Editor's Own / History

The Nobel Prize: A History of Controversy


On Tuesday Nobel Laureates will gather in Oslo and Stockholm to receive their awards. The Nobel Prize has had a long and controversial history… 

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 know in advance 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 no little debate.

But it’s not the first time the winner has left people confused. Indeed, it certainly seems a little ironic that those who wish to ban nuclear weapons will on Tuesday receive a prize bearing the name of the former owner of Bofors, an immensely successful cannon and dynamite manufacturing plant supplying ammunition to 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 subsequently gave all his money to a trust that has now become the Nobel Committee.

Why? The Juicy Highlights of a 123-Year History

1918: Fritz Haber

In 1918  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 also 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, received criticism after he admitted his discovery was a complete accident.

1948 (2006): Mahatma Ghandi

Perhaps the same spirit of reconciliation given to Alfred Nobel could be applied to the Peace Prize’s 1948 winner, Mahatma Ghandi, a once 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 that year. It took until 2006 for the committee to declare him winner, as no prize had been awarded in 1948, when it was decided there was no living recipient worthy of it.

1949: António Egas Moniz

In 1949, Portuguese neurologist António Egas Moniz was given 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 come into severe disrepute and 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 central diplomat Lê Đức Thọ, when Kissinger was praised for his role in brokering peace just eight months after he ordered 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

It seems the Swedish Academy (who chooses the winner) often has a little native bias, and this most obviously seen 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, to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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 where they had signed their legendary peace accords. Like the accords, however, the Peace Prize appears to have done little in brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace since; there remain high tensions between the two sides today, and Arafat continued to order drive-by shootings and kidnappings until his death in 2004.

2008: AstraZeneca plc

The Nobel Prize gained a murky reputation as it emerged that AstraZeneca, a pharmaceutical company that held 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 the members’ homes and company headquarters, but charges were later dropped.

2009: Barack Obama

In 2009 Barack Obama was awarded the Peace Prize just nine months into his first term as president leading many, even his own supporters, questioning its legitimacy. 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.

2012: The European Union

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

2016: Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan, who won the Literature Prize in 2016, is not the only winner to have refused it; so too 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 feared he would not be re-admitted to the USSR (he was expelled in 1974, so could collect it then instead).


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