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A History of Controversy


On Tuesday Nobel Laureates will gather in Oslo and Stockholm to receive their awards. With a history of controversy Alexander Brett explains that whoever wins, it will never be those who decide

Alexander Brett

On Tuesday this year’s Nobel Laureates will receive their prizes from either King Karl XVI Gustav in Stockholm (for the Sciences, Literature and Economics) or King Harald V in Oslo (for the Peace Prize). Of course we already know who will receive these awards and the choice of a pro-nuclear disarmament campaign group, ‘Abolish Nuclear Weapons’, to receive the Peace Prize has stirred up much controversy worldwide.

But it’s certainly not the first time we’ve seen disagreement after the announcements, and not just for the Peace Prize. So, from Bob Dylan to Barack Obama, here’s a look at some of the most debated winners of Nobel History (including the equally controversial creator of the prizes, Alfred Nobel himself).

It certainly seems a little confusing that those who wish to ban nuclear weapons will on Tuesday receive a prize bearing the name of the former owner of Bofors, a successful cannon and dynamite manufacturing plant during the Crimean War. That being said, Alfred Nobel was quick to change his ways after reading a premature obituary of his life in Cannes that stated he was proud to be a “merchant of death”, and on returning to Stockholm he subsequently gave all his money to a trust that has now become the Nobel Committee.

Perhaps the same spirit of reconciliation, then, could be applied to the Peace Prize’s 1948 winner, Mahatma Ghandi, once a notorious terrorist who became a founder of religious pluralism in post-colonial India. Of course Ghandi never actually picked up the award in person, having been assassinated in January of that year, and even then it took until 2006 for the committee to declare him the winner as no prize had been awarded in 1948 after it was decided there was no living recipient worthy of it. Again, perhaps an odd decision seeing as the heroes of peace during World War Two were still very much living and breathing.

It seems that politicians are inherently a consistent headache for the Nobel Committee.

First there was a stand-off between US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and North Vietnam’s central diplomat Lê Đức Thọ in 1973 after Kissinger was praised for his role in brokering peace just eight months after he had ordered a bombing raid of Hanoi. Đức Thọ declined his half of the award and two members of the committee resigned in protest.

Then, in 1994, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his foreign minister Shimon Peres, returned to the city of their peace accords to be awarded the prize amongst intense criticism. It certainly appears to have done little in brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace in the long term- we still live under high tensions between the two sides today- nor did it Arafat from ordering numerous drive-by shootings and kidnappings up until his death in 2004.


From left to right: Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin

In 2009 Barack Obama was awarded the Peace Prize just nine months into his first term as president, leading many, including his own supporters, to question the legitimacy of the decision. Boris Becker stated after the ceremony that Obama had simply been simply been given a “You’re not George Bush” award, and the former director of the Nobel Institute, Geir Lundestad, wrote in his autobiography that the committee had only awarded Obama the prize as they hoped it would strengthen his policies in the future.

Then, in 2012, the award went not to an individual, but an organisation. While most agreed the European Union was worthy of the prize, given their commitment to understanding between nations, some criticised the timing, given that the European Central Bank was in a difficult position bailing out Greece.

But the Sciences too have seen disagreements.

Firstly in 1918 when Fritz Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the invention of the Fritz-Haber Process that allowed the production of ammonia on a large scale. Haber is of course also known for helping to develop chlorine gas during the Great War and then defending its use even after receiving his award.

Then, in 1949, Portuguese neurologist António Egas Moniz was given the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for devising the lobotomy (when part of the brain is cut away) as a cure for mental disorders. The practice has since come into extreme disrepute been all but abandoned.

1945 saw Alexander Fleming, creator of penicillin receive criticism after he admitted the discovery was a complete accident, and 2008 gave the Nobel Prize a murky reputation as it emerged that AstraZeneca- a pharmaceutical company that had large shares in HPV vaccines (Harald zur Hausen was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for discovering that HPV causes cervical cancer) had strong links with two of the deciding committee’s members. Swedish anti-corruption police raided numerous companies, but the charges were later dropped.

And then there is Literature.

And Bob Dylan is not the only winner to have refused the prize; so have Jean-Paul Sartre in 1964, Doctor Zhivago Boris Pasternak in 1958 (forced to do so by the Soviet Politburo) and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 1970, who was allowed to collect the prize, but chose not to as he was afraid he would not be re-admitted to the USSR (he was expelled in 1974, so could collect it then instead).

And it seems the Swedish Academy (who chooses the winner) often has a little native bias, most obviously seen in 1974 when joint winners Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, little-known even in Sweden, beat off competitors that included Graham Greene, Sual Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov.

While there have certainly been some bad decisions on this list, in most cases it would certainly have been considerably easier for the committees to award the prizes with hindsight (only this year Aung San Suu Kyi’s worthiness has come into question for example, having previously been reported as “spotless”). So whoever wins, it seems it will never be those who decide.


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