Nobel Bequeaths Funds for the Nobel Prizes

After making a vast fortune from his invention of dynamite, land mines, and other explosives, Alfred Nobel sought to bestow a positive legacy upon society by leaving most of his wealth to establish the renowned Nobel Prizes.

Summary of Event

Alfred Nobel was one of the most successful entrepreneurs and industrialists in Europe by the time he died on December 10, 1896. He had led an exciting life but one that was somewhat lacking in fulfillment. In the years immediately before his death, he pondered many philosophical questions, including the matter of how his life would be viewed after his death. He had never married, had no offspring, and despite his enormous wealth, he was troubled at the thought that he would likely be remembered, if at all, as the inventor of dynamite Dynamite , which, despite its commercial usefulness, is also dangerous. Nobel, Alfred
Nobel Prizes;creation of
Sweden;Nobel Prizes
[kw]Nobel Bequeaths Funds for the Nobel Prizes (Nov. 27, 1895)
[kw]Bequeaths Funds for the Nobel Prizes, Nobel (Nov. 27, 1895)
[kw]Funds for the Nobel Prizes, Nobel Bequeaths (Nov. 27, 1895)
[kw]Nobel Prizes, Nobel Bequeaths Funds for the (Nov. 27, 1895)
[kw]Prizes, Nobel Bequeaths Funds for the Nobel (Nov. 27, 1895)
Nobel, Alfred
Nobel Prizes;creation of
Sweden;Nobel Prizes
[g]Scandinavia;Nov. 27, 1895: Nobel Bequeaths Funds for the Nobel Prizes[6070]
[g]Sweden;Nov. 27, 1895: Nobel Bequeaths Funds for the Nobel Prizes[6070]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;Nov. 27, 1895: Nobel Bequeaths Funds for the Nobel Prizes[6070]

Alfred’s father, Immanuel Nobel Nobel, Immanuel , was in the construction business in Sweden, but his business failed in the 1830’s, plunging the elder Nobel into bankruptcy when Alfred was a child. Immanuel staged a substantial comeback by setting up a plant in St. Petersburg, Russia, to manufacture land mines and other munitions, for which Russia had a great demand during its battles in the Crimean War (1853-1856) Crimean War (1853-1856);weapons . In time, Immanuel was sufficiently successful to bring his wife, Andrietta, and his sons to St. Petersburg, where Alfred received an excellent education from carefully selected tutors. Adept at languages, Alfred was soon fluent not only in his native Swedish but also in Russian, German, English, and French. In his later life, he conducted business in all of these languages.

Nobel also was intrigued by chemistry and could divert himself for hours doing chemical experiments under the direction of one of his Russian tutors, Nikolai Zinin, who had studied in Paris with a noted French chemist, Théophile-Jules Pelouze. Eventually, Nobel spent a year in Paris studying with Pelouze and becoming a highly proficient chemist.

Alfred Nobel.

(Library of Congress)

Nobel was extremely interested in explosives Explosives;dynamite and had a familiarity with them through his exposure to his father’s munitions factory. When the Crimean War ended, the Russians no longer needed the materials that his father produced. During the next several years, Nobel doggedly continued his experiments until he discovered a type of porous sand, Kieselguhr, that, mixed with nitroglycerin, forms a paste that is much easier and safer to work with than liquid nitroglycerin. He called this new product dynamite Dynamite , a word derived from the Greek word dynamos, meaning “power.” The demand for such a material was enormous as both Europe and the United States embarked on extensive construction projects to expand their infrastructures, building roads, bridges, tunnels, and various structures that required precision blasting.

By the time he was forty, Alfred Nobel was one of the richest people in the world. His wealth increased exponentially in the years that followed, as demand for his products grew and as oil properties he owned in Russia rewarded him handsomely. The question of what his lasting legacy would be concerned him greatly. Nobel was cosmopolitan, a scientist, widely read in philosophy, and a chemist who also loved literature. He wrote considerable poetry and one play, Nemesis. He had strong moral underpinnings that made it incumbent on him to contribute permanently to society.

Perhaps sparking his interest in establishing permanent prizes to recognize exceptional contributions to humankind was his receiving, along with his father, the Letterstedt Prize by the Royal Swedish Academy in 1868. Nobel was deeply moved at being chosen to receive such an award, whose stated purpose was to recognize “important discoveries of practical value to humanity.” These words, used to describe the Letterstedt Prize, are remarkably similar to some of the language Nobel used in drafting his last will and testament, in which he established the Nobel Prizes.

