Alfred Nobel’s Life and Legacy

From “Merchant of Death” to Founder of the Nobel Peace Prize

By Sheeva Azma

The Nobel Prizes are awarded every year in celebration of scientific achievement.  The Award is named after Alfred Nobel, a researcher and innovator himself. #FancyScienceShared

A photo from my own travels to Stockholm, Sweden — Alfred Nobel’s face on the doors of the Nobel Prize Museum.

Alfred Nobel was a man whose life was riddled with contradictions. While his innovations helped create a version of nitroglycerin that could be used to blast away rock and in mining — which he called dynamite.  Around the same time, scientists discovered nitroglycerin’s use as a medicine to treat chest pain.  After his experimentation with this dangerous compound, and his discovery of dynamite, Alfred Nobel refused to take nitroglycerin for his own heart problems. He died of a stroke in 1896.

The issues with therapeutic use of nitroglycerin was not the only conflict Nobel faced.  His discovery of dynamite was, later on, used as a weapon in wars, which he also did not agree with. After all, Alfred Nobel created dynamite as a safe way to use explosives in construction, mining, railroad transportation, and so on.

Read on to learn more about Alfred Nobel, his life, his thoughts on the use of his technologies, and how he established the Nobel Prizes to celebrate scientific achievement.

About Alfred Nobel

Alfred Bernhard Nobel, the namesake of the Nobel Prizes, was born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1833.  His family was related to famous Swedish scientist Olof Rudbeck. The young Nobel did not formally attend school, but received private tutoring growing up, and showed a natural proclivity for the sciences — especially chemistry.

Alfred Nobel Invented Dynamite 

Besides being the person for whom the Nobel Prizes are named, Alfred Nobel is known for inventing dynamite.  As a young man, he worked with his father manufacturing explosives for the Russian Tsar (at the time, Sweden was annexed by Russia).  Sadly, at the end of the Crimean War, the factory went bankrupt.  The Nobel family had to think of a new way to stay afloat economically and so Alfred began experimenting with new explosive technologies.  Sadly, this experimentation was incredibly dangerous — and led to tragedy.  In 1864, a disastrous explosion killed Alfred’s younger brother Emil.

Around this time, Alfred began to experiment with a substance called nitroglycerin which was discovered in the mid-1840s.  Nitroglycerin’s discoverer, Ascanio Sobrero, was, in reality, horrified by such applications of nitroglycerin to explosives.  Sobrero found the compound too dangerous for any practical uses. 

Nobel studied with Sobrero’s mentor because he believed that the compound’s violent reactivity could be tamed and made more useful.  Alfred Nobel experimented with nitroglycerin and used his experience working with his dad and the rest of his family to eventually develop what we now know as dynamite, an explosive which could be safely used, for example, in mining applications.  He patented his invention in 1867.

In 1868, Nobel received an honorary award from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for “important inventions for the practical use of mankind.”

Alfred Nobel Was Wary of Nitroglycerin’s Medical Applications

Around the same time Alfred Nobel was working on his discoveries, doctors learned that nitroglycerin also can be used to treat chest pain.  Alfred Nobel himself suffered from chest pain, which is also called angina.  In 1890, his doctors recommended he take nitroglycerin to relieve his chest pain, but he refused.  “Isn’t it the irony of fate that I have been prescribed [nitroglycerin], to be taken internally!,” he wrote in a letter to his assistant, and future president of the Nobel Foundation, Ragnar Sohlman.

The mechanism of action of nitroglycerin to treat heart problems was not discovered until decades later.  In 1998, three researchers won the Nobel Prize for discovering nitroglycerin’s mechanism of action to treat chest pain.  

Alfred Nobel’s Inventions — Developed for Peaceful Applications — Made Him Wealthy

Alfred Nobel had developed dynamite for peaceful applications, such as blasting away rock or in mining.  His inventions transformed the “mining, construction and demolition industries,” writes LiveScience. As a result of this innovation, railroads could be built to improve travel and commerce. Nobel obtained 355 patents on his many inventions, and became incredibly wealthy.

Alfred Nobel did not support the use of his technologies for nefarious purposes.  Sadly, this became his legacy as the inventor of dynamite, which is now used in war.  Nobel learned about his legacy as a “merchant of death” due to an error by journalists.  In 1888, when his brother Ludvig died, the newspapers ran Alfred’s obituary by accident, calling him a “merchant of death.”  It is likely this legacy that led Nobel to establishing the Nobel prizes — including the Nobel Peace Prize.

How Were the Nobel Prizes Established?

The establishment of the Nobel Prizes was another aspect of Alfred Nobel’s life and legacy that was also characterized by controversy. When Alfred Nobel died in 1896, he left instructions in his will for the allocation of his assets (by now, as I mentioned, he was rich) towards establishing the Nobel Prizes.  His family did not support the establishment of the Nobel Prize, and the people he mentioned to execute his will did not take on the task.

Alfred Nobel established the Nobel Prizes in Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, and Peace — to be awarded to “the worthiest person” regardless of nationality — after his death. #FancyScienceShared

Nobel’s will specified awarding “prizes to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.”  He specified the creation of these prizes for medicine, physics, chemistry, and peace awarded to “the worthiest person” regardless of nationality — which can all be found in the full text of his will. The first Nobel Prize was finally awarded five years later, in 1901.

Sources:

  1. Alfred Nobel. The Nobel Peace Prize. Sat. 26 Sep 2020. <https://www.nobelpeaceprize.org/History/Alfred-Nobel>
  2. Alfred Nobel’s Will. The Nobel Prize. Sat. 26 Sep 2020. <https://www.nobelprize.org/alfred-nobel/alfred-nobels-will/>
  3. Andrews, E. Did a Premature Obituary Inspire the Nobel Prize? History.com. 23 Jul 2020. <https://www.history.com/news/did-a-premature-obituary-inspire-the-nobel-prize>
  4. Eschner, Kat. The Man Who Invented Nitroglycerin Was Horrified By Dynamite. 12 Oct 2017. <https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/man-who-invented-nitroglycerin-was-horrified-dynamite-180965192/>
  5. Full Text of Alfred Nobel’s Will. The Nobel Prize. Sat. 26 Sep 2020. <https://www.nobelprize.org/alfred-nobel/full-text-of-alfred-nobels-will-2/>
  6. Ghose, T. Happy Birthday, Dynamite: Interesting Facts About the Explosive Material. LiveScience. Sat. 26 Sep 2020. <https://www.livescience.com/59000-interesting-facts-about-dynamite.html>
  7. Lallanilla, M. The Dark Side of the Nobel Prizes. LiveScience. Sat. 26 Sep 2020. <https://www.livescience.com/40188-dark-history-alfred-nobel-prizes.html>
  8. Nitroglycerine and Dynamite. The Nobel Prize. Sat. 26 Sep 2020. <https://www.nobelprize.org/alfred-nobel/nitroglycerine-and-dynamite>
  9. Press Release – The Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine 1998. Sat. 26 Sep 2020. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1998/press-release/>
  10. Ringertz, Nils. Alfred Nobel’s health and his interest in medicine. Sat. 26 Sep 2020. <https://www.nobelprize.org/alfred-nobel/alfred-nobels-health-and-his-interest-in-medicine/>

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