Nobel Prize: The prestigious award that captures the world's attention

The Nobel Prize is considered the most prestigious award in the world. Prize-winning discoveries include X-rays, radioactivity and penicillin. Peace Laureates include Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama. Nobel Laureates in Literature, including Rudyard Kipling and Doris Lessing, have thrilled readers with works such as The Jungle Book and The Grass is Singing .

See a list of the 2012 Nobel Laureates and photos from the Nobel week on the official Nobel Prize website.


Nobel prize ceremony
Each year King Carl XVI Gustaf personally presents a diploma to the winners during a stately ceremony in the Stockholm Concert Hall.
Photo: Dan Hansson/SvD/Scanpix

Every year in early October, the world turns its gaze towards Sweden and Norway as the Nobel Laureates are announced in Stockholm and Oslo. Millions of people visit the Nobel Foundation’s website during this time.

The Nobel Prize has been awarded to people and organizations every year since 1901 (with a few exceptions such as during World War II) for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace.

December 10 is Nobel Day. For the prizewinners, it is the climax of a week of speeches, conferences and receptions.

At the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in Stockholm that day, the Laureates in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, and Literature receive a medal from the King of Sweden, as well as a diploma and a cash award. The ceremony is followed by a gala banquet. The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo on the same day.

Prize in Economic Sciences

In 1968, Sveriges Riksbank (Sweden’s central bank) established the Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. The Prize is based on a donation received by the Nobel Foundation in 1968 from Sveriges Riksbank on the occasion of the bank’s 300th anniversary. The Prize in Economic Sciences is awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, following the same principles as for the Nobel Prizes.

Legacy of Alfred Nobel

The Nobel Prize is the legacy of Sweden’s Alfred Nobel (1833-1896). Prizes are awarded to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” When he signed his last will in 1895, Nobel declared that the bulk of his estate should be converted into a fund and invested in safe securities.

The four institutions in Sweden and Norway (the two countries were united between 1814 and 1905) conferring the prizes were to be “the Swedish Academy of Sciences, Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, the Academy in Stockholm” and “a committee of five persons to be elected by the Storting” (the Norwegian Parliament)


The Nobel Foundation

In 1900, the four institutions awarding the prizes agreed to create the Nobel Foundation, a private institution based on the will of Alfred Nobel. The Nobel Foundation would administer Alfred Nobel’s willed assets, totaling SEK 31 million (USD 4.4 million, EUR 3.4 million), make public announcements and arrange the prize ceremonies. The prize amount each year is based on the most recent return on investment. The capital is currently worth around SEK 3.0 billion (USD 427 million, EUR 330 million), which is almost twice the amount of the initial capital, taking inflation into account.

The Nobel Prize is currently SEK 8 million (USD 1.1 million, EUR 0.8 million) for each prize category, even when the prize is shared. There may be no more than three Laureates for each prize category.

Organizations affiliated with the Prize

The Nobel Prize is affiliated with several organizations and institutions entrusted with different tasks related to the Prize. The Nobel Foundation Rights Association was established in 1999 to meet the demands of an expanding global audience wanting to access quality information about the Nobel Laureates and their achievements via a range of media.

This non-profit association serves as an umbrella organization for the following three entities:

  • Nobel Media AB, which manages and develops media rights for the Nobel Prize in connection with TV and web production, distribution, publishing and events.
  • The Nobel Museum AB, housed in Börshuset (the Old Stock Exchange Building) in Stockholm’s Old Town, which depicts a century of creativity through the Nobel Prize and the achievements of the Nobel Laureates.
  • The Nobel Peace Center, the aim of which is to present the Nobel Peace Prize and the work of the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates. The Center is located at Rådhusplassen in Oslo, Norway.

The father of dynamite

Alfred Nobel was a chemist, engineer, inventor and entrepreneur. He was born on October 21, 1833, in Stockholm and died on December 10, 1896, in San Remo. He was devoted to the study of explosives, and his inventions include a blasting cap, dynamite and smokeless gunpowder. Nobel became famous across the world when the St. Gotthard Tunnel was built in 1882 and dynamite was used for the first time on such a large scale.