Nobel executed his will at Paris’s Swedish-Norwegian Club on November 27, 1895, one year before his death. The will provided for a small number of relatives and friends, distributing about 6 percent of his total assets among them. The remaining 94 percent was, according to his instructions, to be invested by his executors in safe securities, the income from which was to be distributed annually in equal portions to those chosen as recipients by the Nobel Foundation in specified categories. Nobel’s will was challenged by some of his relatives, so the foundation was not established until 1900, after legal problems had been resolved. Nobel specifically directed that nationality should not be considered in selecting recipients of the prizes.

Prizes, in accordance with Nobel’s wishes, fell into five categories, going to those who in the preceding year are deemed by the Nobel Prize Committee to have made the most significant contributions to society in chemistry, physics, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace. The prizes have been awarded annually since 1901. In 1969, one additional category, economic sciences, was added to the five existing categories.

The list of Nobel laureates contains scientists of the stature of Albert Einstein Einstein, Albert , Marie Curie Curie, Marie , and Linus Pauling; writers such as William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot Eliot, T. S. , and Toni Morrison; physicians and physiologists such as Ivan Petrovich Pavlov Pavlov, Ivan Petrovich and Sir Fleming, Sir Alexander Alexander Fleming; and advocates of peace such as Woodrow Wilson, Albert Schweitzer, and Wangari Muta Maathai.


During the early twenty-first century, the Nobel Prizes remained the most prestigious of all recognitions of excellence among thousands of awards given in various fields worldwide each year. The Nobel awards each carry a cash prize in excess of $1 million. Awards are sometimes made to more than one person in a given field, especially in the sciences, where collaborative work is frequent and recognized as a single contribution.

Nobel was initially criticized for not earmarking the awards for Swedes, or, more broadly, to Scandinavians, but such a restriction would have violated Nobel’s cosmopolitanism. Awards have gone to individuals from many countries and from six of the seven continents, exactly what Alfred Nobel had hoped for. His influence through the prizes he established has grown steadily through the years.

Further Reading

  • Abrams, Irwin, ed. The Words of Peace: The Nobel Peace Prize Laureates of the Twentieth Century. New York: Newmarket Press, 2000. Selections from the acceptance speeches of Nobel Peace Prize recipients, with a foreword by former U.S. president and Nobel laureate Jimmy Carter.
  • Calvin, Melvin. Following the Trail of Light: A Scientific Odyssey. Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 1992. Calvin, although focusing on the Nobel Prizes in chemistry, provides useful information about the establishment of the prizes in general.
  • Evanloff, Michael, and Marjorie Fluor. Alfred Nobel: The Loneliest Millionaire. Los Angeles: W. Ritchie Press, 1969. This sympathetic presentation of Nobel as a human suffering from concerns about producing destructive weapons is insightful and penetrating.
  • Fant, Kenne. Alfred Nobel: A Biography. Translated by Marianne Ruuth. New York: Arcade, 1993. Fant demonstrates his understanding of Nobel’s life and of his motivations for establishing the Nobel Prizes.
  • Halasz, Nicholas. Nobel: A Biography of Alfred Nobel. New York: Orion Press, 1959. Although superseded by Fant’s later biography, this biography is easily accessible to those wishing to understand Nobel’s contributions to society.
  • Leroy, Francis, ed. A Century of Nobel Prizes Recipients: Chemistry, Physics, and Medicine. New York: Marcel Dekker, 2003. An encyclopedic collection of prize winners in three of the six categories. Includes illustrations, a bibliography, and an index.
  • Levinovitz, Agneta Wallin, and Nils Ringertz, eds. The Nobel Prize: The First One Hundred Years. London: Imperial College Press, 2001. The first two selections in this collection focus, respectively, on the life and philosophy of Nobel and on the establishment of the Nobel Prizes. A comprehensive, accurate overview.
  • Magill, Frank N., ed. The Nobel Prize Winners: Literature. 3 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 1987. An excellent source listing the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature, through the year 1987. Includes a bibliography and an index.
  • _______. The Nobel Prize Winners: Physiology or Medicine. 3 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 1991. An excellent source listing the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, through the year 1991. Includes a bibliography and an index.
  • Thee, Marek, ed. Peace! By the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates: An Anthology. Paris: UNESCO, 1995. A 570-page anthology of works by peace prize recipients. From UNESCO’s Cultures of Peace series.

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