Altman, Lawrence K. "The Doctor's World Alfred Nobel and the Prize That Almost Didn't
Happen," New York Times, 26 September 2006, p. F1, F6.
When Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite and more powerful explosives, died in
1896, he bequeathed the bulk of his fortune to create five annual prizes honoring ingenuity. The
chemistry, medicine and physics prizes have come to be widely regarded as the most esteemed in
their fields. The two others, literature and peace, are more controversial.
Yet in a little known story, the Nobel Prizes, the first of which will be announced on Monday,
almost never came to be, largely because of the unsophisticated way Nobel drew up his will. It
was flawed and legally deficient because he lived in many places and never established a legal
residence. Nobel resided for many years in France, made intermittent visits to a home in Sweden
and amassed assets in many countries before dying of a stroke at his villa in Italy.
To secret Nobel's French assets to the Swedish consulate in Paris before claims might be made
on them there, the will's principal executor literally sat on Nobel's millions as he rode a
horse-drawn cab through Paris. "I sat with a revolver at the ready in case of a direct attack or a
prearranged collision with another vehicle, a trick not unusual among thieves in Paris at the
time," the executor, Ragnar Sohlman, wrote in "The Legacy of Alfred Nobel," which was
published in English in 1983.
Large philanthropic gifts to science were rare in Nobel's day. Moreover, establishing annual
international prizes in any field was novel. And controversial. News of Nobel's plan sent
shockwaves through Sweden with the intensity of a dynamite blast.
`Bitter members of Nobel's largely disinherited family fought the will in court. Scorn was heaped
on Nobel's gift, the equivalent of $9.5 million and one of the largest fortunes of his time, by the
king of Sweden, Oscar II; newspapers; political leaders; and other Swedes.
Nobel's earnings came from his 355 patents and factories in many countries. Swedish leaders
vehemently opposed dispersing a Swedish fortune to the rest of the world. Among their reasons:
it was immoral, particularly at a time when many Swedes were impoverished.
King Oscar II changed his mind after the Nobel Foundation was established in 1900, in part
because he thought publicity about the prizes might benefit Sweden. He was too ill to attend the
first ceremony in 1901, said Dr. Hans Jornvall, an official at the Nobel Foundation. Starting in
1902, Oscar II and his royal successors have handed the prizes to the laureates on Dec. 10, the
anniversary of Nobel's death.
Nobel said in his will that he wanted to reward those "who during the preceding year shall have
conferred the greatest benefit on mankind" in five categories.
Beyond the honor bestowed on the winners, the science prizes focus worldwide attention on
important discoveries, including many that have shaped the practice of medicine and the course
Many doctors and scientists develop a fascination with the Nobels in graduate school, if not
earlier, in part because of the Nobel Foundation's reputation for a secretive process that rivals the
Vatican's. But few know the history of the prizes.
My view of the prizes comes from a number of vantage points. I have covered the medical prizes
over the last 35 years, worked in a hospital in Stockholm in the 1970's and wrote about the
Swedish health system. While there, I discussed the workings of the prize system with officials
of the Nobel Foundation and members of the Nobel Assembly, which votes on the award
committee's recommendations for each year's prizes.
My impression is that Nobel officials do not like controversy associated with the prizes, which
partly explains Nobel rules forbidding appeals by the losers. Votes for winners are announced as
unanimous. But I heard behind-the-scenes tales that the path to that final vote for some awards
has been strewn with fights among clinicians, basic scientists and others involved in the process.
Nevertheless, the extensive effort that goes into researching the nominees each year maintains the
integrity of the prizes. And the nominations inform Swedish doctors about the cutting edge of
science, keeping Sweden, a country of eight million people, atop world science.
Nobel was born in Sweden, and his father, an engineer, moved his family to St. Petersburg,
Russia, when Alfred was 9. His education was largely through Russian tutors. He became fluent
in a number of languages, and as he went on to travel the world and his wealth increased, Nobel
became known as the richest vagabond in Europe.
In the early 1860's, Nobel began experimenting with nitroglycerin and other explosives in a
laboratory at his father's home. But in 1864, his younger brother, Emil, and four others were
killed in a laboratory accident.
Despite the tragedy, Nobel persisted. For example, in Manhattan in May 1866, Nobel
demonstrated the explosive effects and safety of nitroglycerin, when properly handled, on a rocky
slope at 83rd Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.
