First Nobel Prizes Are Awarded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On the fifth anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death, the first prizes that his will established were awarded—the Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, and Literature in Stockholm, and the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.

Summary of Event

The genesis of the Nobel Prizes has been traced to two newspaper items, an advertisement and an obituary. The advertisement, placed in a Vienna newspaper by Alfred Nobel in the spring of 1876, was for a woman with a knowledge of languages to come to Paris to serve as Nobel’s secretary and housekeeper. Countess Bertha Kinsky, then a thirty-three-year-old governess to the baronial Suttner family, had mastery of German, French, English, and Italian. After corresponding with Nobel, she went to Paris and charmed him, quickly becoming not only his secretary but also his friend. Although she left his employ after only a week (to marry Arthur von Suttner secretly in Vienna), she began a correspondence with Nobel that continued while she and Arthur were estranged from his family and, after the Suttner family finally became reconciled to their marriage, when she took up her position as Baroness von Suttner at the family estate. They corresponded about literature, which, next to science, was Nobel’s favorite interest (he not only read but also wrote poetry, dramas, and novels). Bertha von Suttner’s linguistic talents were much greater than Nobel’s, and her writings and involvement in the peace movement made her internationally famous. Through her letters, she shared with Nobel her hatred of militarism, and many scholars have seen her influence in this area, both generally in the principles underlying the Nobel Prizes and specifically in the Peace Prize. Nobel Prizes [kw]First Nobel Prizes Are Awarded (Dec. 10, 1901) [kw]Nobel Prizes Are Awarded, First (Dec. 10, 1901) [kw]Prizes Are Awarded, First Nobel (Dec. 10, 1901) Nobel Prizes [g]Norway;Dec. 10, 1901: First Nobel Prizes Are Awarded[00210] [c]Science and technology;Dec. 10, 1901: First Nobel Prizes Are Awarded[00210] [c]Health and medicine;Dec. 10, 1901: First Nobel Prizes Are Awarded[00210] [c]Literature;Dec. 10, 1901: First Nobel Prizes Are Awarded[00210] [c]Organizations and institutions;Dec. 10, 1901: First Nobel Prizes Are Awarded[00210] Nobel, Alfred Suttner, Bertha von

The pacifism and idealism that Baroness von Suttner encouraged in Nobel received an added impulse from an obituary notice that appeared in 1888. Alfred’s brother Ludvig had died on April 12 of that year, but the author of the obituary confused Ludvig with Alfred, and so Alfred Nobel was able to read his own obituary. It was a disillusioning experience, for he found that people viewed him primarily as a merchant of death—not an inventor whose discoveries had been forces for good but one whose explosives had made war distressingly horrible. He had believed that his explosives would end war long before Baroness von Suttner’s peace congresses would, because these weapons would force nations to realize that increasingly horrible wars were ruinous ways of solving their problems. When he saw how the appetites of nations for wars were whetted rather than repelled by these new weapons, however, he came to agree with the baroness that more sophisticated and powerful explosives would not prevent wars. Nobel also began to think about how he could use his great fortune, amassed from selling explosives, to advance human understanding and love.

In 1889, Bertha von Suttner published a novel, Die Waffen nieder! (Lay Down Your Arms, 1892), Lay Down Your Arms (Suttner) in which she depicted the devastating effects that war has on people’s lives. Her book was second only to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852) in the influence that it exerted on people, institutions, and nations of the nineteenth century. In his letters to the baroness in the years after the appearance of Lay Down Your Arms, Nobel referred to his weapons as “implements of hell” and called war “the horror of horrors.” Before 1889, he had derided most peace efforts, but by 1892, he was actively promoting various peace movements. In 1893, when he reached the age of sixty, his health started to deteriorate rapidly, so he hired Ragnar Sohlman as his assistant and drafted a will in which he left most of his estate to the Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. Nobel’s will stipulated that the academy must annually use a part of the estate’s income to honor the persons who had made the most important discoveries in science and, as Nobel put it in a letter to the baroness, to reward the person who had done most to advance the idea of general peace in Europe.

