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.

Truly distinguished literature has been produced in the twentieth century, and here the record of the Swedish Academy is inexcusably bad. In addition to most of the giants of world literature, the non-winners have included Anna Akhmatova, Aleksandr Blok, Karel Capek, Jaroslav Hasek (of The Good Soldier Schweik), Stefan George, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Robert Musil, Paul Claudel, André Malraux, Miguel de Unamuno, Ortega y Gasset, Italo Svevo, George Meredith, H. G. Wells, Katherine Mansfield, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Dylan Thomas, William James, Theodore Dreiser (the runner-up to Sinclair Lewis in 1930), Edith Wharton, Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Robert Frost. Prizes for Swinburne and Paul Valéry were in the making when they died—not exactly prematurely: they were both in their seventies.

The glut of secondary Scandinavian writers is notorious; but the magnificent Swedish neutrality was vindicated by snubbing the only two Scandinavian writers of genius. Neither Ibsen nor Strindberg, neither Tolstoy nor Checkhov, neither Rilke nor Proust, neither Henry James nor Mark Twain nor Joseph Conrad—how could such a record be compiled except as a joke? The answer is a combination of severely restrictive rules capriciously applied by narrow men.

The small man and the inglorious opportunity were well met in Carl David af Wirsén, the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy and dominant figure in the Nobel Prizes for literature till his death in 1912. He was a man of limited horizons, vindictive, and a bigot in literature. Strindberg was out because he had satirized Wirsén—only one man even bothered to nominate him. Tolstoy was more of a problem—foolish people would go on nominating him, but Wirsén was equal to the occasion. War and Peace and Anna Karenina were great novels, agreed, but Tolstoy’s recent work was full of detestable opinions on art, government, and civilization. The Academy would seem to be endorsing these, and that was out of the question. The Ibsen menace was dispatched by saying that he was past his prime. It was not that Wirsén was hobbled by a foolish consistency. He tried repeatedly to get the prize for Swinburne, a writer singularly devoid of any content, idealistic or otherwise, who had lost his touch a mere thirty years before.

When Wirsén died in 1912 he left behind kindred spirits adept at sniffing out any trace of irony, acerbity, gloom, pessimism, skepticism, cynicism, or fatalism as the hoofprints of an unidealistic tendency. Anatole France finally slipped through in 1921 on the delightful argument that his works couldn’t have been written by Zola. Thomas Hardy remained impossible. Sinclair Lewis in 1930 was tarred with skepticism, but the Academy was looking desperately for an American winner, the main alternative was the fatalist Dreiser, and a wholesome face could be put upon the whole affair by describing Babbitt as a piece of “high-class American humor.” The scruples worked in reverse. Lewis had his reputation as a debunker to lose, he would be sadly compromised among his cronies if the charge of idealistic tendencies could be made to stick, and he let it be understood that nowadays all this meant was that he hadn’t written solely for commercial gain. As a matter of fact, after 1930 the idealistic proviso does not seem to have made much, if any, difference. The dam had burst.

This does not mean that the record since 1930 has been satisfactory. Of the winners in the decade of the thirties (Lewis, Karlfeldt, Galsworthy, Bunin, Pirandello, O’Neill, Martin du Gard, Pearl Buck, Sillanpää), only Pirandellow would now be generally recognized as a major writer of secure reputation. The winners since the Second World War—including Gide, Eliot, Faulkner, Mauriac, Hemingway, Camus, Pasternak, and Sartre—probably constitute a higher proportion of the most notable living writers than in any previous period. But the roster is weakened by the increasingly evident determination to single out the literature of previously neglected nationalities (Chilean, Icelandic, Yugoslav, Greek). In this respect, Nobel’s injunction to disregard nationality has been turned on its head.

