Alfred Nobel was a Swedish inventor who created new types of explosives. He made millions, and bequeathed nearly all of his fortune to establishing the prizes named for him. Read on for some surprising facts about the Nobel Prizes, whose honorees in six categories are always dynamite in their fields.
1. A mistaken obituary gave Alfred Nobel the idea for the prizes.
The story goes that Alfred Nobel was inspired to establish his awards in 1864 after a French newspaper mistakenly ran his obituary, called "The merchant of death is dead." Nobel didn't want that to be his legacy, and began thinking of more productive ways to be remembered for posterity. (The obituary was supposed to be for Nobel's younger brother Emil, who died while experimenting with nitroglycerine in their father's factory.)
The Nobel Prizes are announced in October and awarded December 10 each year, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel's actual death. He died of a stroke at the age of 63 in 1896.
2. One of the Nobel Prize ceremonies takes place in Norway.
The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo, Norway, and presented by the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, while the other Nobel Prizes are awarded in Stockholm and presented by the King of Sweden. Alfred Nobel planned it that way in his will:
"The prizes for physics and chemistry shall be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; that for physiological or medical works by the Caroline Institute in Stockholm; that for literature by the Academy in Stockholm; and that for champions of peace by a committee of five persons to be elected by the Norwegian Storting."
3. There's no Nobel Prize for economics.
Notice that Nobel didn't mention economics in his will: that's because the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences is not a "Nobel Prize." It's technically the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. Sweden's central bank created the endowment in 1968.
4. The Nobel Prizes come with cash.
5. Organizations can win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Only individuals can be nominated for the Nobel Prizes in medicine, chemistry, literature, and physics, as well as the economics prize. Recent organizations that have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize include the World Food Programme (2020), the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (2017), the European Union (2012), and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007).
6. Up to three individuals can win each Nobel Prize.
For teams larger than three, the committee will choose who gets left out. If two people win, the prize money is split equally. If three people win, the awarding committee chooses how to divide the prize.
7. People don't know when they've been nominated for a Nobel Prize.
Nobel Prize nomination records are kept sealed for 50 years after the award is given. Winners don't know they're nominated until they win. So go ahead, assume you almost won the Nobel Prize.
8. There are no posthumous Nobel Prize nominations.
Eleanor Roosevelt, James Joyce, Mahatma Gandhi, and many others will never be able to bask in the Nobel spotlight. Gandhi was this close to winning: He'd been nominated a number of times and had just been nominated a third time days before his 1948 assassination. Geir Lundestad, a former director of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, called Gandhi's absence from the list of Nobel laureates "the greatest omission" in the prize's history. If you're awarded the Nobel Prize but die before the December 10 ceremony, however, you're still a winner.
9. Alfred Nobel originally intended to give awards for work from the preceding year.
That criteria occasionally meant honoring ideas in the sciences that weren't sufficiently tested or investigated. Case in point: Johannes Fibiger's 1926 discovery that parasitic worms allegedly caused cancer in rats. (They don't.) Now most scientific discoveries and innovations are honored after they've stood the test of time.
10. Evening wear is a must for Nobel laureates.
Nobel laureates are required to give a public lecture within six months of accepting their award. Most of them fulfill the obligation during Nobel Week in Stockholm. Then, at the end of the week, they get to party. The Nobel banquet includes live music, a three-course dinner, dancing, and a strict dress code. Men must wear white-tie apparel, consisting of "a black tailcoat with silk facings, sharply cut away at the front; black trousers with two rows of braid down each leg, white stiff-fronted shirt, white stiff wing collar attached to the shirt with collar studs, white bow tie, white low-cut waistcoat, black dress socks and black formal shoes." Women have it a little easier, with no restrictions on the color or design of their evening gowns. Long gloves and a shawl are optional.
A version of this story was originally published in 2013; it has been updated for 2021.