Nobel Prize insights and curiosities

Nobel Prize insights and curiosities

Elena Giusto, PhD

After being in place for almost 120 years, the Nobel Prize has gone through all kinds of political and social disarray. Nevertheless, the awe for Alfred’s last will remains and every year those individuals who most excelled in their striving “for the greatest benefit to humankind” are announced and celebrated.

Now that the glare of the 2020 Laureates has just been honoured, we would like to spotlight some statistical insights and off-stage chronicles that have occurred throughout the history of the Nobel Prize.


So far, 962 Nobel Prizes have been awarded and distributed to 934 Laureates and 28 organisations. Only four people (J.Bardee, M. Curie, L. Pauling and F. Sanger) and two organisations (the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) have received more than one prize. Some of the Nobel Prizes have been shared between married couples, mother/father and daughter/son or between brothers [1].


Marie Skłodowska Curie (1867-1934) was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize. Not just once, but twice! And in two different fields: firstly in Physics (1903), which was shared with her husband and Henri Becquerel, then in Chemistry (1911). The Nobel genes kept running in the family; in 1935 her daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, also won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which was shared with her husband, Jean Frédéric Joliot-Curie.


The oldest receiver of the Nobel Prize is John B. Goodenough, who became Laureate for the Prize in Chemistry in 2019, at the respectable age of 97. Contrastingly, the most precocious Nobel Prize winner is Malala Yousafzai, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 at the age of 17.


The assignment of the Nobel Prizes is by no means mandatory. Indeed, there have been a few years, including the challenging years of the World Wars, when the Commissions decided there were no candidates worth the prize in one or more categories (take a look here for a detailed list).


Since 1969, an additional prize in Economic Science has been conferred by The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. This prize, which was established to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Sveriges Riksbank, follows all the same criteria set for the assignment of the other Nobel Prizes


In 1973 Lê Đức Thọ denied the Nobel Peace Prize. He was awarded the prize along with Henry Kissinger, for their negotiation to reach a ceasefire in the Vietnam War. However, Lê Đức Thọ refused, because the War was still ongoing.

This was not the only case of a Nobel refusal. In 1964 Jean-Paul Sartre declined the Nobel Prize in Literature, because he did not want to be institutionalised.

Some other winners were instead forced to refuse the Prize. Among these are Carl von Ossietzky (Peace), Gerhard Domagk (Physiology or Medicine), Richard Kuhn (Chemistry) and Adolf Butenandt (Chemistry), who were forbidden to accept the Prize according to Hitler’s decree.


Sometimes even a medal can have a troubled life, especially during war time. This is the case of the medals that had been assigned to Max Von Laue and James Franck, both Physics Laureates (in 1914 and 1925, respectively). To protect their awards, the two Jewish Nobels living in Germany decided to give custody of their medals to Dane Niels Bohr, a trusty colleague (and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922) who was working in Denmark at that time. However, when the German troops began to invade Denmark, the medals were not safe anymore. Luckily, necessity is the mother of invention (even more appropriate in the case of Nobel winners), so the gold medals were dissolved to survive the German patrol. The liquid medals were later sent to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm where they were reshaped back to their original form.


In other cases, the Nobel medal has been a source of funding. Leon Lederman, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1988, had to sell his medal to pay for his medical care. While in 2014, Alisher Usmanov, a Russian entrepreneur, offered £2.6m to buy James Watson’s medal (received for his discovery of the DNA double helix, co-authored with Francis Crick). However, the Prize was later returned to the original owner, since, according to Usmanov, Watson was the only one deserving of it. Part of the money used to buy the medal was donated to research.


A few medals have been the unintentional protagonists of some puzzling episodes. Contrasting to the Swedish awards, the medals for the Peace and the Economics Prizes report the winner’s name on the edges of the medal, rather than on the reverse, making it difficult to read. As a result of this, the co-winners of the 1975 prize in Economics, Leonid Kantorovich and Tjalling Koopmans, returned home with the wrong medal. To add insult to injury, in those years the exchanges between Russia and USA - the respective home countries of the two winners - were not easy, so it took four years for the medals to reach their right owners.

A hilarious anecdote happened to Brian Schmidt who was carrying his medal in his luggage, after having taken it to Fargo, as promised to his grandmother. When he finally reached the security gate at the airport, Schmidt was approached by the officers who had identified a suspicious black object on their screen. According to Schmidt, this is how things went [2]:

“They’re like, ‘Sir, there’s something in your bag.’

I said, ‘Yes, I think it’s this box.’

They said, ‘What’s in the box?’

I said, ‘a large gold medal,’ as one does.

So they opened it up and they said, ‘What’s it made out of?’

I said, ‘gold.’

And they’re like, ‘Uhhhh. Who gave this to you?’

‘The King of Sweden.’

‘Why did he give this to you?’

‘Because I helped discover the expansion rate of the universe was accelerating.’

At which point, they were beginning to lose their sense of humor…”


Over the years, some controversial decisions, mainly related to the Nobel Peace Prize, were taken. Among the most discussed winners are: Fritz Haber (Chemistry Prize in 1918 but also creator of some destructive chemical weapons), Henry Kissinger (Peace Price in 1973 but also the instigator of Hanoi bombing), Yasser Arafat (Peace Prince in 1994 but also represented as a questionable political leader), Barack Obama (Peace Prize in 2009, considered by many just a political action, since at that time Obama had been in charge of his Presidency for just a few months) and the European Union (Peace Prize in 2012, a moment in which Europe had been suffering some deep crisis). On the contrary, one person who was probably deserving of the Peace Nobel Prize, but was never awarded it, was Mahatma Gandhi.


Whether the reasons that persuaded Alfred Nobel to establish the Prizes were a real sign of his appreciation for human intellect, or a late reflection of the social responsibility he had taken with some of his inventions, is still not clear. Trusting his good intentions, the Swedish Academy awarded Alfred with two commemorative medals in 1926 and 1979. Also, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences decided to engrave a special medal to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his death. The front of the medal depicts Alfred’s effigy, with an inscription saying “creavit and promovit” (he created and rewarded), while on the back there’s a representation of a tunnel blasted by dynamite and a blasting cap, to remember some of Alfred’s greatest inventions.

Finally, we would like to acknowledge the 2020 winners:

  • Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice received the Price in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus;
  • Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discoveries related to black holes;
  • Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna received the Prize in Chemistry for the development of a method for genome editing;
  • Louise Glück received the Nobel Prize in Literature for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal;
  • The World Food Programme received the Nobel Peace Prize for its commitment to fight hunger; Paul R. Milgrom and Robert B. Wilson received the Prize in Economic Sciences for improvements to auction theory and inventions of new auction formats [3]

For more detailed information about the Nobel Prize, take a look at the official Nobel website.

Banner image: Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

About the Author

Elena received her PhD in Experimental Neuroscience at the San Raffaele Institute, Italy. She then moved to Cambridge (UK) for her postdoc and finally to Brighton (UK) to work as a lab technician. Her main interest has been focused on translational neuroscience, and she has been working with stem cells and animal models of neurodegenerative diseases, including multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injury.

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