What Is the Nobel Prize?

The Nobel Prize is one of the most respected awards in the world, with a series of categories. We look into its meaning and evolution.

Jun 15, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

what is the nobel prize coin award


The Nobel Prize is internationally recognized as one of the highest achievements in intellectual excellence. Established by Alfred Nobel in 1895, the annual prize is divided into five key categories: physics, chemistry, physiology/medicine, literature and peace. Over the years the prize has been awarded to some of society’s most outstanding individuals including Marie and Pierre Curie, Theodore Roosevelt, Rudyard Kipling, Otto Wallach, Albrecht Kossel, Albert Einstein, Henri Bergson, Ernest Hemingway, Martin Luther King Jr., Seamus Heaney and Sir Henry Dale, to name just a few. The topics of literature and peace have often been the subject of fierce debate, given how open these fields are for subjective interpretation. We take a closer look at some key facts about the Nobel Prize to find out more. 


The Prize Was Established by Alfred Nobel

alfred nobel prize
Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Prize Foundation


The founder of the Nobel Prize was the Swedish industrialist and inventor Alfred Nobel, who had made his fortune as an inventor of explosives and ammunition, with factories throughout Europe. Throughout his life he was a generous philanthropist, and in the final year of his life in 1895, he drew up a will bequeathing his vast fortune to the Nobel Prize Foundation. Following his death in 1896, the Nobel Prize was established. The first official awards ceremony then took place in 1901, on the 5th anniversary of the benefactor’s death. No one knows why he chose to set up the foundation and award in his name, but some believe he might have done so in order to create a more positive association with his name, given how closely he had been involved with explosives used for warfare. 


The Award is Presented by the Nobel Foundation

nobel prize award ceremony
Aerial photograph showing one of the recent Nobel Prize award ceremonies


Today the Nobel Prize Awards are presented to winners from the Nobel Foundation, a private company established in 1900. The foundation has headquarters in Stockholm, Sweden, and has links with four leading institutions who are responsible for selecting the prize winners: the Karolinska Institute, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, The Swedish Academy and the Norwegian Nobel Committee. These institutions invite around 6,000 individuals to nominate an individual or group who have been carrying out pioneering work for the prize (self-nominations are not allowed). Choosing the nominees for the prize is a lengthy process that involves a Nobel Prize committee for each category, who often consult with outside experts.


Each Winner Receives a Gold Medal, Diploma and a Sum of Money

who were the nobel prize winners of 2022
The coin which is awarded to each prize winner every year

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The Nobel Prize itself comprises a gold medal, a diploma/certificate, and a cash prize. The award can only be given to individuals or groups of up to three individuals, but not institutions. If a group wins the award, they are each given an equal share of the prize money. Following their presentation of the award during an official ceremony, prize winners enter into the Nobel Laureates.


Winners are usually asked to give a speech during this awards ceremony which outlines the main achievements that led to the award. Very occasionally winners have refused the award for personal or political reasons, such as Jean-Paul Sartre – although he wasn’t presented with an award or money, his name is still in the Nobel Laureates archive, as listed on the Foundation’s website. Meanwhile others have chosen to donate the prize money into charity or research work.


Many Pioneers Have Won the Nobel Prize

martin luther king jr march washington 1963
Martin Luther King Jr. addresses crowds during the March On Washington at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, 1963 via TIME


A great many pioneering researchers, writers, activists and academics have been presented with the Nobel Prize. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 following his ground-breaking work towards equality during the American Civil Right movement. Meanwhile Marie Curie won two prizes for both Physics (in 1903, along with her husband Pierre) and Chemistry (in 1911) for discovering the chemical compounds radium and polonium, Albert Einstein won the prize for Physics in relation to his work on the photoelectric effect in 1922, and Ernest Hemingway was presented with the prize for literature in 1954 for his mastery of “the art of modern narration.”

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.