Alfred Nobel.

While on a trip to Paris in 1895, Nobel canceled the 1893 will and wrote a new one that became the founding document for the Nobel Prizes. One of the notable differences between the new will and the old was the addition of a provision for a literature prize (Nobel wanted to honor idealistic writings). When the contents of this will were revealed after Nobel’s death on December 10, 1896, his relatives were shocked to discover that their share of his estate constituted a minuscule portion of Nobel’s total assets. Some of them brought suit to break the will, as did a woman who had had a relationship with Nobel, but these lawsuits never came to trial, as the claims were settled out of court through various grants. Finally, after three years of difficult negotiation, Sohlman, the chief executor, succeeded in getting the will accepted by Nobel’s relatives and in moving the prize-awarding institutions—the Academy of Sciences, the Swedish Academy, the Karolinska Institute, and the Norwegian parliament—to establish specific mechanisms for nominating and selecting prizewinners. On June 29, 1900, King Oscar II approved the statutes of the Nobel Foundation and the special regulations of the prize-giving institutions, and five Nobel committees began doing their work to select the first Nobel Prize winners.

The Swedish Academy of Sciences gave the first Nobel Prize in Physics to Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen Nobel Prize recipients;Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen[Röntgen] for his discovery of X rays. Although this discovery had been made in 1895 and Nobel’s will stipulated that the prize be given for work done during the preceding year, the physics committee interpreted Nobel’s provision quite broadly to mean that past achievements could be rewarded, given that properly assessing a discovery’s importance often requires tracing its influence over a period of time. The award of the chemistry prize to Jacobus Henricus van’t Hoff Nobel Prize recipients;Jacobus Henricus van’t Hoff[Vanthoff] was for discoveries in chemical thermodynamics and osmotic pressure made in the 1880’s; like their comrades in physics, the committee members for the chemistry prize felt that it can take longer than a year for a great chemical discovery to prove its worth. The first Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was given to Emil von Behring for his discovery, ten years earlier, of the antitoxin against diphtheria. Nobel Prize recipients;Emil von Behring[Behring]

In the eyes of many critics and scholars, the award of the literature prize to Sully Prudhomme Nobel Prize recipients;Sully Prudhomme[Prudhomme] has proved to be the least worthy in this group of first Nobelists. Literature;Nobel Prizes The committee members mentioned Prudhomme’s “lofty idealism” in their justification of the award, but people throughout the world objected to the choice, pointing out the superior literary accomplishments of Marcel Proust, Paul Valéry, Thomas Hardy, Henrik Ibsen, and others. Close to home, forty-two Swedish authors and artists signed a tribute to Leo Tolstoy (who had not even been nominated). Many members of the French Academy had nominated Prudhomme, and their advice appears to have exerted a strong influence on the members of the Swedish Academy.

Unlike the science and literature prizes, which were awarded in Stockholm, the Peace Prize was presented in Oslo by the chairman of the Peace Prize Committee in the presence of the Norwegian Royal Family. The recipients of the first Nobel Peace Prize were Jean-Henri Dunant and Frédéric Passy. Nobel Prize recipients;Jean-Henri Dunant[Dunant] Nobel Prize recipients;Frédéric Passy[Passy] In 1864, Dunant had helped create, through his writings and other efforts, the International Red Cross, International Red Cross and this and his work for prisoners of war were seen by the committee as important contributions to world peace. Passy had founded an influential international peace society, and the committee probably chose him along with Dunant to emphasize the international character of the Peace Prize. The surprise at the first announcement of this award was its dual nature. The idea of a divided prize was not in Nobel’s will but actually originated with Nobel’s relatives, who tried to break the will and compromised in an out-of-court settlement. In this settlement, they stipulated, among other provisions, that in no circumstances should a prize be divided among more than three recipients. The selection committee took advantage of this provision, which other prize committees have used many times since.


