When Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, died a bachelor in 1896, the will he left behind instructed that his considerable fortune be used as prize money for young geniuses so that they might continue their life’s work. Little could he have anticipated that the prizes he had set in motion—to be awarded in the categories of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace—would become so prestigious, or so contentious.
The annual awarding of the Nobel Prizes ignites the sort of controversy that everyone loves to weigh in on. Which worthy contenders were overlooked? Which undeserving candidates were unjustly rewarded?... But such quibbling is to be expected; as a look back at this collection of Atlantic articles on the subject illustrates, when it comes to the Nobel, controversy and debate are the name of the game.
In “Winning the Nobel Prize” (October 1950), Swedish-American author Naboth Hedin considered Alfred Nobel’s original establishment of the prize. The categories that are so familiar to us now, he pointed out, had their roots in Nobel’s personal interests and predilections:
It was second nature for him to think of awarding Prizes in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, and Literature; the fact that he had suffered from poor health all his life and was always on the outlook for a better cure no doubt prompted the Award in Medicine. And it was the Viennese novelist and pacifist Bertha von Suttner, his friend for many years, who probably inspired him to give the Prize for Peace.
Hedin also noted that the Nobel Foundation, set up to carry out Nobel’s vision, had failed to adhere to Nobel’s expressed hope that the prizes be awarded to young men with their careers ahead of them. The prize in literature, for example, is most often awarded “to a man firmly established in Letters, an author whose earnings have already made him independent, and it has come as an accolade to a career which has already reached its peak or passed it.”
When he won the prize for literature in 1930, for example, American novelist Sinclair Lewis was arguably past his prime—already deemed passé by the literati, according to biographer Mark Schorer in “Sinclair Lewis and the Nobel Prize” (October 1961): “The mood that Lewis had briefly exemplified more emphatically than anyone else was over,” Schorer wrote, “and Lewis was generally thought of as finished.” Even Lewis himself was taken aback to the point of disbelief by his receipt of the prize. Schorer described what happened when Lewis answered the telephone to hear a Swedish voice informing him he had won literature’s most prestigious award:
The voice was that of a Swedish newspaper correspondent in New York who had managed to track down Lewis for the Swedish Embassy, but Lewis thought that it was the voice of his friend Ferd Reyher, who liked to do imitations and play jokes. “Oh, yeah?” he replied. “You don’t say! Listen, Ferd, I can say that better than you. Your Swedish accent’s no good. I’ll repeat it to you.” And he repeated it, “You haf de Nobel Brize,” and more. The bewildered Swede protested in vain and finally called an American to the telephone to confirm the news. Lewis fell into a chair.
Though the prize may not have come to Lewis at the upswing of his career, it did indirectly end up serving Nobel’s goal of freeing a worthy author from financial hardship. Answering reporters’ questions about what he would do with the prize money, Lewis said he would “use it to support a well-known young American author and his family, and to enable him to continue writing.” (This response was interpreted by some foreign media, Schorer explains, “to mean that he was going to give the money away to some worthy young writing fellow, and hailed as an act of extraordinary magnanimity.”)
As scientist-turned-novelist Mitchell Wilson illustrated in “How Nobel Prizewinners Get That Way” (December 1969), Nobel Prizewinners’ reactions to receipt of the award tend to differ widely. “My God! What happens now to the rest of my life?” Chinese American physicist T. D. Lee exclaimed in 1957 after receiving the news that he had been awarded that year’s prize in physics. By contrast, Wilson described the more indifferent reaction of Physicist Maria Goeppert Mayer, who had won the prize for physics in 1963:
“To my surprise, winning the prize wasn’t half as exciting as doing the work itself,” she said to me with some perplexity. “That was the fun—seeing it work out!” Even the memory of the lack of elation seemed to sadden her; yet her achievement was all the more remarkable because she had done her work when she was well into her forties and she had only recently come into the field of physics from chemistry, and most of all because she was a woman.
J. H. D. Jensen, with whom Mayer shared the 1963 prize, reacted with similar nonchalance, telling Wilson, “By the time it came, it didn’t really matter very much. The big moment for me had come years before when I learned that [1938 Nobel prizewinner Enrico] Fermi had put my name in nomination. I didn’t get it that year, but I didn’t really care. It was Fermi’s regard that was the ultimate honor for me, not the medal.”
