Meet the Nobels: Alfred Nobel

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Meet the Nobels: Alfred Nobel


Elena Giusto, PhD

We all have heard of, and maybe daydreamed about, the Nobel prize, but only a few of us have probably taken the time to learn more about the genius behind the prize. Beginning a series of articles that highlights the life and work of different Nobel prize winners, this article looks at the life and work of Alfred Nobel himself, and how the Nobel prize originated.

Alfred Bernhard Nobel, the third of four sons, was raised in a very dynamic and eclectic environment. His mother, Karolina Andriette Ahlsel, came from a wealthy family; nevertheless, she never disdained working in a grocery store when the Nobel family were to facing financial difficulties. His father, Immanuel Nobel, was an inventor and engineer, with a clear interest in explosives. Forced to bankruptcy, in 1837 Immanuel Nobel left Sweden and moved to St. Petersburg, where he started a successful mechanical factory. In 1842, their improved financial situation allowed the rest of the family to join Immanuel in St. Petersburg and live a well-off life. The Russian Army showed great appreciation for Immanuel’s inventiveness and embraced his revolutionary design of naval mines, which proved to be an out front move to win the Crimean War (1853-1856).

Alfred and his brothers received a high-quality, private education. Young Alfred excelled in different subjects, among which literature, poetry and languages; by the age of 17 he was fluent in Swedish, Russian, English, French and German. To encourage his interest in chemistry, and to hold back his fervour for poetry, his father sent him to Paris to spend a year in the Pelouze lab. Here he met Ascanio Sobrero, an Italian chemist who, a few years earlier, had invented nitroglycerine. However, at that time, the level of danger of this highly explosive liquid material was by far exceeding its practical usefulness. After his stay in Paris, and a brief time spent in the United States, Alfred finally returned to St. Petersburg, where he started experimenting the potential of nitroglycerine with his father. Unfortunately, with the end of the Crimean War and the succession of the new Tzar, the military trade suffered a crushing recession and the Nobels, with the exception of the two eldest brothers, returned to Sweden in 1863.

Alfred and his explosive fame

This did not quench Alfred’s enthusiasm, nor did some fatal explosive accidents that happened in his factory, where several people, including his youngest brother Emil, lost their lives. Finally, in 1866, Alfred discovered that, when mixed with kieselguhr - a kind of fine sand - nitroglycerine assumed a paste-like consistency and could be shaped into rods to fit drilling holes. He named this new formula dynamite! This, together with his improved detonator - called “blasting cap” - led to the first of his 355 patents, and began his flourishing career as an entrepreneur.

Prompted by his cosmopolitan attitude and language versatility, Alfred Nobel started numerous companies and laboratories all over the world to produce large amounts of dynamite, which was largely employed in the engineering industry to create canals, tunnels, and roads. However, Alfred’s interest was not saturated by the quick and wide diffusion of dynamite; he also invented blasting gelatin -an even more powerful formula of dynamite- and ballistite - the first smokeless propellant. In addition, Alfred also created some more common materials, such as artificial silk and leather. Due to the worldwide distribution of his businesses, Alfred was constantly travelling, to the point that Victor Hugo, his neighbour when Alfred returned to Paris in 1873, defined him as “Europe’s richest vagabond”. Alfred himself also once stated “Home is where I work and I work everywhere”. As a result, Alfred was a very busy and lonely man.

Alfred Nobel. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Alfred Nobel’s dilemmas

Alfred’s professional achievements were in sharp contrast to his constantly poor health and the desolation he felt for his personal life. Busy with his inventions, he neglected the chance to create his own family, a lack that bore down in his later years and that he often translated in his literary works. During his second Parisian stay (1873-1891), Alfred established a short but meaningful friendship with the pacifist Bertha von Suttner, who briefly worked as Alfred’s personal assistant. In this short time, Bertha started to influence Alfred’s opinion about wars, an indoctrination that continued over the years through a long-lasting epistolary exchange. The most obvious aftermath was the later institution of the Peace Nobel Prize, which Bertha herself won in 1905 for her pacifist novel “Lay Down Your Arms”. This is one of the major, and still unresolved, paradoxes of Alfred’s life: the man who invented some of the most devastating weapons also created the most wished for prize in favour of peace.

Alfred Nobel’s last will

Following some controversies with the French authorities, and as an attempt to bring relief to his weak health, Alfred spent his last years in San Remo, Italy, where he succumbed to a fatal stroke on December 10th, 1896. One year earlier Alfred had signed his last will and named Ragnar Sohlman, a young chemical engineer working in Alfred’s Italian lab, and Rudolf Lilljequist, as the formal executors. The opening of the will aroused no less than a few problems. Aware of the big capital at stake, some of Alfred’s relatives as well as the Swedish political representation, including King Oscar II of Sweden, did their best to have the will declared invalid. Eventually, the executors successfully overcame all legal hurdles and Alfred's requests were satisfied.

In his will, Alfred dictated that the interests of his enormous capital had to be assigned as follows: “one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention in the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or invention; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who in the field of literature shall have produced the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations and the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace congresses”. Alfred also identified the Institutions in charge of the Nobel Prize awarding, namely: the Swedish Academy of Sciences (for the prizes in physics and chemistry), the Caroline Institute in Stockholm (for the prize in medicine or physiology), the Academy in Stockholm (for the prize in literature) and a committee of five persons to be selected by the Norwegian Storting (for the peace price).

The medals

The winners of the Nobel Prize are announced in October, but the celebrations occur on December 10th, which is Nobel Prize Day, in concomitance with Alfred’s death falling. The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901, and the Swedish sculptor and engraver Erik Lindberg was selected to design and create the medals for the Prizes in Chemistry, Physics, Physiology or Medicine and Literature, while the medal for the Peace Prize was commissioned to Gustav Vigeland. All the medals present Alfred’s profile on the front side, with his date of birth and death. The reverse side of the medals present a Latin sentence and a symbolic image, both of which differ according to the subject awarded. The medals for Chemistry, Physics, Literature and Physiology or Medicine all state: ”Inventas vitam iuvat excoluisse per artes”, while the medal for Peace states: “Pro pace et fraternitate gentium”.

Only the medals for Chemistry and Physics share the same back side: “Nature in the form of a goddess resembling Isis, emerging from the clouds and holding in her arms a cornucopia. The veil which covers her cold and austere face is held up by the Genius of Science”. The back side of the medal for Physiology or Medicine represents “Genius of Medicine holding an open book in her lap, collecting the water pouring out from a rock in order to quench a sick girl’s thirst”, while the Nobel medal for Literature depicts “a young man sitting under a laurel tree who, enchanted, listens to and writes down the song of the Muse”. Finally, the Medal for Peace represents “a group of three men forming a fraternal bond”.

All the Nobel winners, and more extensive details about Alfred’s life and the Prizes, are reported in the Nobel official website. The list is long and suggestive: no matter how much time will pass and how many discoveries will be made, their names will always be there to remind us why they deserved the noblest of the prizes!

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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