When the Nobel Prizes were first awarded, they did not have the great prestige that they later acquired. To help make the prizes reliable symbols of significant accomplishment in science, literature, and peace, committee members, during the formative period of the prizes, selected scientists, writers, and peace activists whose accomplishments had already brought them great fame. In this way, they added the glory of the winners to the prize itself. This process was easiest to perform for the science prizes, as some objective measures of the greatness of particular discoveries were available in these fields. The literature and peace awards were subject to more controversy than the science prizes, because political factors sometimes affected decisions. Nevertheless, even for these awards, committee members saw it as their duty to recognize achievers who, according to the consensus of the best people in the respective fields, had done important, influential, and idealistic work.

The prestige of the Nobel Prizes grew rapidly, both because of the pragmatic approach of the Nobel committees and because of the genuine needs that the Nobel Prizes met. Before the Nobel Prizes, most awards were local, national, or narrowly disciplinary. The Nobel Prizes, which were intended to be truly international, thus filled a niche, and the prize committees became supranational arbiters of achievement in the sciences, literature, and peace. The Nobel Prizes, however, were not always free from provincial or disciplinary prejudices. For example, several writers of national epics seem to have been chosen for provincial reasons, and the rivalry between organic and physical chemists often played a role in the selection of winners of the chemistry prizes.

Nobel laureates have undoubtedly played an important part in the development of the sciences and humanities. In an examination of the accomplishments of a very small group of individuals and an even smaller number of institutions, however, it is helpful to be aware of the richness and complexity of the evolution of science, literature, and peace. According to many scholars, the Nobel Prizes, taken alone, actually distort the understanding of the histories of the various disciplines. In their defense, members of the various Nobel committees have stated that their awards are not intended to give a balanced picture of modern physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, or peace. When the prizes are understood in terms of Nobel’s intention—to honor examples of the progress of human understanding and compassion—they do give a sense of what achievements attained the greatest international recognition in their time.

The Nobel Prizes have honored only a limited measure of pivotal work in science, literature, and peace. In itself, a prize guarantees neither the significance nor the immortality of the accomplishment honored. Indeed, in several cases the awards committees have been clearly wrong or wrongheaded. For example, over the years there have been many complaints about the Swedish Academy’s neglect of writers of the highest achievement—from France, Marcel Proust, Paul Valéry, and Paul Claudel; from Russia, Leo Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, and Vladimir Nabokov; from Great Britain, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, W. H. Auden, and Graham Greene; and from Scandinavia, Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. Instead of choosing these preeminent writers, committee members selected such provincial writers, now largely unread and forgotten, as Rudolf Christoph Eucken, Karl Adolph Gjellerup, Henrik Pontoppidan, Carl Spitteler, and Erik Axel Karlfeldt. In response to these criticisms, committee members have defended their choices. For example, they stated that Ibsen was not chosen because of his negativism, Strindberg because of his iconoclasm, and Hardy because of his lack of ethical idealism.

Despite the infelicity of some of the choices, the Nobel Prizes serve an important social function in that they provide the world with a way to recognize achievements that have helped to advance human understanding. In addition to bestowing honor on scientists, writers, and peace activists, the prizes encourage the development of certain disciplines, institutions, and ideologies. In this respect, the prizes in literature and peace particularly tend to fascinate the general public. Committee members in these areas have sometimes used the prizes to attack political movements they viewed as retrograde; for example, many observers saw the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the German journalist Carl von Ossietzky as the Nobel Committee’s way of attacking Adolf Hitler and Nazism. More recently, many viewed the award of the Peace Prize to former U.S. president Jimmy Carter as an implied criticism of President George W. Bush and his policies in Iraq. In literature, committee members often use the prize to call the world’s attention to neglected writers and movements.

