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The Nobel Prize: Factoids and stories

Press release   •   Dec 09, 2012 12:51 UTC

The Nobel Prize provided an outlet for the issues that had engaged Alfred Nobel during his lifetime. Science and research, especially on nitroglycerin, granted him a global lifestyle with friends and connections worldwide, not to mention a considerable fortune. It also resulted in tragedy, an explosion deprived him of his brother in 1864. The Nobel Prize was a tool to enable science to become a vehicle to make the world an even better place. But science is not everything.

Fascinating factoids

  • The oldest Nobel Laureate was Leonid Hurwicz, who won the Economics Prize in 2007 at the age of 90. He passed away six months after the ceremony.

  • The youngest was Lawrence Bragg, a mere 25 years old when he shared the physics prize with his father, William Bragg, in 1915. The average age of Nobel Laureates overall is 59.

  • Less than successful prize: Portuguese physician Egas Moniz was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1949 for his lobotomy technique. The method was abandoned in the 1960s once it became clear that many patients died from the severe brain injuries caused by the procedure.

  • Least recognized with the prize: Mahatma Gandhi was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times, but never received it. In the year of Gandhi’s death, in 1948, the Peace Prize was not awarded on the grounds that there was no suitable living candidate to receive the prize.

  • Concentration of prizes in Sweden: Of the 16 Swedes awarded prizes in physics, chemistry and medicine, all but one were active in the Stockholm region.

Impeded award

  • Robert E. Lucas was awarded the Economics Prize in 1997 for his work on the theory of rational expectations. He had to share the prize with his ex-wife as part of their divorce settlement seven years earlier. She had been promised half the money if Lucas ever won a Nobel Prize. The theory of rational expectations does not assume that everyone always guesses exactly right, but rather that people make best use of the available information, which his ex-wife obviously did.

  • Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1958, but declined out of concern for how Soviet authorities would react were he to travel to Stockholm.

  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was awarded the prize in 1970, but could not receive his prize until after he was forced into exile in 1974.

  • Jean-Paul Sartre refused the prize in 1964 because he did not want to be transformed into an institution – Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Laureate.

  • Le Duc Tho was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his role in the Vietnam peace negotiations. Since peace had not yet been achieved in that country, Le Duc Tho declined.

  • In 1991 Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Peace Prize for her peaceful struggle for democracy and human rights. Since she was under house arrest at the time of the awards ceremony, her sons and husband accepted the price on her behalf.

  • Lu Xiaobo was awarded the Peace Prize in 2010, while still in prison, for his long struggle for human rights in China. Outraged authorities denounced the award.

Nobel – it runs in the family

Married couple Marie and Pierre Curie shared the 1903 Physics prize with Henri Becquerel. Marie Curie was also awarded the Chemistry Prize in 1911 when she discovered the elements radium and polonium. Their daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, shared the Chemistry Prize together with her husband Frédéric in 1935. Radioactivity was the red thread that tied the family together. However, Henry Labouisse, another son-in-law, was awarded the Peace Prize in 1965 for his role as head of the UN children’s fund, UNICEF.

Swedish Nobel families include Manne and Kai Siegbahn, who were awarded the Physics Prize in 1924 and 1981 respectively, as well as Hans and Ulf von Euler-Chelpin, who received prizes in chemistry in 1924 and medicine in 1970, respectively.

One of you may get the Nobel Prize!

The Nobel spirit in Stockholm is contagious. Every year, eighth grade students at the Rinkeby School and Bredby School in Stockholm participate in a project with the Nobel Prize as its theme. The first time was in 1988, when students who received instruction in their native language, Arabic, put together a booklet on Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel Laureate in literature that year. Since then, new eighth graders have written and illustrated booklets on the Nobel Laureates each year. The international Literature Prize provides inspiration in an area where children from all over the world live. They also take class trips to sites in the Stockholm region associated with the Nobel Prize. In 1997 Dario Fo was invited to visit the classes and ever since, almost all of the literature laureates have taken the opportunity to meet these young people. In Rinkeby, the Laureates have been treated to a Lucia procession, puppet theater, poetry and drawings – memorable experiences that differ from diplomas, medals and prize money. And each fall, the project opens with the words “One of you may get the Nobel Prize!”

A friendship that became a Peace Prize

Alfred Nobel never had a family of his own. He lived alone and in 1876 he advertised for someone to take care of his household in Paris. Bertha Kinsky von Chinic und Tettau got the job. After a short period of service, she returned to Austria to marry Count Arthur von Suttner. Alfred and Bertha remained friends for life and corresponded faithfully. Bertha von Suttner became an activist in the peace movement and authored the book “Down with weapons”, which one day would find itself among the books burned in Nazi bonfires in the Germany of 1933. Her commitment inspired Alfred Nobel to also create a prize for efforts in the service of peace; Bertha von Suttner was the first woman to win that prize in 1905.

Nobel Prize in Literature off to sluggish start

August Strindberg criticized the Swedish Academy for not even considering Leo Tolstoy for the first Nobel Prize in 1901. Though nominated in 1902, Tolstoy failed to win the prize – in part because of his criticism of culture, the state and the Bible. The prize went instead to German classical historian Theodor Mommsen. According to Artur Lundkvist, a member of the Nobel Committee until 1981, certain authors had remained on the list of nominees for up to 40 years.

Paucity of prizes for women

Of the 555 Nobel Prizes awarded between 1901 and 2012, only 43 went to women. The first was Selma Lagerlöf, Nobel Laureate in literature in 1909. She is also the only Swedish woman ever who did not have to share her Nobel Prize with a man: Alva Myrdal shared the Peace Prize in 1982 with Alfonso García Robles, while German native but Swedish resident Nelly Sachs shared the 1966 Literature Prize with Shmuel Yosef Agnon. Only five women have won prizes in physics and chemistry, although Marie Curie won both of them on separate occasions. Women can mostly be found among the Peace and Literature Laureates. The Economics Prize was only once awarded to a woman, Elinor Ostrom, who shared the prize with Oliver E. Williamson in 2009.

The Red Cross – a prize-winning organization

Many prizes, especially the Peace Prize, were not awarded at all during the war years 1914-1916 and 1939-1943. When the awards resumed in the aftermath, the Red Cross organization won. The International Red Cross has received the Nobel Peace Prize three times – in 1917 and 1944 for its efforts in war-torn Europe, as well as in 1963 to honor 100 years of service to mankind. Its founder, Henry Dunant, was also awarded the very first Peace Prize in 1901.

For more information:
Per Holmlund, PR Manager, Stockholm Business Region
+46 70 472 80 69, per.holmlund@stockholm.se

About Stockholm Business Region
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