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The Legacy of Alfred Nobel

by Legacy Staff

We examine the intriguing life of the man behind the Nobel Prize.

This week, Nobel Prizes will be awarded to individuals with outstanding accomplishments in science, economics and literature. But perhaps most notable – and sometimes controversial – is the Nobel Peace Prize, given to the person who has “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.”

Yet during his lifetime, prize creator Alfred Nobel (1833–1896) did more to enhance conflict than to hinder it. He was known for inventing dynamite and other more powerful explosives, creations that were “useful to the art of making war,” as www.nobelprize.org notes.


The posthumous gift funding the peace prize was largely earned in the munitions business. A quick study of Nobel reveals a complex character whose motivations can only be guessed at. Here are three theories as to why he added the category to his awards list:

1. The obituary

The Swedish-born Nobel was a trained chemical engineer with more than 300 patents to his name. He began experimenting with nitroglycerin in the early 1860s.

In 1864, a lab explosion in Stockholm killed Nobel’s younger brother, Emil, and four others. A local newspaper mistakenly thought Alfred had died, and published an obituary that noted his inventions had made it possible for humans to kill each other more easily.

“What he read horrified him: The newspaper described him as a man who had made it possible to kill more people more quickly than anyone else who had ever lived,” Rabbi Dov Greenberg wrote in “The Man Who Changed His Life After Reading His Obituary,” an article on www.chabad.org.

“At that moment, Nobel realized two things: that this was how he was going to be remembered, and that this was not how he wanted to be remembered.”

It’s a great story and it’s partly true, confirmed Annika Pontikis, public relations manager for the Nobel Foundation. The reality is more complex.

Yes, Nobel saw his obituary in advance. And yes, he was unhappy about what he read. Still, it was probably not the only factor that influenced him to create a peace prize, she said.

While Nobel did not develop dynamite with war in mind, it was soon put to that use. Dynamite was used to harm people in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) first by the Prussians and later by the French, author Sven Tagil wrote on www.nobelprize.org.

Even after the obituary incident, Nobel continued to work in the weapons industry. He spent the last decade of his life engaging in “the development and exploitation of different weapons technology inventions, for instance rockets, cannons and progressive powder,” Tagil said.

2. Nobel’s relationship with peace activist Bertha von Suttner

Von Suttner was an Austrian countess and author of a famous anti-war novel, “Lay Down Your Arms.” Through her influence, Nobel became a member and financial supporter of the Austrian Peace Society.

Yet he continued to use his skills to build weapons. In one exchange with von Suttner, according to Tagil, Nobel employed what was perhaps “a comfortable way to defend his own activities.” He wrote: “Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: On the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.”

Some have said it’s unlikely von Suttner was such a great influence on Nobel. But after writing his last will, which details the formulation for the Peace Prize, Nobel told von Suttner what he’d done.

“She expressed her delight: ‘Whether I am around then or not does not matter; what we have given, you and I, is going to live on,'” Tagil wrote.

3. A fanatic motivated by a poet

Author Henrick Schuck concluded that Nobel’s interest in peace was fanatical.

He believed Nobel was influenced by the work of British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who promoted a utopian pacifism. One of Shelley’s poems, “The Masque of Anarchy,” has been called a statement on passive resistance. It was written after a conflict between the British cavalry and protestors seeking parliamentary reform that ended with 15 protestors dead.

Nobel’s exact motivation will never be known. More than a century later, it is safe to say that most of us see Nobel Prize winners as some of the world’s most intelligent and gifted citizens. Lawrence K. Altman, a doctor and writer for The New York Times, questioned that idea in an essay in 2006:

“Nobel winners are selected for their discoveries, not their IQs, and most are not geniuses,” said one Nobel laureate, Dr. Michael S. Brown of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

Brown recalled a moment when laureates met in Stockholm to celebrate the centennial of the Nobel Prizes. “If you really want to know what Nobel Prize winners are like, you should have been in the breakfast line seeing all these brilliant people wandering around randomly trying to find the scrambled eggs. It was like anything but a group of brilliant folks.”

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she’s now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, “Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone’s world that we’re often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we’re alive.”

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