Editor's Own / History

The Nobel Prize: A History of Controversy

nobel-prize-award-overview

On Tuesday this year’s Nobel Laureates receive their awards. The choice of ‘Abolish Nuclear Weapons’ to receive the Peace Prize has stirred up no small debate. But it’s not the first time a winner has left people confused…


Alexander Brett


1918: Fritz Haber


Fritz Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the invention of the Fritz-Haber Process, a process that permitted the large scale production of ammonia. Haber was known to develop chlorine gas during the Great War, defending its use even after receiving his award.


1945: Alexander Fleming


Alexander Fleming, creator of penicillin, admitted after receiving the award that his discovery was a complete accident.


1948 (2006): Mahatma Ghandi


A once notorious terrorist, Ghandi founded religious pluralism in post-colonial India. Ghandi never picked up the award in person, having been assassinated a few months before he was due to. It took until 2006 for the committee to declare him winner, as in 1948 no prize had been awarded because it was thought there was no living person worthy.


1949: António Egas Moniz


Portuguese neurologist António Egas Moniz was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology for devising the lobotomy (an operation where part of the brain is cut away) as a cure for mental disorders. The practice has since been all but abandoned.


1973: Henry Kissinger and Lê Đức Thọ


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


1974: Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson


Native bias was most obvious in 1974 when joint winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, little-known even in Sweden, fended off competitors that included Graham Greene, Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov.


1994: Yasser Arafat, Yitzhat Rabin and Shimon Peres


In 1994 Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his foreign minister Shimon Peres returned to Oslo, the city in which they’d signed their legendary peace accords. Like the accords, the Peace Prize did little to improve Israeli-Palestinian relations. Arafat continued to order drive-by shootings and kidnappings until his death in 2004.


2008: AstraZeneca plc


The Nobel Prize gained a murky reputation when it emerged that AstraZeneca, a pharmaceutical company that held large shares in HPV vaccines, had strong links with two of the committee’s members. Swedish anti-corruption police raided committee members’ homes and company headquarters, but charges were later dropped.


2009: Barack Obama


Barack Obama was awarded the Peace Prize just nine months into his first term leaving many, even his own supporters, questioning its legitimacy. 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.


2012: The European Union


In 2012 the Peace Prize went not to an individual, but an organisation. While, it was widely agreed, the European Union was worthy of it, some criticised the timing, given that the European Central Bank was in the process of bailing out Greece.


2016: Bob Dylan


 

Bob Dylan, who won the Literature Prize last year, is not the only winner to have refused it. So have Jean-Paul Sartre in 1964, Doctor Zhivago Boris Pasternak in 1958 (forced to do so by the Soviet Politburo) and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 1970, who was allowed to collect the prize but didn’t, as he feared he wouldn’t be re-admitted to the USSR (he was expelled in 1974, so could collect it then).


 

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