Nobel's Hits and Misses

Alfred Nobel invented dynamite and smokeless powder, and mistakenly hoped that those discoveries would make war too horrible to be countenanced. He held high hopes, too, that his annual five prizes for men who had conferred “the greatest benefit on mankind” would diminish nationalism and cement peace. What have the Nobel Prizes achieved? With award time approaching, Harvard historian Donald Fleming provides an illuminating survey of the Nobel Prizes and some speculation on the 1966 winners.
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Riddle: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gorky, Ibsen, Strindberg, Zola, Proust, Kafka, Rilke, Brecht, Croce, Hardy, Henry James, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, D. J. Lawrence, García Lorca – what do they have in common? Well, yes, but besides that, they were living after the Nobel Prizes got under way, and didn’t win in literature. Sully Prudhomme, José Echegaray, Rudolf Eucken, Paul von Heyse, Verner von Heidenstam, Wladyslaw Reymont, Grazia Deledda, Erik A. Karlfeldt, Frans Sillanpää, and Halldór Laxness did.

Mendeleev of the periodic table and Willard Gibbs of the phase rule didn’t win in chemistry; but Henri Moissan and Fritz Pregl did. Gandhi didn’t win the prize for peace; Bertha von Suttner did. Lister didn’t win in medicine; Johannes Fibiger did. Who was Fibiger? Who indeed?

Yet despite fantastic omissions and dubious awards, the luster of the Nobel Prizes has remained absolutely undimmed as the most glittering recognition of intellect that can come to a man or woman of the twentieth century. Soon the drama will begin all over again with a new cast of anywhere from three to ten people. The prizewinners and their biographers have left many accounts of the experience, only to be compared with the letting down of a ladder from heaven in the lives of the saints.

The golden moment will gild the rest of a lifetime. The prizewinner has been lifted up above his professional associates, authenticated as a world figure by the only genuine stamp. Why, exactly, have the Nobel Prizes riveted the attention of the twentieth century as no other distinctions have done? The answer is that they reflect and epitomize some of the principal historical transformations of the age, and more than this, they embody the psychological tensions that profound historical change produces. In the century that has seen the waning of nationalism as an untroubled faith, the Nobel Prizes have symbolized the harmonious world community that cannot seem to get born but clearly must. One of them is actually for peace and harmony among nations, but in a larger sense all of them together undertake to single out contributions from any source to the welfare of the entire human race. At the same time, in a world where nationalism, however tarnished morally, is still the mainspring of practical affairs, the prizes lend themselves to tabulation according to nationality in a kind of spiritual Olympics.

The other great paradox that the prizes have ministered to has been the ever increasing prestige of science and technology in a rapidly secularizing era, but an era that clings all the more desperately to the ideal of service to humanity as the only viable relic of traditional religion and the only bulwark against the abuse of science itself. The Nobel Prizes have been tacitly consecrated for the mind of the twentieth century by an association between service to humanity and the advancement of science.

It is easy to see how all of these trends were refracted through Alfred Nobel. He was a cosmopolitan who lived in many countries, including Russia and the United States. He was one of Darwin’s congregation, a nonbeliever in religion, but a secular humanitarian as well. He was a genius at applied science, the inventor of dynamite and smokeless powder, and equally good at parlaying his discoveries into a worldwide industrial empire. Finally, he was a bachelor who could dispose of his entire fortune as he chose.

This was the man who on his death in 1896 left a will devoting the vast bulk of his fortune to the annual award of five prizes, without regard to nationality, for those who “in the preceding year” had conferred “the greatest benefit on mankind” by “the most important discovery or invention” in physics; “the most important chemical discovery or improvement”; “the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine”; “the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency” in literature; and “the most or best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” The prizes for physics and chemistry were to be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; for physiology or medicine by the Caroline Institute in Stockholm; for literature by the Swedish Academy; for peace by a committee chosen by the Norwegian Parliament (Storting). The early prizes were worth about $42,000. Their cash value had dropped by 1950 to about $32,000, but in the 1960s they have risen to about $52,000. Of course, $42,000 in 1901 had the purchasing power of at least $100,000 today.

Nobel’s will, though clear enough, was technically defective. Some members of his family tried to break it for ostensibly high-minded reasons and had to be bought off by the executors. Perhaps as a cover for this, the family insisted on further restrictions upon the terms of award. The awarding bodies themselves, once the prize-giving got under way, inevitably built up a body of common-law interpretations of the mandate that Nobel and his relatives had given.

