Alfred Nobel: More than just Dynamite


On 10th December, 1901, the very first Nobel Prize was awarded.

Born in Stockholm on October 21, 1833, Alfred Nobel was, in his time, most well known for his development of the explosives nitro-glycerine and dynamite. Surprising for the creator of the peace and other progressive prizes we associate him with now, you may think.

Nobel founded 90 factories and laboratories in more than 20 countries. Constantly moving between his businesses and his home in Paris, as well as developing his explosives, Nobel worked on developing synthetic rubber and leather, artificial silk and more. By the time of his death in 1896 he had 355 patents to his name.

When Alfred was 43 he advertised for a female assistant; “Wealthy, highly-educated elderly gentleman seeks lady of mature age, versed in languages, as secretary and supervisor of household.” His advert was replied to by the Austrian Countess, Bertha Kinsky. Nobel and Bertha became good friends, and although they didn’t work together for long, she was to become a great influence in his life.

Bertha was vocally critical of the arms race. She wrote the book, Lay Down Your Arms and became a prominent figure in the peace movement. It is believed that it was Bertha, now Bertha von Stutter after her marriage, who was the driving force behind Alfred changing his will for a third time, so that his fortune should be used after his death to form the Nobel Peace Prize.

On November 27, 1895, Alfred Nobel signed a will which stated, “The whole of my remaining realisable 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 physiology or medical works by the Karolinska 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 be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be Scandinavian or not.”

When the will was read after his death, Alfred’s family opposed the establishment of the Nobel Prize. It was not until December 1901, five years after his death, that his wishes were finally honoured for the first time. Fittingly, perhaps, the Peace Prize in 1905 was awarded to Nobel’s friend and confidant, Bertha.

In 2017 three new Nobel Laureates in Physics, three in Chemistry, three in Physiology and Medicine, one in Literature, one in Peace and one new Laureate in Economic Sciences were added to the coveted prize list. To date 923 Nobel Laureates have been awarded recognising advancements in the world of science, technology, literature and the betterment of mankind.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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