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Arland O. Fiske: Alfred Nobel and the prizes

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If you take a tour of Stockholm, Sweden, your guide will certainly point out the grand Hotel and comment, “That’s where the Nobel prizes are announced.”  The awards in physics, chemistry, medicine and literature have been given there since 1901. The award for economics, given only since 1969, is also announced in Stockholm. The politically important Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo, Norway.

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The man who started the world’s most prestigious awards was Alfred Nobel (1833-1896), a Swedish chemist. Nobel’s father had been an inventor and made it possible for him to study in St. Petersburg and in the United States.

His international fame came from experimenting with nitroglycerin in his father’s factory. In 1967, after years of work, he combined it with an absorbent substance that could be safely shipped. He called it “dynamite,” from a Greek word meaning, “power.”  Nobel intended it to be used for peaceful purpose, especially in engineering and in road building.

It wasn’t long before Nobel became one of the richest men in the world.

He built factories in many countries and purchased the Bofors armament plant in Sweden.

Among the other things he experimented on were synthetic rubber and artificial silk. A lover of literature, he wrote several plays and novel. These, however, did not bring him fame.

An idealistic Swede, Nobel’s fragile health suffered intense guilt when he saw his prized dynamite being used for war.

He had only thought of peaceful uses. In his will, an endowment fund of $9,000,000, money from his estate, was set aside for prizes to promote international peace.

The Swedish Central Bank provides the money for the prize in economics.

All the awards, except the Peace Prize, are given out in Stockholm.

For some unclear reason, Nobel turned over the management of this award to the Norwegian Parliament (Storting) that appoints a committee of five to make its selection. All the awards are made on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death. Two or more persons may share the prize, or no award may be made at all. No one is allowed to apply for these prizes. A “qualified” person must make nominations.

Immense prestige is connected with the Nobel Prizes in addition to the money.

I noted this on a trip to Norway in 1985 when I obtained a copy of the Yearbook for the Norwegian (State) Church. The picture of Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa was on the front cover.

In the American press, hardly a reference is made to Archbishop Tutu without noting that he is a “Nobel Peace Prize” winner.

The award reflects the feelings the consensus of the Norwegian people.

They were among the strongest to oppose the Apartheid polices of the South African government. The Scandinavian Air System (SAS) even stopped flights to South Africa. The recognition of Archbishop Tutu has added to his stature as a leader in his country.

To read through the list of awards since they began in 1901, over a hundred years ago, is to review a “who’s who” of the world’s most influential people of the twentieth century. Besides Desmond Tutu, some of the other recipients have been Wilhelm Roentgen, Theodore Roosevelt, Rudyard Kipling, Albert Einstein, Selma Lagerlof, George Bernard Shaw, Niels Bohr, Arthur Compton, Jane Adams, Enrico Fermi, Linus Pauling, Winston Churchill, Dag Hammarskjold, Albert Einstein, Milton Friedman, Norman Borlaug, Eli Wiesel and Mother Theresa.

Americans have won the largest number of the awards, followed by the Germans, English and French. Seven organizations have won awards, including the United Nations High Commission of Refugees. Only two winners have declined to accept the awards, Boris Pasternak (1973) and Jean Paul Sartre (1977), both in literature.

It’s a strange twist of events that the Scandinavians, once the terror of western Europe, should now be the world’s foremost promoters of peace; and that the invention of dynamite, intended for peace, should now be the stock in trade for terrorists.

The $9,000,000 trust fund still speaks eloquently in a time when the money of influence is counted rather in billions.

Next Week: Impressions of “Native Americans” by Swedish Immigrants.

ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.

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