The Nobel Prize is one of the most prestigious and respected awards in the world. The prizes, awarded in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology and Medicine, Literature, and Peace, with a sixth prize, bestowed by the Bank of Sweden, in Economic Sciences, are awarded annually to celebrate human achievement, and include a gold medal, a stylized diploma, and a cash prize of 8 million Swedish Krone (about $935,000 USD). With this year's awards approaching (to be awarded between October 3 and 10, 2016), I decided to see what I could learn about the history of the prizes, as well as the history of the medals.
The prizes, named after Swedish chemist and inventor Alfred Bernhard Nobel, were established after Nobel's death in 1896. The story goes that Nobel was reading a French newspaper one day, when he came across something rather strange... his own obituary. The newspaper's remembrance of the supposedly deceased inventor was scathing; Nobel was most famous for his invention of dynamite as a safer substitute for the chemically unstable nitroglycerin, and the obituary declared "La marchand de la mort est mort.", or "The merchant of death is dead." It said, in essence, that Nobel had made it easier to kill people with his most famous invention, and that he would be remembered as such. This, unsurprisingly, rattled Nobel, who had invented dynamite as a safeguard against pain and injury, and was personally a pacifist. The obituary turned out to be a case of mistaken identity: it was actually Nobel's brother, Ludvig, who had died, but this was a wake-up call for Nobel, who decided that he did not want to be remembered like this. So he made a change in his will a year before he died, bequeathing 31 million Krone (approximately $200 million USD today) to establish five prizes to be awarded each year after his death. The first awards were presented in 1901, while the first medals were not struck until 1902.
Four of the six awards medals shared a common obverse, featuring a left-facing portrait of Nobel from the shoulders up, while the Peace prize medal features Nobel's head only, and the Economic Sciences prize medal features a similar bust with two cornucopias beneath. Each medal has a different reverse, based on the award.
The Physics and the Chemistry prize medals display two allegorical women, one with a veil over her head and a cornucopia in her arms, which the official Nobel Prize webpage describes as Nature, resembling the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis. Nature's veil is being removed by the second goddess, representing the Genius of Science.
"The inscription on the medal reads:
Inventas vitam juvat excoluisse per artes
Loosely translated (from Latin): "And they who bettered life on earth by their newly found mastery." (Word for word: "inventions enhance life which is beautified through art.")"*
The Physiology and Medicine prize medal features the allegorical Genius of Medicine collecting water from a rock to give to a sick girl, with the same inscription as the last medal.
The Literature prize medal shows a man listening to a muse underneath a laurel tree, and writing down the song she is singing, enchanted. Once again, the same inscription is carved on the medal. On all four of these medals, the name of the prize's recipient is engraved on a small plate on the bottom of the reverse. All of these medals were modeled by Swedish sculptor Erik Lindberg.
The Peace prize medal, arguably the most prestigious of all the Nobel Prizes, features three men grasping each other's arms in a brotherly manner, with the Latin inscription:
"Pro pace et fraternitate gentium
Translated: "For the peace and brotherhood of men"*.
Inscribed around the edge of the design. It was designed by Gustav Vigeland.
First awarded in 1968, the Economic Sciences prize medal displays a North Star emblem, with four crowns surrounding it, and the inscription '"Kungliga Vetenskaps Akademien" (The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences) around the edge."* of the design, which was created by Gunvor Svensson-Lundqvist. The Peace and Economic Science medals have the name of the recipient engraved around the edge of the medal, in a more subtle manner than the other four.
The medals were struck by Myntverket, the Swedish Mint, which was the oldest operating company in Sweden (in operation for over 1000 years), until it closed its doors in 2010. In 2011, the Mint of Norway produced the medals, then in 2012 the contract for the creation of the medals was given to a private Swedish mint. The medals were struck in 23-carat gold until 1980, when their composition was changed to 18-carat gold, otherwise known as green gold, and plated in pure 24-carat gold.
The medals have seen some action, including two that were melted down and hidden from the anti-Nobel Prize Nazi German government, and re-cast after World War II ended. They also occasionally cross the auction block, with one Physics prize medal selling in 2015 fro nearly $770,000 USD. The high price just serves to prove how valued these medals are, and how they, these pieces of history, will likely always remain so.
*Taken from the official Nobel Prize Webpage. For more information, go to http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/about/medals/