Every year in october the world turns to Sweden for Nobel Prize announcements but what made the nobel prize so prestigious?
Photo by Zach Chia

From the Nobel Prize to THE Nobel Prize

On November 27th, 1895, Alfred Nobel signed his will, which would eventually give life to one of the most famous and important awards in history, setting the standard for other awards (e.g. Lasker Prize – the American Nobel, Shaw Foundation Award – the Asian Nobel Prize). But it did not begin this way, Nobel was rich but despised. So how did Nobel, the father of dynamite, become the face of excellence in research, academia and a proponent of peace?

By Patrik Bjäterot

In 1888, when Nobel’s brother Ludvig died in a factory explosion, journalists incorrectly thought that it was, in fact, Alfred who had passed away. Based upon this evidence, the reporter went on to write a scathing article, calling Nobel a “merchant of death” who only made his fortune by finding new ways to mutilate and kill. The error was corrected, but according to historians, Nobel was so troubled by his posthumous reputation that he decided to change his entire will.   

After Nobel’s death in December of 1896, his will came into effect. It did not take long before his will, and the crazy idea for a global prize caught the international spotlight. An article published on May 30th of 1897 in the New York Times criticized the prize for being ill-conceived since the consideration for laureates limits itself at earth, “if the prize had limited itself to Scandinavian countries, the task would have been severe enough; but with the works of all the world to select from, how can anybody of men, even of the broadest comprehension and the most liberal attainments, ever hope to settle fairly one in each department they can call the ‘best’”.

The article went on to question how you could fairly select a winner among works of different languages, countries and cultures. However, it can be argued that the article in the esteemed New York Times was more motivation than the disincentive. Due to the early criticism, the prize had to gain credibility quickly. The first stage was the composition of the selectors. The selection and implementation of the Nobel Committee was a very critical process, it needed to be made up of credible people and the process had to be seen to be trustworthy.

The criticism that the award would be taking on too many responsibilities to accurately determine the best winners led to a very careful structuring of the committee. In the beginning, the medicine prize was handled by the entire professorial staff of Karolinska Institutet, which, in 1901, consisted of 19 people. Today, the committee has increased to 50 professors.

A second aspect of the success of the Nobel Prize is the prominence of the early laureates. In physiology and medicine, names like Pavlov, Koch, Golgi, Ramón y Cajal and Mechnikov were all in the list of laureates within the first 10 years of the award. These scientists were the fathers of their fields, widely acknowledged and esteemed. Their names created the pantheon of scientific gods and rubbed off on future winners who in turn added to the esteem (broadly speaking), resulting in a virtuous circle. As described by Robert Merton in 1956, “the Nobel Prize retains its luster because errors of the first kind where scientific work of dubious or inferior worth has been mistakenly honoured are uncommonly few.”

“The Nobel Prize retains its luster because errors of the first kind where scientific work of dubious or inferior worth has been mistakenly honored are uncommonly few.”

Robert Merton, 1956

Third, there was the fact of money, which would create economic stability for the laureates, as well as sufficient funding for future research. While not exactly true today, the value of the $50,000 prize in 1900 was a veritable fortune in its day. This roughly worked out to $1.4 million today. The absolute real monetary value of the prize has shrunk to 1 million in today’s value (with each winner taking a portion of that amount).

However, the above was not sufficient to make the prize a global benchmark. One of the biggest drivers behind the prominence of the Nobel Prize was the marketing. Years before the first prize was even awarded, it was already well known. Apart from the criticism of the sensibility of a global prize like in the NYT article, many other questions had arisen posthumously that needed answers that just could not be found. One of the most prominent questions was why Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, would award a prize in peace.

No one knows exactly why Nobel allocated part of his fortune to a reconciliation prize and gave the honour of awarding it to Norway. The Norwegian Nobel Committee argues that Norway had a tradition of being less militant and thus was a better choice. It was also suggested that Nobel wanted to incorporate both Sweden and Norway in the prize, which at the time of Nobel’s death, were joined in a union, which meant that Stockholm and Christiania (Oslo) were both capitals.

Over 100 years later, the Nobel Peace Prize still attracts controversy. It has had to endure two world wars and a smorgasbord of conflicts around the globe. Its choice of winners is regularly attacked for being political rather than actually meaningful. Deserving individuals, such as Mahatma Gandhi (who fought for Indian independence in a non-violent struggle), were passed up for the prize (despite being nominated 4 times) while questionable choices such as President Barack Obama were made. President Obama was controversial because he won the award barely into his first year and presided over the United States continually at war during his two terms in office.

The choice of President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia to win the 2016 prize was panned as being political – Santos’ attempt at a peace deal with guerrilla forces had fallen through barely days before. To add further insult to injury, earlier this year, Santos admitted that his 2010 presidential campaign had received illegal financial contributions from a Brazilian conglomerate.

However, from a marketing perspective, the Peace Prize is a gold mine. Every year in October, the world is waiting for a name that they can spend hours, or even decades, debating. Recently, the Burmese Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been pressured to give back her award for her opinions regarding the violence in the Rakhine state. It is, in fact, arguably if there were no controversy, the Peace Prize would not attract the attention or esteem that it has today. If every Peace Prize Laureate was incontrovertible, the 24-hour news cycle would sooner lose interest because there is no drama, and no drama means no viewers.

However, from a marketing perspective, the Peace Prize is a gold mine… If every Peace Prize Laureate was incontrovertible, the 24 hour news cycle would sooner lose interest because there is no drama, and no drama means no viewers.

The importance of the Nobel Peace Prize gives good insight into mankind. The idea that a single award can have such a huge effect/impact is intriguing because it gives a very small group of individuals great power in the advancement of science and mankind. On the other hand, the alternative of not awarding a peace prize would surely lower the range of interest. The award would become semi-famous, intriguing only to those from a science background. As opposed to now, when Google search graphs of “the Nobel Prize” resemble the reading of an electrocardiograph, with the peak on the day the laureates are presented.

Nobel, the father of dynamite and the merchant of death, used his fortune to advance the perspective of scientific research and academia. Even though his motives can be interpreted differently, the result is less questionable. Every year in October, the global eye is on Stockholm and Oslo to see who is getting the most prestigious prize in academia and peace. Thanks to over 100 years of intrigue, controversy, marketing, fame and controversy again, we all have something to look forward to every year.

Published in Medicor 2017 #3

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