Established by Alfred Nobel as part of his last will, the Nobel Prize is a set of five international awards that are bestowed annually to those who have made outstanding achievements and contributions in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and for peace. Recipients of a Nobel Prize receive a medal, personal diploma, and a cash prize.
Alfred Nobel was a Swedish scientist, inventor, entrepreneur, and author whose most notable invention was dynamite. Nobel originally created dynamite as an instrument to stop war and bring piece, but it became known more as an instrument for destruction. Nobel was condemned for his creation, most notably so in an 1888 obituary mistakenly written for Nobel instead of his brother. The obituary called Alfred Nobel a “merchant of death.”
Nobel feared that he would be remembered only as the man who invented such a deadly device, so his pacifist nature led Nobel to rewrite his will one last time. Nobel left 94 percent of his total assets to the establishment of five international prizes to be awarded annually. Because of ambiguities in his will, opposition by family members, and a lack of cooperation by the organizations that Nobel had named to award the prizes, it was five years before the Nobel Prize was established and awarded. The first Nobel Prizes were finally award on December 10, 1901, the fifth anniversary of Nobel’s death.
The lucky first recipients of this most prestigious award were:
- German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen who received the first Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of X-rays.
- Jacobus Henricus van ‘t Hoff, a Dutch physical and organic chemist, who received the first Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his contributions in chemical thermodynamics and discovery of osmotic pressure in solutions.
- German physiologist Emil Adolf von Behring who received the first Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of a diptheria antitoxin, which he used to develop a serum therapy against diptheria, an illness that had caused thousands of deaths each year until then.
- French poet and essayist Sully Prudhomme who received the first Nobel Prize in Literature for “his poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect.” (nobelprize.org)
- The first Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded to two leaders in the late 19th century’s growing peace movement: Frédéric Passy, a French economist who co-founded the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and Jean Henry Dunant for founding the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Learn more about the Nobel Prize and all of the other recipients of this reward since 1901 at NobelPrize.org.