The mere mention of the Nobel Prize conjures images of inspired scientists, exemplars of peace, and meditative writers. Though the prizes are well respected, a rich tangle of lore has grown around them during the 116 years they have been awarded, driven in part by the secrecy inherent in the selection process.
Intended to recognize scientists, artists, and diplomats who work to improve life for all humanity, the prizes were established in 1895 at the bequest of Swedish inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel. Though Nobel carried his rationale for each prize category into the grave, in life, he had a keen interest in physics, chemistry, medicine, and literature—four of the five original prize disciplines.
The fifth, for peace, is thought to have been inspired by his deep friendship with Austrian pacifist Bertha von Suttner. A sixth prize, for economics, was created by the Swedish National Bank in 1968 and named in Nobel’s honor. (Read about 10 huge discoveries that should've been Nobel Prize winners.)
Here are some of the strange and surprising facts about the Nobel Prizes.
The committees responsible for choosing prize recipients do so under strict rules of secrecy, and originally the proceedings were meant to be kept private forever, says Gustav Källstrand, curator of the Nobel Museum in Stockholm and a Nobel history expert. Now, details of the process for each round of consideration are kept secret for only 50 years.
Strict adherence to the official rules has created some tricky situations over the years. For instance, despite the Nobel Foundation’s requirement that prizes be awarded only to living recipients, Canadian immunologist Ralph M. Steinman was awarded a 2011 Nobel for medicine posthumously.
The selection committee had known he was dying of pancreatic cancer, but because the deliberations had to be kept secret, “they couldn’t keep calling to check in on how he was doing,” Källstrand clarifies.
The honor was announced on a Tuesday; unbeknownst to the committee, Steadman had died just three days prior. But because he had been alive when the prize was decided, the decision was allowed to stand.
Nazi Germany and the Nobels
Nazi Germany also created a number of problems for laureates—and even inspired a Peace Prize nomination for Hitler.
In 1939, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was nominated to receive the Peace medal for his role in negotiating the Munich Agreement, which ceded part of Czechoslovakia to Germany. In protest, 12 members of the Swedish Parliament put Hitler forward for the prize, claiming that if Chamberlain could be nominated for talking Hitler out of a war, then Hitler should be nominated for not starting one.
“Most people didn’t get the irony,” Källstrand explains. The nomination was withdrawn.
The war eventually started, of course, and Hitler forced three German scientists to decline their prizes during World War II. Richard Kuhn, Adolf Butenandt, and Gerhard Domagk did all ultimately receive their medals and diplomas, but not the cash, which can only be claimed for a year. Domagk actually sent a telegram to the Nobel committee to thank them for the recognition, but after being caught by the German secret police and imprisoned for a week, he was forced to send a second message refusing the prize.
Previous laureates were not safe at the time, either. Since it was a crime to smuggle gold out of Germany during the war, the medals of physicists Max von Laue and James Franck, imprinted with their names and stored for safekeeping in Niels Bohr’s lab in Copenhagen, were clear evidence of wrongdoing. As German troops marched in the streets of Copenhagen, chemist George de Hevesy stashed the medals in aqua regia, an acid strong enough to dissolve gold.
Incredibly, the beakers remained undisturbed through the war. The gold was precipitated back out of the solution and recast into new medals for von Laue and Franck.
In the past, Nobel committees have attempted to persuade uncooperative regimes to approve travel for laureates. When China refused to allow dissident and writer Liu Xiaobo out of the country to accept the Peace Prize in 2010, organizers set up an empty chair at the ceremony to make the point that Xiaobo hadn’t been permitted to attend.
Refusing the Call
“Once the decision for a prize is made it can’t be revoked,” Källstrand says. “So when they give you the call, they’re not offering the prize, they’re telling you, you’re a laureate. Even if you say no, it doesn’t matter." Such was the case for Jean-Paul Sartre, who declined his 1964 prize for literature, and Le Duc Tho, who declined his joint award of the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
An Elegant Affair
The first week of October, when prize winners are announced in Sweden, kicks off a busy season that culminates with a lavish dinner at Stockholm City Hall on December 10. The 4.5-hour-long broadcast of the official awards dinner draws two million viewers, most of whom dress in their finest to eat dinner in front of their television sets.
The end of award season isn’t much of an end at all. After Christmas break, the Nobel committees get right back to work, whittling down 2,000 to 3,000 nominations to choose the next cohort of history-making Nobel laureates.