The most damning indictment of the whole list of prizes in literature is their smugly unadventurous character. With the arguable exceptions of O’Neill, Pirandello, Eliot, and Hemingway, no prize has been given for work that was markedly experimental in technique. Neither Proust nor Joyce nor Virginia Woolf is represented. No bold experiment in literary subject matter has been recognized till the result was no longer in doubt and the power of the Nobel Prize to affect the outcome absolutely nil. The revolution in candor about sex led by Proust and D. H. Lawrence was firmly ignored till the prize for O’Neill in 1936, followed at a long interval by the selection of Gide in 1947. Even with the most conventional themes and techniques, the Swedish Academy has been leadenly cautious. With the clear exception of Yeats and the possible exceptions of O’Neill, Camus, and Sartre, no author has been caught while his career was still on the upswing: the average age of the winners has been over sixty. Only seven men, including Kipling and Camus, have been recognized in their forties. It is easy to see how this dismal record came about. The Academy wanted to be sure about the winners’ ultimate stature. But this is quite simply a violation of Nobel’s entire purpose. He wanted to recognize the most impressive recent book, not to set the seal upon the work of a lifetime or to reward the capacity for literary and physical endurance. This policy would probably have produced some colossal blunders by the lights of posterity, but then the existing record is uneven too.

Not surprisingly, the Nobel Prizes in science have been more impressive than the others. Yet even here the record in physiology or medicine is not as good as in physics or chemistry. This is not entirely the fault of the Caroline Institute. Medical science is inherently more diverse than modern physics or chemistry—potentially as diverse as the tissues, organs, and functions of the human body and the innumerable ills to which they fall prey—and never likely to rise to “first principles” in the way tat the physical sciences have increasingly done. The upshot is that there are more medical scientists more nearly on a par at the head of their profession than there are physicists or chemists. Very few of the actual winners in physiology or medicine have been unsuitable, so that the substitution of others might have produced injustices in turn. There have been too many potential laureates. As if in recognition of this, the Caroline Institute has recently identified various nonwinners whom its Nobel Committee has regarded as “prizeworthy” but for some reason passed over in favor of other investigators.

Granted the difficulties, it is still shocking that none of the following prizeworthy men was actually honored: E. H. Starling (one of the founders of the hormone concept); F. W. Twort and Félix d’Hérelle (independent discoverers of the bacteriophage); Sir Thomas Lewis (the pioneer in the interpretation of electrocardiograms); Walter B. Cannon (one of the three discoverers of chemical neuro-transmission and one of the greatest hormone investigators); E. V. McCollum (the most prolific single discoverer of vitamins and the pioneer student of trace elements in human nutrition); Peyton Rous (the discoverer of the viral transmission of tumors in fowl).

The following major figures were apparently never adjudged prizeworthy: Joseph von Mering and Oscar Minkowski (the discoverers of the role of the pancreas in diabetes, the basis of insulin therapy); Clemens von Pirquet and Béla Schick (two of the three principal discoverers of allergy); David Keilin (the elucidator of the respiratory enzyme cytochrome); Hans Berger (the inventor of the electroencephalogram for tracing brain waves); O. T. Avery (the discoverer with two associates of DNA as the carrier of heredity). If Sir Charles Sherrington, the greatest of all neuro-physiologists, had not lived to the age of seventy-five, he too would figure in this list. He had been futilely placed in nomination no fewer than 134 times, beginning in 1902, before he was finally awarded a share of the prize for 1932. Perhaps the single most frustrating experience was that of the American Ross G. Harrison, who was actually recommended for the prize in 1917 for his epoch-making innovation of tissue culture, only to lose out because the award of the prize was suspended for the duration of the First World War. When the issue was raised again later, the discovery was dismissed as “too old” and in a longer perspective not important enough. The latter judgment was simply mistaken.

Approached from the other side, of major advances, rather than great investigators, in medicine that do not figure in the annals of the Nobel Prize, the following were deliberately passed over on the grounds that there were too many contributors involved: the discovery of sex hormones, the discovery of vitamin D and its functions, the introduction of local anesthesia, and the fenestration operation to restore hearing.

The record of the Swedish Academy of Sciences in awarding the prizes for physics and chemistry is much harder to criticize. By far the most dubious prizes, in no way disreputable but hardly up to the ordinary standard, have been three or four for rather limited contributions to technology. Apart from the unpardonable omission of Mendeleev and Willard Gibbs, the only truly imposing figure of the past whom the Academy can be accused of missing is the American chemist G. N. Lewis, one of the founders of modern valency theory. The American Wallace Hume Carothers, the inventor of nylon, and the Englishman F. S. Kipping, who laid the theoretical foundations for the use of silicones in industry, were both dead before the practical importance of their research had fully emerged. The Academy liquidated a long-standing reproach against itself by finally giving a prize to the great organic chemist R. B. Woodward of Harvard in 1965.

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