From Alfred's will: History of the Nobel Prize

Controversial at times, the Nobel Prize, administered by the Nobel Foundation in Sweden, is one of the world's most coveted awards, with international prestige and a hefty cash award.

The 2011 Nobel Prizes, awarded Dec. 10 in Stockholm, Sweden, are one of the world's most coveted honours, carrying international prestige, a hefty cash award and, at times in their history, considerable controversy.

Named after Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, the prizes have been awarded nearly every year since 1901. (There were breaks during both world wars.)

The Nobel Foundation administers the honours, which were established in Nobel's will. Prizes are handed out in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace.

Canada's laureates

Some of the prominent Canadians honoured:

Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter receives his Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10, 2002, from Gunar Berge, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Carter was recognized for humanitarian work in the Middle East and Haiti, among other global trouble spots. ((Reuters))

  • Frederick Banting, 1923 (Physiology or Medicine)
  • Lester B. Pearson, 1957 (Peace)
  • Saul Bellow, 1976 (Literature)
  • Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, 1995 (Peace)
  • Myron Scholes, 1997 (Economics)
  • Robert Mundell, 1999 (Economics)

  • Willard S. Boyle, 2009 (Physics)

More: CBC Archives

Nobel laureates have spanned worlds of expertise and points of view, from Mother Teresa to Yasser Arafat to Marie Curie. Leading lights such as Frederick Banting, Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela and George Bernard Shaw have also been honoured throughout the years. 

Over the years, several Canadians have joined this elite company, including 11 who have earned Nobel prizes in the sciences.

The selection process

When Nobel died in 1896, leaving his fortune to be used to create the Nobel prizes, his will stated he wanted to reward those "who during the preceding year shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind."

The will also named the groups that would award the prizes: the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm (medicine), the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (chemistry and physics), the Swedish Academy (literature) and a committee of five people to be selected by the Norwegian parliament (peace). Economics, added as a separate prize in 1968, is awarded by the Academy of Sciences.

As outlined in the will, the prizes are to be awarded without regard to nationality. Each prize consists of a medal, personal diploma and a cash award. The amount of money available for each prize varies from year to year. For 2010, the Nobel Prize is worth 10 million Swedish kronor or about $1.5 million Cdn.

There are rules on who can nominate, varying slightly depending on the award. Each year, the Nobel committees send invitations to thousands of members of academies, scientists from numerous countries, previous laureates and others, asking them to submit candidates for that year's competition.

Winners are announced in October, followed by the awards ceremony on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death. The peace prize is presented in Oslo and the others in Stockholm.

Criticism of the award

The Nobel Prize has had its controversial moments: the 1994 peace award to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, shared with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, garnered widespread criticism. The decision sparked demonstrations in Israel, and one Nobel judge resigned in protest, arguing that Arafat's violent past disqualified him.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it "one of the low points of the Nobel Prize" in a 2002 interview.

The Nobel committee's secretary, Geir Lundestad, told the Boston Globe: "The Nobel Prize isn't the granting of sainthood. There have been many winners with dark things about their past, but they have managed to raise themselves above them."

Obama's peace prize

Lester Pearson ((Associated Press))

Criticism of the 2009 peace award had less to do with the skeletons in the recipient's closet than with a perceived lack of accomplishment. U.S. President Barack Obama had been in the White House for less than two weeks before the Feb. 1 nomination deadline for that year's prize. Yet the Nobel committee said the president was selected "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between people."

Obama acknowledged that compared with past recipients — including Nelson Mandela, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Albert Schweitzer — his "accomplishments are slight." Critics also seized on the fact that Obama received the peace prize as U.S. wars continued in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he said he accepted the award as a "call to action" to confront the challenges of the 21st century.

Quick facts

  • In 1901, the award was worth 150,782 Swedish kronor ($22,994 Cdn). The 2010 prizes are worth 10 million kronor ($1.5 million Cdn).
  • No posthumous prizes are allowed. Before 1974, someone who had been nominated but later died could get a prize. The rules were changed so a prize can only go to a deceased person who had won the prize, but died before receiving it, as in the case of William Vickrey, who won the economics prize in 1996.
  • Six Nobel laureates have declined the prize, including three German scientists who were ordered not to accept the award at the beginning of the Second World War.
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist French philosopher and writer, became the first person to voluntarily refuse the prize in 1964. According to a public statement, Sartre said he had a policy of not accepting public honours and he did not mean to slight the Nobel Foundation.

U.S. President Obama in Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009. ((Chris Helgren / Reuters))

  • The youngest winner was Lawrence Bragg, 25 years old when he received the physics prize with his father in 1915.
  • The oldest winner is Raymond Davis Jr., nearly 88 years old when he received the physics award in 2002.
  • Linus Pauling is the only person to have been awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes (chemistry in 1954 and the peace prize in 1962).
  • George Bernard Shaw is the only person to have won both a Nobel Prize and an Oscar (Nobel for literature in 1925 and the Academy Award for best screenplay for the film adaptation of Pygmalion in 1938).

Source: The Nobel Foundation

2011 Nobel Prize Winners

Peace: Awarded jointly to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.

Physiology or Medicine: Awarded to Bruce A. Beutler and Jules A. Hoffmann for their discoveries concerning the activation of innate immunity, and to Ralph M. Steinman for his discovery of the dendritic cell and its role in adaptive immunity.

Physics: Awarded to Saul Perlmutter, Brian P. Schmidt and Adam G. Riessfor the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae.

Chemistry: Awarded to Dan Shechtman for the discovery of quasicrystals.

Literature: Awarded to Tomas Tranströmer.

Source: Nobel Media AB