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NOBEL

Nobel’s last will and testament: a background

Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel (1833-1896), having made his fortune from his 1866 invention of dynamite, ordered the creation of the Nobel Prizes in his will, but it was a long road to the first ceremony and some of the will's finer points still create a stir today.

Nobel's last will and testament: a background

His 1895 testament stipulated his fortune was to be placed in a fund destined to honour “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”

He died a year later in San Remo, Italy, having decreed the bulk of his estate should be invested in “safe securities,” and as a result, some 31.5 million Swedish kronor, the equivalent today of about 1.5 billion Swedish kronor ($225 million, 175 million euros) were used to create the Nobel Foundation.

Nobel’s will specified that the prizes should be divided into five equal parts, apportioned as follows for the physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace prizes:

“One part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

But when Nobel died childless and the will was read, the contents surprised many, including his own family. The document was challenged by two nephews who tried to have it declared null and void, and even King Oscar II of Sweden opposed Nobel’s wishes, saying they were not “patriotic minded.”

Adding to the confusion, Nobel had not appointed an executor for the testament, nor had he consulted the various institutions he had assigned to award the prizes to ensure that they were willing to undertake the task.

After more than three years of haggling, the Nobel Foundation was created to manage the capital in Nobel’s estate and the five institutions agreed to award the prizes as Nobel had wished.

Since 1901, the year the first Nobel prizes were awarded, the Foundation has funded the prestigious awards created by their namesake.

The Nobel Prize for Economics, the only award not included in Nobel’s will, was funded by the Swedish Central Bank, which created the prize at its tercentenary in 1968. It was first awarded in 1969.

In recent years, there has been controversy regarding the winners of the Peace prize, with legal experts arguing that the Norwegian Nominating Committe isn’t following the will.

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NOBEL

US duo win Nobel for work on how heat and touch spark signals to the brain

US scientists David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian on Monday won the Nobel Medicine Prize for discoveries on receptors for temperature and touch.

US duo win Nobel for work on how heat and touch spark signals to the brain
Thomas Perlmann (right), the Secretary of the Nobel Committee, stands next to a screen showing David Julius (L) and Ardem Patapoutian, winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Medicine. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

“The groundbreaking discoveries… by this year’s Nobel Prize laureates have allowed us to understand how heat, cold and mechanical force can initiate the nerve impulses that allow us to perceive and adapt to the world,” the Nobel jury said.

The pair’s research is being used to develop treatments for a wide range of diseases and conditions, including chronic pain. Julius, who in 2019 won the $3-million Breakthrough Prize in life sciences, said he was stunned to receive the call from the Nobel committee early Monday.

“One never really expects that to happen …I thought it was a prank,” he told Swedish Radio.

The Nobel Foundation meanwhile posted a picture of Patapoutian next to his son Luca after hearing the happy news.

Our ability to sense heat, cold and touch is essential for survival, the Nobel Committee explained, and underpins our interaction with the world around us.

“In our daily lives we take these sensations for granted, but how are nerve impulses initiated so that temperature and pressure can be perceived? This question has been solved by this year’s Nobel Prize laureates.”

Prior to their discoveries, “our understanding of how the nervous system senses and interprets our environment still contained a fundamental unsolved question: how are temperature and mechanical stimuli converted into electrical impulses in the nervous system.”

Grocery store research

Julius, 65, was recognised for his research using capsaicin — a compound from chili peppers that induces a burning sensation — to identify which nerve sensors in the skin respond to heat.

He told Scientific American in 2019 that he got the idea to study chili peppers after a visit to the grocery store.  “I was looking at these shelves and shelves of basically chili peppers and extracts (hot sauce) and thinking, ‘This is such an important and such a fun problem to look at. I’ve really got to get serious about this’,” he said.

Patapoutian’s pioneering discovery was identifying the class of nerve sensors that respond to touch.

Julius, a professor at the University of California in San Francisco and the 12-year-younger Patapoutian, a professor at Scripps Research in California, will share the Nobel Prize cheque for 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.1 million, one million euros).

The pair were not among the frontrunners mentioned in the speculation ahead of the announcement.

Pioneers of messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which paved the way for mRNA Covid vaccines, and immune system researchers had been widely tipped as favourites.

While the 2020 award was handed out in the midst of the pandemic, this is the first time the entire selection process has taken place under the shadow of Covid-19.

Last year, the award went to three virologists for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus.

Media, Belarus opposition for Peace Prize?

The Nobel season continues on Tuesday with the award for physics and Wednesday with chemistry, followed by the much-anticipated prizes for literature on Thursday and peace on Friday before the economics prize winds things up on Monday, October 11.

For the Peace Prize on Friday, media watchdogs such as Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists have been mentioned as possible winners, as has the Belarusian opposition spearheaded by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Also mentioned are climate campaigners such as Sweden’s Greta Thunberg and her Fridays for Future movement.

Meanwhile, for the Literature Prize on Thursday, Stockholm’s literary circles have been buzzing with the names of dozens of usual suspects.

The Swedish Academy has only chosen laureates from Europe and North America since 2012 when China’s Mo Yan won, raising speculation that it could choose to rectify that imbalance this year. A total of 95 of 117 literature laureates have come from Europe and North America.

While the names of the Nobel laureates are kept secret until the last minute, the Nobel Foundation has already announced that the glittering prize ceremony and banquet held in Stockholm in December for the science and literature laureates will not happen this year due to the pandemic.

Like last year, laureates will receive their awards in their home countries. A decision has yet to be made about the lavish Peace Prize ceremony held in Oslo on the same day.

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