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Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

In his remarkable will of November 27, 1895, Alfred Nobel directed that the interest on his fortune should be ‘annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind’. He also specified that one of the five shares of the interest should be given ‘to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine’, and the task of selecting the winners of this award he entrusted to the Caroline Medico-Chirurgical Institute in Stockholm.

Evidence of Nobel’s interest in experimental medical research was furnished by the Russian physiologist I. P. Pavlov, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1904. In his Nobel lecture that year he related that about ten years earlier he and his colleague, M. Nencki, professor of medical chemistry at St. Petersburg, had received from Nobel a considerable sum for the benefit of their respective laboratories. In his letter accompanying the gift, the donor had described his deep interest in physiological experiments and had also discussed the problem of ageing and dying.

In further corroboration of Nobel’s deep interest in medicine, the late Ragnar Sohlman, who was Nobel’s private assistant during his last years and named by him as an executor of his will, has testified that, to the end, the great inventor liked to discuss medical subjects. Once he asked Sohlman to make analyses of urine for him in connection with some ideas he entertained in that field.

Consequently, it is clear that the donation of one of the five shares of his estate as prizes in physiology or medicine was by no means the result of a sudden whim, but rather the climax of a long, continued, personal interest in these subjects. His own successful use of experimental methods in various practical enterprises made it quite natural for him, not only to try the same technique in the medical field himself, but also to encourage others to follow his example in their own efforts to increase medical knowledge.

The fact that medical science was at that time on the verge of a vast and fruitful expansion and had already given some promise of the development that could be expected probably strengthened Nobel’s belief in its future and stimulated in him a desire to help. It may be recalled that another great donor, John D. Rockefeller, who has given greater financial aid to medical research than anyone else, was first induced to begin such aid early in the twentieth century by one of his trusted advisers who impressed him with ‘how woefully neglected the scientific study of medicine had been in all civilized countries and perhaps most of all in his own’.