The Nobel Prize is awarded each year thanks to the bequest of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish industrialist who died, childless, in 1896. Alfred Nobel's will, written in 1895, first specified bequests to relatives and friends, and then went on to say that the bulk of his considerable fortune be invested, with the interest going towards prizes to be awarded each year "to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind". The prize was to be divided into five equal parts and apportioned out in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace - or, as he put it in his will, work "for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses". He specified that the awards for physics and chemistry be decided by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; those for physiology or medicine by the Caroline Institute in Stockholm; those for literature by the Academy in Stockholm; and those for "champions of peace" by a committee of five elected by the Norwegian Parliament or Storting. Finally, he stressed that "no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not".
The will caused a sensation, and not just because such generous philanthropic donations were rare at the time. It was written on one page by Nobel himself without legal aid, and some questioned its validity. Many were unhappy with the international character of the awards, though this was congruent with the cosmopolitan lifestyle of Nobel himself, who lived for decades in Paris and died in Italy. His support of chemistry and physics made sense, as Nobel himself was a chemical engineer. He had long had an interest in literature, had an extensive library, and had even done some writing himself. He had lived in poor health most of his life, so his support of medicine was comprehensible. However, Nobel had made his fortune, in large part, through the invention of dynamite and military materiel, and so his support of international peace seemed odd. He may have been influenced to support peace by his long association with his friend, the prominent pacifist Bertha von Suttner; in letters to her he espoused a deterrence philosophy that saw devastating arms and the subsequent threat of annihilation as a mechanism to bring peace.
In any case, his will, though contested by relatives and questioned by many, held, and after four years of wrangling a Nobel Foundation was established to oversee the investments and the prize. The first prize was awarded in 1901. In 1986 a sixth prize, in economics, was added, funded by the Bank of Sweden.
Each year the Nobel laureates are designated in early October, and the ceremony is held on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death. On that day the king of Sweden presents each laureate - except for those awarded for peace - with a diploma, a medal, and a certificate which guarantees a cash amount, which over the years has increased dramatically in value; this year each award will be over $1 million US. (The peace prize is awarded in Oslo, Norway.) In some cases the award is given to more than one person, in which case the amount is divided.
The award winners in each category are listed at the following nodes:
Much of this information came from the excellent website at
See also Alfred Nobel and Alfred Nobel's Will.