Since 1901, the Nobel Foundation has been giving out awards to many of the world’s most outstanding leaders in five key categories: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace. In the past century, some of the most prominent and influential figures in our human history have received the award, for their ground-breaking, epoch-defining, life-changing, and even life-saving work. We take a look at just a handful of the most influential Nobel Prize Winners from throughout the prize’s history, and examine the achievements that led to their award.
In 1921, Albert Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. He won the award for his discovery of the ‘photoelectric effect’, or the discovery that atoms treated to light could emit electrons. Through his radical research, Einstein argued that light was divided into packets, and when these packets hit atoms, electrons soaked them up and broke free from the atoms binding them together. This radical work was only one of Einstein’s greatest discoveries, which also include his theories on special and general relativity, and the uncovering of matter and energy as equal equivalents.
Marie Curie made history with her breakthroughs in scientific research, and she was the first person to receive two Nobel Prizes. One was for Physics in 1903, alongside her husband Pierre Curie, based on their research into radioactivity. She won a second Nobel Prize in 1911 for her discoveries of the two new elements radium and polonium. Tragically, Curie’s important work came at a cost; after many years of working with highly toxic materials, and limited understanding of their harm, she eventually contracted terminal cancer. However, her daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie carried on her parents’ legacy, winning her own Nobel Prize for chemistry alongside her husband Frederic in 1935.
Martin Luther King Junior
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The great Martin Luther King Junior won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, in recognition for his outstanding work during the civil right movement, during which time he fought vociferously for ending racial discrimination in the United States through a series of peaceful and deeply moving speeches and protests. He was presented the prize just one year after making his breath-taking “I Have a Dream” speech from Lincoln Memorial to a captivated audience of thousands. Martin Luther King was just 35 years old when he received the award, making him the youngest ever person to be given a Nobel Prize. After receiving the cash prize, King donated his entire winnings to the civil rights cause.
Existentialist philosopher and novelist Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964. However, for the first time in history, he refused to accept the award, arguing against any attempts to make him ‘institutionalized.’ Nonetheless, his name still appears on the Nobel Prize winners register – the academy argued his refusal to accept the award only meant the presentation could not take place. The Nobel Foundation awarded Sartre the Literature Prize for his rich abundance of ideas which they argued demonstrated the quest for truth in the modern age.
The Roman Catholic Nun Mother Teresa was presented with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. She was awarded the prize for establishing the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta in 1950, and for extending her charity work across India and beyond. They praised Mother Teresa “for her work for bringing help to suffering humanity,” during which time she built homes for orphans, lepers and the terminally ill throughout the most destitute and deprived areas of Calcutta, as well as carrying out aid work further afield.