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.”