The Nobel Prize is considered to be one of humanity’s great institutions, recognising those who “have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind“ in the fields of physics,
chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, peace and economics. This year’s winners are no doubt worthy and not particularly controversial, which, when you dig a little deeper, is somewhat unusual.
For starters Alfred Nobel himself was no stranger to controversy, after all he invented dynamite. Furthermore, it was only when a French newspaper labelled him “the merchant of death” in a premature obituary in 1888 that Nobel began to ruminate over his legacy. Naturally he would have preferred to be remembered for some of his less lethal inventions, but the press had showed him that that wasn’t going to cut it so, having thought long and hard, he decided to leave a vast fortune for the foundation of what would become world famous prizes. Upon his death in 1896 the executors of his will set about putting his wish into action. The will generated international fascination for its unprecedented philanthropy, but met with resistance from his family, derision from nationalists and several legal complications. Eventually, in 1901, the first Nobel Prizes were awarded and this was where the real controversy began.
One particular recipient took up Alfred Nobel’s mantle as a merchant of death. Fritz Haber received the prize for chemistry in 1918 for his part in the creation of the Haber-Bosch process. The process is cited as a major factor in global population growth during the 20th century because it allowed for the creation of cheap fertilisers from air. However, Haber was central to the development of poison gases used during World War 1 and his work on pesticide gases was eventually developed by the Nazis into Zyklon-B, the chemical used in the gas chambers during the Holocaust. The sickening irony is that Haber was of Jewish descent and these methods were employed to kill his extended family.
In spite of this, Haber is not widely considered to be the most controversial recipient. Yasser Arafat and Cordell Hull come close, but this distinction goes to Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State for the U.S. during the Nixon and Ford administrations. During this period Kissinger authorised the carpet bombing of Cambodia (the horrific extent of which is exposed here) in an effort to destroy North Vietnamese supply lines and oversaw Operation Condor, a brutal campaign of murder in Latin America conducted against those who sought to undermine U.S. interests. Yet somehow, in 1973, following the negotiation of the Paris Peace Accords, the Nobel committee decided to award Kissinger and North Vietnam’s Lê Đức Thọ the Nobel Peace Prize. Lê Đức Thọ declined the award, claiming there was no peace in Vietnam and two Nobel committee members resigned in protest at Kissinger’s award. History will not remember him as a popular or wise choice.
The words of recipients can also cause controversy, there is something very uncomfortable about hearing some of humanity’s greatest forward thinkers spewing regressive views. None more so than James Watson, proud owner of the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his part in the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure, which is arguably one of the greatest discoveries in history, is also the proud owner of a lot of racist views.
Controversy is not just limited to the recipients though, there have also been cases where the Nobel judges may have sought to influence affairs, such as the case of Barack Obama, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, even though the nominations were due 12 days after he took office. The prize was officially awarded “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples” but the director of the Nobel institute later admitted that the committee “thought it would strengthen Obama and it didn’t have this effect.”. Perhaps the committee were riding high on the wave of Bob the Builder fanaticism that swept the world in 2009, but the “Yes, we can” message is now looking more and more like “Yes, we could have, but no, we didn’t”. To his credit, Obama expressed his surprise and suggested that others were more deserving; I’m inclined to agree with him.
Just as the Nobel Foundation seeks to influence affairs, they have allowed their own affairs to be manipulated by corporate interests. In 2008 Harald zur Hausen was awarded a share of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for “for his discovery of human papilloma viruses causing cervical cancer”. Lucrative patents for the HPV vaccine are owned by AstraZeneca, who also had influence over members of the Nobel Committee and just so happened to be sponsoring Nobel Media and Nobel Web at the time. Probably not a coincidence.
The economics prize itself is further evidence of the Nobel Foundation’s corruptibility. Alfred Nobel never requested an economics prize in his will, but when The Sveriges Riksbank came knocking in 1968 the Foundation were blindsided by a large donation and the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences was born. The prize is given an equal footing with the five official prizes and living relatives have suggested that it is “a PR coup by economists to improve their reputation”.
It is unfair to paint the Nobel Foundation as entirely malevolent… although sexist is a different thing entirely. In 1974 Antony Hewish shared the physics prize “for his decisive role in the discovery of pulsars”. Hewish won the award even though he was not the first to correctly explain pulsars (he called them Little Green Men) and Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Hewish’s graduate student, who was the first to notice the stellar radio source that was later recognized as a pulsar, was overlooked. However, plenty of research students have received the Nobel Prize and 1978 it was awarded for the chanced “detection of Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation”. This clearly eliminates inexperience and incomplete understanding as reasons for the non-award, leaving only two answers that satisfy the facts: 1) total incompetence and 2) institutional sexism. Knowing science as I do, I’d be willing to bet it was the second one.
Having said that, the Nobel Committee are undoubtedly capable of incompetence, largely as a result of their propensity to give out awards prematurely. A textbook example is the 1926 Prize for Physiology or Medicine, which went to Johannes Fibiger for his “discovery” (the quotation marks are a hint) that a species of nematode worm caused cancer. Unfortunately, this was not the case and following Fibiger’s death in 1928 scientists were quick to disprove his work.
So if you didn’t win a Nobel Prize this year, or if you failed to even get nominated, try not to despair. What’s clear is that those charged with deciding which of us “have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind” suffer from the same weaknesses as the rest of mankind. While, they are occasionally fallible and corrupt, more often than not they get it right.