The Nobel Prize is the brainchild of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist who was best known in his lifetime for the invention of dynamite. Upon his death in 1896, a reading of his will revealed stipulations that over 90% of his estate should be used to establish prizes in five categories: physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace.
Many wonder why Nobel established the prizes, and it has often been assumed that he sought to make restitution for creating dynamite. Nobel did catch a glimpse of a French obituary for himself when his brother died and a French newspaper thought he had died. Among other colorful terms, the newspapers called Alfred Nobel a “merchant of death.” Therefore, the restitution to reward the positive aspects of the world remains the popular theory on the establishment of the Nobel Prize.
Alfred Nobel died in 1896, and the first prize was awarded in 1901. Nobel stipulated exactly how the prizes should be determined, and what bodies should be responsible for selecting and awarding them.
According to Nobel’s will, the Swedish Academy of Science was to award a yearly prize in physics and chemistry. The Caroline Institute at Stockholm would award the prize for medicine. The Academy of Stockholm would determine the award for literature. Five members selected by the Norwegian government select the recipient of the annual Peace Prize. The Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo, Norway, while the others are awarded in Stockholm, Sweden. Each award was to be given without regard to nationality and was meant to represent the best and brightest contributors to each field.
Some confusion exists over a sixth category, the prize in economics. This is not technically a Nobel Prize because it was not listed in Nobel’s will, and it does not use Nobel’s foundation to award funds. This award was established in 1969 and is awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences, with the monies awarded from the Bank of Sweden.
Typically, the Nobel Prize includes a medal, international recognition, and a sum of money for ongoing work in the winner's field. Often, the money is not greatly important since the people receiving the award tend to be at the end of their careers. Currently, those receiving the Prize may receive a little over $1 million US dollars (USD).
Since the Prize’s establishment, over 750 awards have been given. They tend not to be awarded posthumously, which has met with some controversy. Some of the recipients of the award have also been criticized. For example, Mahatma Gandhi never won the Nobel Peace Prize, despite his efforts to promote non-violent protests and fair government in India.
Others have complained about the absence of a Nobel Prize for advances in the field of mathematics. In 2002, the Niels Henrik Abel Memorial Fund was created to fill in for this absence. Each year, five mathematicians from the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters select the Abel Prize recipient for his or her outstanding achievements in the field.