Nobel prizes have been wide-ranging and continue to grow in diversity, says Scandinavian Studies professor

Professor Ingrid Urberg ruminates on Alfred Nobel and the Nobel Prizes, which are becoming more diverse and wide-ranging with each year.

Tia Lalani - 02 December 2019

Professor Ingrid Urberg discusses the namesake behind the world-famous Nobel Prize and what he might think of modern-day award recipients. Photo courtesy of Adam Baker via Flickr.

By Ingrid Urberg

As we journey through life, it is natural to think about what we will eventually leave behind. What will our legacies be? For some, it will be financial security for loved ones or donations to charitable organizations. Others will pass on family heirlooms, traditions or stories and many will have made lasting impacts through their professional lives. As December 10-the anniversary of the death of the Swede Alfred Nobel in 1896- approaches, we observe his impactful legacy as the six prizes funded by his estate and/or established in his name are awarded in Sweden and Norway to scientists, authors, economists and activists from around the world.

Alfred Nobel was a creative individual who was a life-long student with broad interests ranging from literature, languages and philosophy to chemistry and engineering and contemporary social and political issues. Nobel was best-known in his day for his scientific work as a chemist and industrialist, as well as his over 350 patents, including one for dynamite. These activities and interests, along with his fluency in five languages, allowed him not only to live in several European countries and travel widely but also to amass great monetary wealth.

Though the hard-working and reserved Nobel was a generous contributor to scientific and humanitarian causes while alive, he apparently never shared his plans to establish a trust to fund international awards. These annual awards were designated for those who make significant discoveries, improvements and inventions in the areas of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, as well as prizes for outstanding contributions in the areas of literature and peace. Nobel's family, friends and other contemporaries only became aware of his wish to leave this legacy when his will was read after his death in 1896.

When one looks at the wide-ranging work and legacies of the over 900 individuals and nearly 30 organizations which have been awarded Nobel Prizes since 1901, it is clear that their research and discoveries have impacted countless lives across the globe. All of us have been influenced in ways-directly and/or indirectly-by the contributions of scientists such as Canadian Frederick Banting (co-recipient of the 1923 prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of insulin) and Canadian Donna Strickland (2018 co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics for her work on pulsed lasers), writers such as T.S. Eliot, Toni Morrison, Bob Dylan and Alice Munro, as well as the ideas, leadership and actions of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafza, to name but a few. It is noteworthy that several of the prizes have been granted jointly over the years to those who have engaged in collaborative research and peace efforts, demonstrating the value of cooperating within and between disciplines and across national borders.

There have, however, been plenty of controversies surrounding both the Nobel Prize selection processes and the recipients of a number of the Nobel Literature and Peace Prizes. Nobel was rather pessimistic about the ability of people and nations to get along, and while his trust is used to profile those who work to better the human condition, he likely would not have been surprised by the challenges involved with selecting the most deserving recipients. The diversity of those receiving the awards has gradually increased, with this year's laureates coming from Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. Nobel himself was adamant that the nationality of recipients should not play a role in the selection process and would likely be pleased with the gradual increase in the geographic diversity of the prize recipients.

Ingrid Urberg, Scandinavian Studies, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on November 26, 2019.

Please join professors James Kariuki, Gerhard Lotz, Anne McIntosh and Ingrid Urberg on Tuesday, December 3 at 12 pm as they host a Lunch & Learn in the Roger Epp Conference Room at Augustana about this year's winners of the Nobel Chemistry, Peace and Physics Prizes. $5 lunch available upon registration. For more information, please contact or 780-679-1626.