*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Five years to the day after Alfred Nobel died, the foundation he created to highlight contributions to the “greatest benefit of mankind” revealed the first five winners of the Nobel Prize on December 10, 1901. In identifying the most crucial discoveries in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace, the committees have annually recognized some of the foremost scientists and thinkers the world has ever known.
Throughout his career as an inventor, Nobel managed to take some 355 different ideas from conception to construction, many of them military and none better known than dynamite. Financially secure, he found himself shocked by the headline of a French obituary shouting “The Merchant of Death is Dead” in 1888. The journalist had made a mistake: Albert, the weapons manufacturer, was alive — it was his brother Ludvig, an oil tycoon, who had passed away. Determined to carve out a decidedly more positive legacy, the still-living Nobel set out to make alterations to his last will and testament.
While living at his villa in San Remo, Italy, Nobel suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died on December 10, 1896. A little more than a year before, he made final changes to his estate which allocated 94 percent of his fortune for the creation of five prizes to bear his name. Stunned, his relatives spent nearly six months ensuring the document was not a forgery. Once approved, the executors of Nobel’s will created a foundation to oversee the process for determining winners (it does not vote) and manage the organization’s considerable assets.
Loosely connected with the Swedish king, the group made its base in Nobel’s birthplace of Stockholm. The Norwegian Nobel Committee would award the Peace Prize, with the Karolinska Instituet, Swedish Academy and Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences brought on to decide the other four winners. By the middle of 1900, everything was in place for the Nobel Foundation to make its first selections, and the separate committees opened themselves to nominations from all over the globe.
On December 10, 1901, the Royal Swedish Academy of Music filled with an eager audience — including the Crown Prince of Sweden — awaiting the debut of the prestigious prizewinners. The Peace Prize would be handed out in Christiana (modern Oslo), but the awards for Chemistry, Medicine, Literature and Physics were set to take place in the large hall in Stockholm.
William Rontgen, the discoverer of the X-ray, heard his name called first for the Physics Prize. Next came the winner for Chemistry, Jacobus van’t Hoff, a Dutch scientist who managed to define new theories in thermodynamics. Following him, German microbiologist Emil von Behring received his award in Medicine for developing a treatment for diphtheria, a plague upon humans at the time. Last in Stockholm, Sully Prudhomme garnered the Literature Prize for his poetry — a fact loudly protested by Swedes believing author Leo Tolstoy a better choice.
The Peace Prize, by far the most famous of the awards, was shared by two men working to bring governments and nations together: Frederic Passy, with the Inter-Parliamentary Union (a sort of precursor to the United Nations), and the founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Henry Dunant. With the first five prizes given, the Nobel Foundation laid the groundwork for one of the most sought-after titles on the planet: Nobel Laureate.
Since expanding to include a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1968, the number of awards has been capped to include just six categories. In the century-plus that has passed, there have been famous winners (Albert Einstein, Marie Curie), questionable decisions (Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter) and outrageous snubs (Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt).
Also On This Day:
1520 – Martin Luther burns his copy of Exsurge Domine, the papal bull countering his Ninety-Five Theses, outside Wittenberg’s Elster Gate
1684 – Isaac Newton’s additions to Johannes Kepler’s laws on orbital gravity are read by the Royal Society
1868 – Traffic lights are installed for the first time in history, going up outside the Palace of Westminster in London
1948 – The United Nations General Assembly adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
1993 – Wearmouth Colliery closes in Sunderland, England, marking the last time the County Durham coalfield would be mined after operations began in the Middle Ages
10th December, 2013 – Uruguay becomes the first country to legalize the growth, sale, and use of marijuana.
10th December, 1582 – France begins use of Gregorian calendar.
10th December, 1799 – Metric system adopted in France. It was the first country to do so.
10th December, 1898 – Spanish-American War formally ended by the Treaty of Paris; US acquires Philippines, Puerto Rico & Guam.
10th December, 1984 – 1st “planet” outside our solar system discovered.