Alfred Nobel’s last will and testament was remarkable in many ways. Friends and relatives received a good share of his fortune, but the larger portion, about 30 million Swedish kronor, went to a fund that would finance prizes of money to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”.
It soon turned out that the institutions which were named in the will to select the prize winners had not been informed in advance. In his will, Nobel had insisted that “no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not”. With all the protests, contradictions, and problems, it was five years after Alfred Nobel died before the first prizes could be awarded, on December 10th 1901.
The whole of my remaining realizable estate shall be dealt with in the following way: the capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund , the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses. The prizes for physics and chemistry shall be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; that for physiological or medical work 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. It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not.
The part of Nobel’s will that dealt with the prizes and those who should award them was not entirely uncontroversial. The literature prize should be awarded by the “Academy in Stockholm”, which was interpreted to mean the Swedish Academy. They had to struggle with the delicate formulation “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency”.
The fifth prize, for the furtherance of peace, was to be awarded by the Norwegian Parliament. This was a sensation. Sweden and Norway formed a union at that time, but voices were increasingly being raised in Norway against the union and for a free Norway. To allow the Peace Prize to be awarded in Oslo in those times of unrest seemed risky. However, it all turned out the way Alfred Nobel wanted.