The story of the Nobel Prize

It is a miracle that Alfred Nobel's will survived, and the award he founded became the most prestigious in the world

The story of the Nobel Prize
Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi of India received the Nobel Peace Prize in an impressive ceremony attended by King Harald V of Norway and many other dignitaries in Oslo on December 10. The youngest recipient ever, Malala was recognized by the Nobel Committee for her courageous stand in support of girls’ education in Pakistan. She pledged that she would donate her share of the prize to the Malala Fund, dedicated to building girls’ schools in Pakistan.

To date, only two Pakistanis, Professor Abdus Salam and Malala Yosufzai, have won the world’s most prestigious award. Professor Salam, the renowned scientist, was honored in1979 for his seminal contributions to particle physics.

In comparison, eight Indians, all non-Muslims, have received the Prize. The latest, Kailash Satyarthi, was honored for his indefatigable struggle to save children from abuse and child labor. Of all the religious and ethnic communities, Jews have won the highest number of prizes. They have received 194 or approximately 23 percent of all the prizes awarded since its inception in 1901, while constituting only 0.2 percent of the world’s population. Their success has much to do with their upbringing that, dating back to the Middle Ages, emphasizes the tradition of acquiring knowledge and learning.
Of the 889 Nobel winners since 1901, only 11 were Muslims

Considering their share in the world population, relatively few Muslims have achieved the Nobel Prize. Out of a total 889 winners since 1901, only 11 have been Muslims. Most of them (seven) received the Peace Prize, including Mohammad Yunus of Bangladesh, while Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt and Orhan Pamuk of Turkey were honored for their contributions to literature. Besides Professor Salam, the only other Muslim scientist to receive the prize is Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian who won it in chemistry (1999). Both scientists, however, performed their pioneering research work outside their own countries, either in England or the United States.

Unfortunately, both Pakistani Nobel laureates have been the subjects of derision and controversy in some quarters in their own country, instead of approbation for the credit and goodwill they brought to their nation. Professor Salam, who was intensely patriotic and rendered valuable services in creating training opportunities for Pakistanis and other young third-world scientists in Europe, has been labeled as a non-Muslim for belonging to the minority Ahmadi community. Malala, who almost lost her life at the hand of Taliban militants, has become the subject of implausible conspiracy theories and derided for being an admired figure in the west, and, paradoxically, for winning the Nobel Prize.


Dr James Watson
Dr James Watson

The Nobel Prize winners receive a diploma, a gold medal and a check which currently amounts to 1.4 million dollars. Historically, no Nobel laureate has ever during his or her lifetime sold the gold medal. However, recently much sensation was created by the news that 86-year old Dr James Watson, who along with Dr Francis Crick and Dr. Maurice Wilkins received the Nobel Prize in 1962, intended to auction his medal. Dr Watson has become an iconic figure. Working at Cambridge University in England in 1953, he and the other two scientists jointly deciphered the double-helix structure of DNA. Their discovery illuminated the mechanism of inheritance of genetic traits transmitted from parents to children and spawned a new era of the science of genomics. The research has found applications in understanding the disease process and the promises potential cures for a constellation of illnesses, including cancer. Dr Watson announced that he would donate the bulk of the money from the sale of his medal to various educational institutions he had attended as a student.

Dr Watson has an eccentric character, and is known for his outlandish public utterances. He generated much controversy in 2007 when, in an interview with the Sunday Times of London, he suggested that people of African descent were less intelligent than those belonging to other ethnic groups. He later apologized for his comments, admitting that there was no scientific evidence to support his assertions. However, the resulting outcry forced him to resign from his position as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), a major research institution in genetics in New York State. Dr Watson complains that, since making the statement, he had been ostracized and shunned by scientific groups. However, he is in no financial trouble. Far from it. He is reported to have received over half a million dollars in 2012 from the CSHL.

The gold medal is a cherished possession and is passed on from one generation to the next. There is only one known case when descendents of late Dr Crick who died in 2004 and who shared the prize with Dr Watson did sell his gold medal for a price estimated to be $2.27 million to the chief executive of a Chinese biotech Company. Although the value of the gold contained in the medal is not high, the real market value of the medal resides in its historic association with the winner of the prize.

On December 9th, The New York Times reported that a Russian billionaire, Alisher Usmanov, the richest man in Russia, had paid $4.1 million for Dr Watson’s gold medal at Christie’s Auction House in London. Then in a bizarre twist Mr Usmanov, who is reputed to be worth close to sixteen-billion dollars, announced that he would return the medal to Dr Watson to keep, as he considered it a disgrace that a scientist of his caliber should be forced to sell it to fulfill his charitable ambitions.

The institution of Nobel Prize, that is now more than a century old, has had an interesting life history. Its founder, the Swedish entrepreneur, Alfred Nobel, made his fortune by inventing and commercializing dynamite. He suffered from ill health, never married, had few friends and by his own admission had a miserable life. He, however, bequeathed his vast fortune before his death in 1896 to a foundation to establish five prizes – in medicine, chemistry, physics, literature and peace. A sixth, economics, was added later.

It is a miracle that Alfred Nobel’s will survived various legal challenges and other obstacles. He wrote the will in Swedish all by himself in a long rambling paragraph without consulting any lawyers. Moreover, he did not care to obtain the prior consent of the institutions that he nominated to administer his will. The amount of money he left, approximately, 9.5 million, a huge sum at the time, set off much resentment among his relations who were disinherited. Even the King of Sweden, the public, and newspapers vehemently opposed the distribution of such a vast amount of Swedish wealth to outsiders, as the country was passing through rough economic time. In the end, all hurdles were surmounted.

Over time, the Nobel Prize has evolved as the most exalted and honored award in the world, a mark of ultimate success of individuals and organizations who win it in the named fields of endeavor. In only a few cases has the Nobel Award Committee made mistakes, but by and large their selections have stood the test of time.