The result has been that severe limitations have diminished the quality and scope of the Nobel Prizes. Three of the limitations were imposed by Nobel himself: that literature had to be “idealistic” to qualify; that science meant a discovery, invention, or improvement, with the narrow definition of “discovery” implied by his coupling it with the other terms; that all prizes should be for the work of the preceding year. In practice, the awarding bodies loosened up the last requirement by making the award for “recent” contributions, or for contributions of which the full significance had only recently been grasped. In itself, this policy was a great gain for flexibility; but combined with another perfectly sensible rule, it lent itself to grave injustices. The scientific juries early saw the wisdom of waiting till discoveries were proved to be sound. Yet by the time a discovery was thoroughly authenticated, it might have lost the magical attribute of being “recent” and be out of the running unless newly appreciated at some later date. But this meant that an absolutely fundamental discovery which had gone on slowly but surely building itself into the very fabric of modern science might never experience any sensational “re-discovery” or sudden burst of new relevance, because it was relevant everywhere and all the time.

Some of the greatest discoveries fell between the stools of soundness and recency. As a corollary to this, the scientific juries have consistently enforced the principle that a man cannot accumulate “credit” towards a Nobel Prize by making a number of unrelated discoveries. If any one of them is important enough, it can be rewarded on its merits, but a really notable discovery that has been passed over will do nothing to eke out the claims of another contribution by the same man. The system is loaded against the versatile or ranging intellect.

Two other major restrictions were imposed by Nobel’s relatives: that no prize should be shared by more than three persons, and that no prize should be conferred upon a dead man unless he had been recommended for the award before his death.

Apart from these standing rules, the history of the prizes has been affected by two specific problems. In the first dozen years or so, the awarding bodies were confronted with a backlog of famous writers, peace agitators, and scientists who had made their names in the nineteenth century but lived on into the twentieth in a state of some vitality and productivity. Here, of course, the rule about recency was a big help in enabling the juries to set certain legendary figures gently aside. Even so, both the juries and the general public boggled at discarding the giants who had been at the height of their powers as late as 1885 or 1890. The result was that there were far too many towering senior figures still in the running for all of them to be squeezed into the first dozen years, even if there had been any way to space them out in the order of their more or less impending deaths.

The other problem that has cut clean across the prizes has been the occurrence of the two world wars, both of which led to the suspension of individual prizes or the entire set of prizes. In the turmoils of the twentieth century, no other people could have kept the prizes going as well as the Swedes. Yet the fact remains that the omission of awards when combined with the recency requirement was calculated to cheat some people out of the prizes they deserved.

The quality of the actual prizes that began to be awarded in 1901 has been a compound of the limitations enforced by general rules and special problems and the judgment displayed by the awarding bodies within these constraints. How good, and how bad, have the selections been? There is no authoritative answer to that, but here are one man’s impressions.

The number of outright blunders is extremely small. It was preposterous to honor the complacently bellicose Theodore Roosevelt as a man of peace in 1906, even if he did serve as a broker for winding up the Russo-Japanese War. Rudolf Eucken, a deservedly forgotten philosopher who was never important, was a scandalous choice in literature. Most people would now agree that Pearl Buck was another bad choice, and some would add John Steinbeck. At any rate, the strategic moment for honoring Steinbeck at the height of his reputation was certainly missed by more than twenty years. Only one award seems to have arisen out of sheer ignorance of the facts—J. J. R. Macleod’s equal share in the prize given to Sir Frederick Banting, the discoverer of insulin. Macleod’s sole contribution consisted in providing laboratory space and giving some general advice. Banting’s true collaborators were C. H. Best and J. B. Collip. They should have been included in the prize and Macleod left out. He is the only palpably undistinguished investigator in the whole list of laureates in science. The other principal contender for this title, Johannes Fibiger, was at least honored for his own work, on an alleged form of cancer, but it is now virtually certain that his basic conclusions were wrong. The Caroline Institute learned its lesson all to well. In the forty years since Fibiger was honored, there have been no awards for cancer research whatever. The original mistake was pardonable. The absolutely fossilized disregard of all subsequent research on cancer is a more grievous, indeed aggravated, failure.

If we consider the average caliber of each series of prizes with due regard to people who were passed over, the record is mixed. In an odd way, the prizes that are hardest to find fault with, and simultaneously the most disappointing, have been for peace. If the Nobel committee set any store by naval disarmament in the 1920s, Charles Evans Hughes should have won. Of the recent prizes, it is possible to wonder whether Father Georges Pire’s admirable work with refugees has really contributed to international peace. Martin Luther King’s achievements would hardly have fallen within Nobel’s own definition. Yet King’s prize, and Chief Albert John Luthuli’s, represented belated recognition of the principle of nonviolent resistance exemplified by Gandhi. Anybody who thinks that Gandhi ought to have won is in no position to object to the others.

Given the impossible task of rewarding people for a service that nobody has yet discovered how to perform, the Norwegians have acquitted themselves creditably.

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