The Real Reason for the Nobel Prizes?

Front side of one of the Nobel Prize medals.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Nobel

I have always known Alfred Nobel was a Swedish chemist who invented dynamite, and later used the wealth his work created to found the Nobel Prizes (https://www.nobelprize.org/alfred-nobel/). What I never realized was why.

It may have all started with a case of mistaken identity. In 1888, Nobel’s brother Ludvig died in France from a heart attack. In a case of journalistic malfeasance, at least one French newspaper got the brothers confused and reported that it was Alfred who had died. The obituary that was printed was not kind: the headline read “The merchant of death is dead,” good riddance to a man who “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.” (https://www.ozy.com/true-and-stories/the-newspaper-error-that-sparked-the-nobel-prize/40007/) Thus Alfred Nobel was in the unsettling position of reading his own obituary.

This had to have been a shock. Nobel’s biographer Kenne Fant wrote that he “became so obsessed with his posthumous reputation that he rewrote his last will, bequeathing most of his fortune to a cause upon which no future obituary writer would be able to cast aspersions.”

Unfortunately, so much of history is hard to prove. Alfred Nobel himself never explained his reason for creating his eponymous prizes, and no one has been able to find an original copy of that French “Merchant of Death” obituary. Certainly there were other influences.  The inspiration for the science prizes may have come when he received an award from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for “important inventions for the practical use of mankind” in 1868. Perhaps the genesis for a literature prize was because Nobel was a voracious reader who spoke five languages and dabbled in writing plays and poems himself. And granted, Nobel’s life’s work made him an unlikely candidate for a peace prize. But he did have a long friendship with Bertha von Suttner, an Austrian countess remembered for writing an antiwar novel called Lay Down Your Arms. So his exact motivation has been lost to history.

In any event, the facts are the Alfred Nobel was a fabulously wealthy, life-long bachelor who left no heirs. And human nature is such that no one wants to be forgotten. What better way to be remembered than financing a series of prizes with the potential to change the world?

For more detail, see “Did a Premature Obituary Inspire the Nobel Prize?” at https://www.history.com/news/did-a-premature-obituary-inspire-the-nobel-prize.

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