On this day: the first Nobel Prizes are awarded

December 10 1901: Honouring science, the arts and activism around the globe

By Jennifer Lipman, December 10, 2010

As the famous story goes, Alfred Nobel – the inventor of dynamite – was disturbed to read his own obituary. It was less the news of his premature death than the headline: “the merchant of death is dead”.

He was desperate to change this and be remembered for something else and, accordingly, the Nobel Prize was born.

Originally awarded in December 1901 for physics, chemistry and physiology or medicine, literature and peace, an economics category was added in 1968. In total, 817 people and 23 organisations have been given the prizes, although their have been years when no awards were given out, including during the First and Second World Wars.

In that time, more than 180 people of Jewish descent have won or shared the prize. They include Israeli prime ministers (Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin), and a president (Shimon Peres), along with a broad range of writers, scientists and activists.

The novelist Saul Bellow won it in 1976, two years before Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. Five years after the peace prize was awarded to human rights activist Rene Cassin, it was given to President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for bringing about a ceasefire in Vietnam.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel won in 1986, while economists Milton Friedman and Joseph Stiglitz won in 1976 and 2001 respectively.

Others who were known in their fields but less familiar to those outside them, have taken the accolade over the years. And although men have taken the majority of Nobel prizes, many Jewish women have been given them; the list includes the German Holocaust-poet Nelly Sachs, South African antiapartheid campaigner Nadine Gordimer and for chemistry, Ada Yonath of Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science.

What the Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks wrote in the JC: A mere fifth of a per cent of the population of the world, Jews have produced 39 per cent of Nobel Prize winners in economics, 26 per cent in physics, 28 per cent in medicine, nine winners of the Nobel Peace Prize and 47 per cent of world chess champions. It is an unparalleled achievement, so much so that a former editor of The Times, William Rees-Mogg, wrote that "any modern man who has not learned to think as though he were a Jew can hardly be said to have learned to think at all".

See more from the JC archives here.

Last updated: 11:56am, January 10 2011