The history of the Nobel Prize dates back to 1895, when Swedish industrialist and inventor Alfred Nobel created his will. Nobel set aside the largest part of his fortune to fund an annual award of five prizes for “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”
Considered as the most prestigious intellectual achievement awards on the planet, Nobel Prizes were originally given for achievements in chemistry, literature, physiology or medicine, physics, and peace. In 1969, an additional Nobel Prize was added; the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Science.
Though the Nobel Prize is an illustrious honor, not all of the circumstances surrounding its recipients have been completely honorable. There have been scandals associated with the award, and here are some of the most notable.
Fritz Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1919 for creating the Haber-Bosch process. This invention allowed ammonia to be produced on a mass scale and helped create fertilizer, which supported agriculture and helped feed billions. However, this Polish inventor also helped developed chlorine gas into a chemical weapon, which was used in World War I.
Harald zur Hausen
German inventor Harald zur Hausen, received the 2008 Nobel physiology or medicine award for his discovery of human papilloma virus (HPV) as well as its link to cervical cancer. It was soon learned that the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca sponsored the Nobel Prize website and also produced HPV vaccines.
Adolf Hitler was involved in two Nobel scandals. He was nominated for a Nobel peace prize in 1939, and although it was done by a Swedish legislator as a joke, it backfired. The nomination was withdrawn after it had created quite an uproar.
The other scandal occurred in 1935 when German journalist Carl von Ossietzky was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Von Ossietzky had openly criticized Hitler, which angered the Nazi leader. Hitler then barred Germans from accepting any Nobel Prizes and created the country’s own German National Prize for Art and Science.
Critics feel that former U.S. President Barack Obama was awarded his Nobel Peace Prize too early. He was just nine months into his first term when he received it in 2009. Some felt it was too premature; Brian Becker, national coordinator of Act Now To Stop War and End Racism, said that the award equaled “giving Obama the ‘you are not George W. Bush’ award.” Geir Lundestad, former director of the Nobel Institute, wrote in his 2015 autobiography that the Nobel committee felt that the award would “strengthen the president,” yet this did not seem to happen.
This revered Indian political activist battled racial discrimination in South Africa, was instrumental in pushing through the 1914 Indian Relief Act, and was the main person responsible for India achieving their independence. Nonetheless, Gandhi was shortlisted five times for a Nobel Prize but was never awarded one. Some believe that this was because the committee had a Euro-centric viewpoint and did not appreciate India’s struggles for its freedom.
The Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, sharing it with Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. This was given for their achievements on the Oslo Accords, which was a main component of the Palestine and Israel peace process. It was controversial because Arafat was also head of Fatah, the PLO group that was involved in acts of terrorism.
What About the Women?
From 1901 to 2019, the Nobel Prizes and the Prizes in Economic Sciences have been awarded to 597 times to 950 people and organizations. Out of these, only 54 women have won, with Marie Curie being honored twice. One example of this gender discrepancy is the omission of Jocelyn Bell Burnell. She discovered pulsars back in 1967 and published a paper with Antony Hewish, her advisor. In 1974, Hewish and one other colleague, Martin Ryle, received the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics. Bell Burnell was left out.
Alfred Nobel may have founded the awards, but he also invented explosives, including dynamite. This sullied his reputation, and he was once referred to as “The merchant of death” by a French newspaper, which had mistakenly printed his obituary. The article also stated that he became wealthy by finding ways to “kill more people faster than ever before.” This story could have been the impetus that led him to create the awards, as a way to return honor to his name.