In 1867, Nobel accidentally discovered that when nitroglycerin dripped on kieselguhr, a
silicon-containing earth, it formed a paste that was stable and safer to use than liquid
nitroglycerin alone. Nobel called it dynamite, patented it and began building factories to make it
Nobel was ill much of his life, experiencing migraine headaches, bouts of deep depression and,
in his last few years, the chest pains of angina from blocked coronary arteries. "Isn't it the irony
of fate that I have been prescribed nitroglycerin to be taken internally" and by another name to
disguise its contents, Nobel wrote to Mr. Sohlman, his chief executor.
Nobel wrote his will in Swedish a year before his death while he lived in Paris, and the portion
dealing with the prizes was one long paragraph. It named the groups to make the awards: the
Karolinska Institute (medicine), the Swedish Academy of Sciences (chemistry and physics), the
Swedish Academy (literature) and the Norwegian Parliament (peace). Later, economics was
added as a separate prize.
Nobel never explained his choice of prize categories. Chemistry and physics seem obvious
choices because he was a trained chemical engineer.
The medical prize appears to reflect his heritage and interests. A 17th-century ancestor, Olof
Rudbeck the Elder, a professor of medicine at Uppsala University, was a discoverer of the human
lymphatic system. With other researchers, Nobel discussed experiments in blood transfusions.
While alive, he gave generously for research at the Karolinska Institute and at Ivan Pavlov's
laboratory in Russia.
Nobel often relieved his depression by writing fiction, drama and poetry, which probably
explains his interest in the literature prize.
The reason for the peace prize is less clear. Many say it was to compensate for developing
destructive forces. But his explosives, except for ballistite, were not used in any war during his
lifetime, Tore Frangsmyr wrote in a portrait of Nobel published by the Swedish Institute in
Stockholm in 1996.
More important, dynamite helped in mining, digging canals, making roads, building the St.
Gotthard tunnel through the Alps between Italy and Switzerland, and completing other
construction projects. According to Mr. Frangsmyr, Nobel said his factories would put an end to
war more quickly than peace conferences because "when two armies of equal strength can
annihilate each other in an instant, then all civilized nations will retreat and disband their troops."
Nobel was unhappy in love, never married and described himself as a loner. Mr. Sohlman wrote
that when one of Nobel's brothers asked for a biographical note, Nobel said about himself:
"Alfred Nobel — a pitiful half-life which ought to have been extinguished by some
compassionate doctor as the infant yelled its way into the world."
Mr. Frangsmyr wrote that Nobel once described himself as a well intended misanthrope: "I've
got a mass of screws loose and am a superidealist who can digest philosophy better than food."
Swedes were astonished that Nobel prepared his will unaided and without consulting the
executors of his estate and the institutions that he entrusted to make the awards. He even left his
fortune to a nonexistent foundation that his executors had to create posthumously.
Nobel's disregard for legal advice in writing his will reflects what he wrote in dealing with a
legal matter, according to Mr. Sohlman: "Lawyers have to make a living, and can only do so by
inducing people to believe that a straight line is crooked."
Mr. Sohlman had to persuade the Swedish institutions to overcome many objections before
agreeing to administer the prizes. The new demand was costly and added to the workload of
academicians whose salaries were meager. No blueprint existed to guide the prize juries. Sweden
had produced leading scientists, but insecurity existed about whether a small group of scientists
in a small country could effectively judge claims for the discoveries made worldwide.
If any institution that Nobel named in his will rejected his charge, there probably would be no
prizes. But by 1900, Mr. Sohlman had gained their cooperation.
The Karolinska Institute decided to primarily reward fundamental biomedical research, not
clinical research. That action is credited for linking medicine to the emerging wave of laboratory
science illustrated, for example, by Louis Pasteur, a chemist and bacteriologist. Pasteur, who died
the year Nobel wrote his will, was ineligible for a prize because the Nobels are not awarded
There were many competitors for the first awards, which went to well-recognized scientists: a
German, Emil von Behring, for developing a diphtheria immunization; a German, Wilhelm
Konrad Roentgen, in physics for the discovery of X-rays; and a Dutchman, Jacobus H. van't
Hoff, for discovering the laws of chemical dynamics and osmotic pressure in solutions.
