It’s that time of year when Nobel Prize winners are announced, and Connecticut was once again honored to learn last week that this year’s Nobel Prize for Medicine will be given to a trio of men including Yale University’s Dr. James E. Rothman “for their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells.” Rothman is the 52nd recipient of a Nobel Prize associated with New Haven’s Yale University, and although most people have heard of the Nobel Prizes, few understand the surprising reason for their existence: the false reports of Alfred Nobel’s death.
Born into a Swedish family of chemists and engineers in 1833, Alfred Nobel had a naturally inventive mind from an early age. Even though he didn’t have much in the way of formal education, Nobel owned over 300 patents for inventions and became an immensely wealthy man, especially because he invented dynamite. His invention of dynamite led, in turn, to the invention of cordite — a substance that enabled arms makers to perfect the long-range artillery shell. It was the invention of cordite that led to this famous headline in a Paris newspaper on April 13, 1888: “The Merchant of Death Is Dead.”
In fact, Nobel’s brother, Ludwig, had died the day before, but it had been falsely reported that Alfred had died. Thus, Alfred Nobel had an opportunity to see what the world thought of him by reading his own obituary. He didn’t like what he saw; in fact, his negative portrayal as the “merchant of death” of the 19th century put him into a prolonged bout of depression for months.
Finally, he decided to change his legacy. He re-did his will and left the vast majority of his enormous wealth to fund five prizes in fields that benefit mankind: Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, and Peace. (A sixth category in Economics was created in 1968.) The seed money from Nobel’s vast wealth was so enormous that only the interest off of that wealth is paid out annually for the six prizes. The principal never gets eroded, so the prizes will be perpetual. Each prize is worth about $1.2 million. In the case of Yale’s Dr. Rothman, that figure will be divided equally among the three recipients.
Nobel changed his will privately to fund the prizes, so that when he died on Dec. 10, 1896, his family and friends were surprised and angry to learn that most of them had been excluded from his vast estate. Legal challenges to the will were rejected, and the prizes began to be awarded in 1901. It is safe to say that a Nobel Prize is now considered to be among the most prestigious awards in the world.
Since their inception in 1901, Nobel Prizes have been awarded to Americans 333 times. Most of those awards—96—have been in the field of medicine. Those prizes have been a source of tremendous good for the world. Just imagine, however, that those prizes would never have existed had not a Paris newspaper mistakenly reported the death of Alfred Nobel in 1888! That mistake gave the “merchant of death” an opportunity for a chance to change his legacy. He succeeded, and the world is a better place for it.