by Crystal Zhao

When Alfred Nobel, a successful Swedish weapons engineer, was 55 years old, it was rumored that an obituary in a French paper rather crassly titled, “The Merchant of Death is Dead,” informed him of his own passing. In actuality, the newspaper had confused him with another relation, but the damage was done. Nobel was determined to change his legacy, and many speculate that this episode was what led him to use his fortune to fund an award that would be given to people who had “conferred the greatest benefits on mankind.” Regardless of the unclear origins of this prize, it is recognized today as perhaps the most illustrious prize in the world, with such prominent laureates as Martin Luther King Jr., Hemingway, Einstein, Fleming, and Curie.

Nobel’s motivations are far from the only obscure aspects of the award. The six categories are literature, peace, physics, medicine and physiology, chemistry, and economics, which was only added to the Nobel prize family in 1968, 67 years after the inaugural awards. As a Swede, it wasn’t surprising that Nobel gave the responsibility of conferral to various prestigious Swedish institutions, but the exception was the peace prize. His will indicated that winners should be chosen by the Norwegian parliament. Historians have speculated that Nobel took into account Sweden’s martial history, and Norway’s relative peace mongering traditions, but with only the directions in his will to go off of, we have no way of knowing for sure.

Members of the committees are also bound to secrecy, so little is known about the actual selection process. In addition, the records from committee meetings and other proceedings are sealed for 50 years. We do know that people must be nominated by other prominent figures in their field, and that the prize cannot be awarded posthumously. The highlights of what was uncovered in unsealed documents include the following: 1) John Steinbeck, winner of the 1962 Literature prize, was nominated eleven times spanning back to 1943, 2) Gandhi was nominated twelve times, and many believe that the politics of the time and the alliances of the Swedish government barred him from ever receiving it, and 3) this wasn’t the first or last time that a committee rejected someone due to politics.

For a world-renowned prize, very little is known about the Nobel prize. Perhaps fifty years later, we will finally know how the committee felt about Bob Dylan’s snub.



Dubner, Steven. “How to Win a Nobel Peace Prize.” Freakonomics