Wilson explained that despite the prize’s prestige—or perhaps because of it—its effect on laureates is not necessarily one of increased productivity or creativity. Some have speculated that the falloff in creativity might result from increased demands on the newly minted celebrity’s time, or from the laureate’s realization that he or she no longer has to work. But Wilson rejected those two hypotheses, arguing that prizewinners are dedicated to their work above all else. Instead, he distinguished between two groups of prizewinners: those, such as Albert Einstein, Ernest Rutherford, and Enrico Fermi, who are brilliant enough to produce breakthrough after breakthrough, and those, such as Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen, who are only capable of producing one breakthrough in their lifetime. Roentgen's research in X-rays earned him the first-ever Nobel Prize in Physics, but afterwards he failed to make any further significant contributions to science:
Men like Einstein, Rutherford, Fermi, and other giants, who are bigger than the prize, can win it at any time of their lives, take it in their stride, and go on continuing to be fruitful; while Roentgen and others like him who are smaller than the prize are overwhelmed by it—a heavy crown is only for very strong kings.
As for Roentgen’s 1901 prize in physics, it did not go undisputed; he was accused of taking credit for one of his students’ work. “He was the first, but certainly not the last, Nobelist to become involved in an ugly struggle for credit,” Wilson noted.
Indeed, the controversies continued. Harvard historian Donald Fleming began his piece, “Nobel’s Hits and Misses” (October 1966) by surveying some glaring omissions throughout Nobel Prize history and enumerating the systemic flaws from which those poor choices had stemmed. He argued that the rules set forth in Alfred Nobel’s handwritten will, along with other restrictions added later, had diminished the quality and restrained the scope of the 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; and that all prizes should be for the work of the preceding year.
He expanded upon this last criticism of the prizes in science by outlining an additional difficulty faced in that category: prizes were to be awarded only to individuals, yet many significant breakthroughs in science are driven by collaborative, incremental work. Important medical advances, such as the discovery of sex hormones and vitamin D, he noted, had been overlooked because they resulted from the work of too many scientists.
He made special mention of a few of the Nobel Prize selection committee’s “outright blunders.” The “bellicose” Theodore Roosevelt, he pointed out, had been an odd choice for the 1906 peace prize. Rudolf Eucken, he noted, is “a deservedly forgotten philosopher who was never important,” yet he was awarded the 1908 prize for literature. And J. J. R. Macleod, who had shared the 1923 prize in medicine for "the discovery of insulin," had in fact had very little to do with insulin's discovery. His winning of the prize, Fleming explained, had “arisen out of sheer ignorance of the facts”—Macleod had merely provided laboratory space and some general guidance to others. As for the choices for prizes in literature, Fleming described their record as “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.
One of Fleming’s primary criticisms, shared by Hedin, was that the Nobel Prizes had failed to serve the original purpose of nurturing fledgling careers. Again, he turned to the prizes in literature to illustrate this point:
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.
Finally, in “Nobel Sentiments” (March 2002), P.J. O’Rourke joined the chorus of criticism, in the context of mocking an idealistic—and in his view ridiculous—joint letter that had been penned by 103 Nobel laureates. “Making fun is especially tempting,” he wrote, “to those of us who will receive invitations to Stockholm only in the form of brochures from Scandinavian cruise-ship lines. Let me give in to temptation.” He, too, had a list of glaring omissions:
Ernest Hemingway but not James Joyce? Toni Morrison but not John Updike? Dario Fo? Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf? (She wrote The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, a fanciful account of a young boy’s travels across Sweden on the back of a goose.) And allow me to be the millionth person to point out that among the Nobel Peace Prize winners are Yasir Arafat, Shimon Peres, Henry Kissinger, Le Duc Tho, and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. (“If the mushroom cloud doesn’t clear up, call me in the morning.”) For all I know, the lists of prizewinners in physics, chemistry, medicine, and economics are just as wack. I’m not competent to judge. Although the Cambridge University professor Brian Josephson (Physics 1973) says, “There is a lot of evidence to support the existence of telepathy.” And a co-discoverer of DNA, James Watson (Medicine 1962), is, at age seventy-three, researching the effects of sunshine on sex drive.
Despite the perennial nay-saying and controversy, the prizes still retain their prestige and authority. Perhaps it is a testimony to the relative insignificance of the prizes’ misfires—or simply to public ignorance of them—that, as Fleming writes, “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.”