The durability of any achievement in science, literature, or peace ultimately depends on the depth of its influence on human progress. In a sense, the Nobel Prizes embody the paradoxes that characterized Alfred Nobel’s life and work. He made many important discoveries and hoped that they would be used to advance human welfare. What he witnessed, however, was the use of his discoveries by unscrupulous people and nations for ignoble and destructive ends. When he saw, particularly under the influence of Bertha von Suttner, that the evil consequences of his work seemed to outweigh the good, he resolved to set up prizes that would reward discoveries, writings, and activities that result in the progress of knowledge beneficial to humanity. Throughout his life, he felt that what really mattered was the quest for scientific knowledge and for creative expression in literary and human affairs. He called himself a superidealist and believed deeply that understanding would bring improvement; for him, growth in understanding and growth in love went hand in hand. Like Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843), Nobel was given a glimpse into the future evaluation of his life, and he was consequently able to change that life. As a result, each year on the anniversary of his death, prizes in his name are awarded that show concretely that his idealistic goals have an enduring ameliorative effect. Nobel Prizes

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bergengren, Erik. Alfred Nobel: The Man and His Work. Translated by Alan Blair. New York: Thomas Nelson, 1962. The official biography of Nobel, written with the cooperation of the Nobel Foundation. Weaves anecdotes and analyses into a mostly reliable account of Nobel’s development as a chemical inventor and industrial entrepreneur. Also deals sensitively with Nobel’s relationship with Bertha von Suttner.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crawford, Elisabeth T. The Beginnings of the Nobel Institution: The Science Prizes, 1901-1915. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Crawford had access to the early papers of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and its Nobel committees for physics and chemistry and makes good use of the information. An inside look at how academy members selected prizewinners during the first decade and a half of the Nobel Prizes in Physics and in Chemistry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leroy, Francis, ed. A Century of Nobel Prize Recipients: Chemistry, Physics, and Medicine. New York: Marcel Dekker, 2003. Following an opening chapter on Alfred Nobel, this book traces the discoveries and assesses the contributions of nearly five hundred scientists who have received the Nobel Prize in the fields of chemistry, physics, and medicine. Features chronological tables of recipients.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nobel Foundation. Nobel: The Man and His Prizes. 3d ed. New York: Elsevier, 1972. Written with the cooperation of the Nobel Foundation to commemorate the first fifty years of the prizes, this book’s editions have served as the institution’s official history. In addition to histories of the individual prizes, the book contains a biographical sketch of Alfred Nobel by H. Schück and an essay on Nobel and the Nobel Foundation by Ragnar Sohlman.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Riggan, William. "The Nobel Prize in Literature: History and Overview." In The Nobel Prize Winners: Literature, edited by Frank N. Magill. Vol. 1. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 1987. Informative essay provides background on the influences involved in decision making regarding the Nobel Prize in Literature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sherby, Louise S. The Who’s Who of Nobel Prize Winners, 1901-2000. 4th ed. Westport, Conn.: Oryx, 2002. Contains detailed information on Nobel Prize winners through 2000, organized chronologically by prize, as well as a brief history of the prizes. Entries include biographical details about recipients and lists of their relevant publications as well as summaries of their achievements. Features four indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wasson, Tyler, ed. Nobel Prize Winners. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1987. Profiles the 566 men, women, and institutions that received the Nobel Prize between 1901 and 1986. Selective bibliographies of original and secondary sources available in English are included at the end of each sketch. Also includes prefatory essays on Alfred Nobel, the Nobel Prizes, and the Nobel institutions. (Supplements to this volume have been published at five-year intervals since 1992.)
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilhelm, Peter. The Nobel Prize. London: Springwood Books, 1983. Presents incisive accounts of Alfred Nobel’s life and work and the history of the Nobel Foundation. Describes the foundation’s administrative functions, the nomination procedures, the selection process, and the ceremonies themselves. Also traces the personal odyssey of one Nobel Prize winner from the announcement of his award through the awards ceremony in Stockholm. Beautifully illustrated, with many color and black-and-white photographs.

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