No more than three individuals can win in any science category. The system to choose Nobel
medical prize laureates is costly. Dr. Jornvall, the Nobel Foundation official, said about $700,000
is spent for the research into the medical prize, now worth about $1.4 million.
The winners are announced in October. But the nomination process for the next year's prizes
begins a month earlier. The Karolinska Institute asks 3,000 scientists and administrators to
nominate by Jan. 31 researchers who they believe have made the most prize-worthy discovery for
consideration in that year's competition.
The awards honor a discovery, not career achievements. Nominators may propose any number of
candidates, "but if they suggest too many, they dilute their own strength," Dr. Jornvall said.
In the following months, an awards committee screens the nominees and does extensive
homework on the most promising ones. A fresh group of nominees is considered each year
because even candidates who were finalists in one year must be nominated again to be eligible
for the prize in another year.
Many say the committees have stumbled a few times in choosing winners and omitting others.
The names depend on the critic.
Honoring Dr. Egas Moniz of Portugal with a Nobel in 1949 for discovering the therapeutic value
of a lobotomy in certain psychoses is perhaps the most egregious mistake ever made by a
prestigious biomedical awards committee.
An editorial in The New York Times enthusiastically endorsed the award, and The New England
Journal of Medicine said lobotomy successes suggested the birth of "a new psychiatry."
Years before the prize, lobotomies had been performed on a number of patients, including John
F. Kennedy's sister, Rosemary. The prestige of the Nobel Prize accelerated the use of
lobotomies, including among famous hospitals in many countries. The procedure proved
Two other dubious awards were made in successive years: those in 1926 to a Dane, Johannes
Fibiger, for a misleading discovery about cancer and in 1927 to an Austrian, Dr. Julius
Wagner-Jauregg, for discovering that injecting malaria parasites had value in treating syphilis
affecting the brain. The treatment did not work and could be dangerous.
These and other experiences made the Nobel committees more cautious in meeting Nobel's
charge to honor a discovery made during the preceding year. The committees have learned that
validating a discovery can take many years.
Now Nobel committees are criticized for the long delays, often decades, between a discovery and
the award. It took more than 50 years for Peyton Rous to be honored for discovering
Critics also cite many scientists who they believe should have won a Nobel. Among those often
mentioned are Dr. Herbert W. Boyer and Dr. Stanley N. Cohen. In the early 1970's, they
developed the cloning technique that underlies genetic engineering and the development of a
number of new tests and drugs.
Public health workers feel that a Nobel Prize should have been awarded for eradicating smallpox,
the only naturally occurring disease to be wiped out. Dr. Hans Wigzell, a former rector of the
Karolinska Institute, has told me that even such a monumental success does not qualify as a
discovery if it relies on an old technique. Smallpox eradication is owed to a vaccine developed by
Edward Jenner in the late 1700's.
The opinions collected over the last 105 years have made the Nobel archives a trove of
information about the history of 20th-century science. So in response to many people who
wanted to use that information, the Nobel Foundation amended the original statutes, which called
for eternal secrecy, to allow qualified individuals to examine the archives 50 years after an
award. Some of the information is posted in English on the foundation's Web site
Michael Bliss, emeritus professor of history at the University of Toronto, was one of the first
people to examine the archives, in 1981, for his book "The Discovery of Insulin."
The records, mainly in Swedish, were "very thorough," he said in an interview, and "for comic
relief, for each year there was a thick box labeled self-nominations," which are ineligible.
Politics can play a role in selecting prize winners. Professor Bliss said that in his review of the
Nobel documents, "you could see how people would carry on campaigns on behalf of certain
people, getting others to write supporting letters and so on."
The Nobels have spawned the creation of scores of other science awards. Many newer ones
measure their success in part by the number of their winners who later become Nobel laureates.
Universities and research centers, too, publicize the number of Nobel winners they have
produced or hired.
Nobel winners are selected for their discoveries, not their I.Q.'s, and most are not geniuses, said
one Nobel laureate, Dr. Michael S. Brown of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical
Center in Dallas.
Illustrating his point with a humorous anecdote, Dr. Brown recalled a moment when laureates
met in Stockholm at the centennial of the Nobel Prizes: "If you really want to know what Nobel
Prize winners are like, you should have been in the breakfast line seeing all these brilliant people
wandering around randomly trying to find the scrambled eggs. It was like anything but a group of