At the time of his death, Nobel held 355 patents in different countries. There were Nobel parent companies in some 20 countries and explosives of all kinds were being manufactured under his patents in around 100 factories worldwide.

Nobel lived and worked in many countries, including Sweden, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy. He spoke five languages, had a passionate interest in literature and wrote poetry and drama. He could never have imagined how important his prize would become, or how much media attention future Nobel Laureates would attract.

The inventor, chemist and benefactor Alfred Nobel
Alfred Nobel. Photo: Nobelmuseet

One hundred and twelve years of Nobel Prizes

Between 1901, when the first Nobel Prize was awarded, and 2012, a total of 863 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to individuals and organizations. Together, they represent a major contribution to the cultural and scientific history of the world.

Between 1901 and 2012, 839 Laureates and 24 organizations have been awarded the Nobel Prize. Together, they represent a major contribution to the cultural and scientific history of the world. A small number of individuals and organizations have been honored more than once, which means that a total of 835 individuals and 21 unique organizations have received the Nobel Prize.

The first Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1901, went to Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, who discovered X-rays, or Roentgen rays, which are used by health care providers every day around the world.

In 1905, the Austrian baroness and author Bertha von Suttner became the first female Laureate, winning the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the peace movement in Germany and Austria.

Marie Skłodowska Curie received her second Nobel Prize in 1911 – this time in chemistry – for isolating and studying the new element radium. That discovery and her research into radioactivity, which led to the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, constituted major contributions to medical science.

In 1912, the Swedish inventor and industrialist Gustaf Dalén won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to lighthouse technology. In the early 1900s, he invented the AGA lighthouse, a type of automatic lighthouse that ran on acetylene gas. The supply of gas was controlled by a sun valve that shut off the gas in daylight, and a revolving light apparatus that allowed the beacon to flash by switching the gas supply off and on at brief, regular intervals. The two technologies made it possible to reduce gas consumption by 90 percent compared with earlier constructions.

X-rays; AGA lighthouse, a type of automatic lighthouse that runs on acetylene gas; the molecular structure of DNA – the double helix; Penicillin
Prize-winning discoveries (clockwise from left): X-rays; AGA lighthouse, a type of automatic lighthouse that runs on acetylene gas; the molecular structure of DNA – the double helix; Penicillin. Photos: Shutterstock, and Gettyimages

In the fall of 1945, the Nobel Assembly of professors at Karolinska Institutet gathered to select a Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine. They chose three Laureates, including Alexander Fleming, for their discovery of penicillin, which saved millions of lives in the second half of the 20th century.

In 2007, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore. Gore has made a significant contribution in pushing climate change to the top of the „international political agenda, primarily as a result of his book and film An Inconvenient Truth. Other Nobel Peace Prize Laureates who have infl uenced the world are Martin Luther King (1964), Nelson Mandela (1993) and Barack Obama (2009).

Nobel Laureates in Literature include Ernest Hemingway (1945), Toni Morrison (1993), Dario Fo (1997) and Harold Pinter (2005). The oldest Laureate in literature is Doris Lessing, who won the prize in 2007 at the age of 87.

The Nobel Prize calendar

The Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in Stockholm is held on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. On the same day, the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo, Norway.

A number of other activities also take place during the same week, and receptions and dinners are held by the institutions awarding prizes, the Nobel Foundation and the Swedish royal family. The Laureates deliver lectures and talk about their work, and panel discussions and other public appearances are usually arranged. Traditionally, the Laureates and their spouses sit with the royal family at the Nobel Banquet. They are also invited to a more intimate dinner at the Royal Palace, where they meet the royal family again. Visiting the Nobel Foundation is a great symbolic event.

The Laureates receive a document confirming the prize amount and sign their names in a guestbook, thereby joining hundreds of famous predecessors.