Which author was out grocery shopping when she was named Literature laureate? What was the medal mix-up that took diplomats years to resolve? And who were the famous dictators nominated for Peace?
The medals are cast with 18 carat gold and plated with 24 carat gold and due to their weight (175g which is worth some 50,000 SEK or 5,700 EUR) sometimes subject to medal theft. Photo: Markus Marcetic/Scanpix
It’s that time of year again. Come October the annual announcement of the Nobel Laureates makes headline-grabbing news in the international media. Yet, even before the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901, they were being hyped and talked about around the world.
“The first public announcement comes at the opening of Alfred Nobel’s will in 1896,” says Olof Somell, education officer at Stockholm’s Nobel Museum. The testament of the Swedish inventor and industrialist reveals that part of his fortune should be used to “award those who have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”
“In the following years, it is already being discussed in newspapers,” Somell adds. “So really from the beginning it is described as an important award.”
Over 800 Laureates later, the winners have furnished the world with great inventions, wondrous prose and remarkable feats of human nature. However, Nobel Prize recipients have also been subject to a fair share of debate.
The Nobel Peace Prize
Ironically, it seem the Peace Prize creates the biggest cause of conflict in the choice of Laureates. Both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin have been nominated; albeit under rather different circumstances.
Swedish parliamentarian Erik Brandt nominated Adolf Hitler in 1939. It was a political comment in response to a member of the Swedish opposition who had nominated then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain for the ‘Peace in our Time’ agreement. Brandt hurriedly withdrew his nomination within days.
Stalin on the other hand was a serious contender, whose name was forwarded along with Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt for winning World War II.
After the formal dinner, a less formal afterparty takes place and is usually juicy for the press that is attending. Photo: Fredrika Berghult/Nobel media AB/imagebank.sweden.se
Members of the Nobel committee rarely comment on specific cases but have aired their regret over the omission of Mahatma Gandhi on the honors list. The prominent Indian independence leader was nominated four times for the Peace Prize. His final nomination in 1948 happened just days before his assassination. That year no award was made on the grounds that “there was no suitable living candidate.”
No thanks, Nobel
There is no official mechanism for declining a Nobel Prize. Even if a chosen Laureate publicly revokes the award, their name is not struck from the ranks, so to speak.
Such is the case for French writer Jean-Paul Sartre, the Literature Laureate who turned it down in 1964. Although the author habitually declined all honors, the Swedish Academy still went ahead with their choice. Literary researchers will have to wait until 2014 to find out why when the archives are unsealed — 50 years on.
Vietnamese politician Le Duc Tho is one of the very few other Laureates to decline. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 jointly with Henry Kissinger for negotiating the Paris Peace accords, intended to bring ceasefire during the Vietnam War. In an interview 20 years later, Tho stated he did not want the offended party to share a prize with the aggressor.
Show me the money
Laureates are allowed to spend the prize money on whatever they want. We know Albert Einstein was a scientific genius but he also had the brainpower to foresee a future Nobel Prize. He was awarded the Physics Prize in 1921 and had already promised his winnings to first wife Mileva Marić in their earlier divorce settlement.
Winston Churchill needed the money. The 1953 Literature Laureate wrote a relieved letter to wife Clementine stating so after his prize was announced. And in a generous bout of goodwill, Swedish physicist Gustav Dalén, the 1912 Physics Laureate, used part of his prize money to give his factory workers an additional week’s salary.
The great medal mix-up
The 1975 The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel or the Economics Prize as it is more often referred to, illustrates the importance of the award by both individuals and state. Shared between Soviet economist Leonid Kantorovich and Dutch-born Tjalling Koopmans, the two claimed their diplomas and medals in the Stockholm ceremony. On closer inspection when they returned home, they realized they had the wrong medals — each other’s.
By that time Koopmans was residing in the United States. Nowadays, this perhaps would have been an embarrassment but no big deal. Yet in the midst of the Cold War era, it took four years of diplomatic efforts to repatriate the medals back to their rightful owners.
The magic call
Waking up a US president in the middle of the night isn't really something you do — even if you are the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. In 2009, Barack Obama was informed of the honor by his press secretary. Moments later his daughter confirmed the news. “Malia walked in and said, ‘Daddy, you won the Nobel Peace Prize, and it is Bo’s (the family dog) birthday,’” Obama told the press in a White House statement.
The respective Nobel awarding institutions usually make the “magic call” at around 12 noon CET to inform the year’s Laureates. Wherever you are in the world, it can come rather unexpectedly.
Tomas Tranströmer of Sweden became the 2011 Literature Laureate Photo: Dan Hansson/DN/Scanpix
The 2011 Economic Laureate Chris Sims was convinced it was a prank call until his wife, who answered the phone, suggested the Swedish accent was too good to be fake. In 2012 Chemistry Laureate Robert J. Lefkowitz was sound asleep with earplugs only to wake up to the call when his wife hit him with her elbow.
And a normal day in the life of an 87-year-old author Doris Lessing was made rather more Nobel in 2007. The newly-announced Literature Laureate became aware of the honor when she returned home from the food store to find a crowd of journalists at her front door.
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Christine Demsteader is a British journalist residing in Stockholm with only two minor honors to her name – winning first prize in a Tina Turner impersonation contest on holiday and claiming the runner up award for a tap dance routine, aged eight.