to set up the Nobel Foundation. It was year 1896, The Olympics in Greece with general sense of wanting to create a world family and to honor people who were helping mankind aided it. In 1901, five years after Nobel’ will was first read, the first Nobel Prize were awarded in Sweden and Norway and a century later the museum opened in Stockholm.
Indeed it gives one pause to consider that the highest honor of human achievement owes its origin to a combination of journalistic error and existential guilt. The more cynical might say Alfred Nobel was exercising grandiose form of vanity. But cynicism has no place in the spirit of the prize. So one must honor the desire to leave something meaningful behind is the foremost.