Alfred Nobel Was Also Known as “The Merchant of Death”

Daven Hiskey January 3, 2011 9
Today I Found Out Alfred Nobel, who left most of his fortune to start the Nobel Prizes, was once nicknamed “The Merchant of Death”.

The “merchant of death” title was given to him due to Nobel inventing, and making most of his vast fortune off of, dynamite and other types of explosives, such as “ballistite”, which was the precursor to quite a lot of military grade explosive devices.

Nobel came up with the idea of using his money for these annual prizes after his brother, Ludvig, died in 1888 and a French newspaper mistakenly thought it had been Alfred Nobel himself who died.  The newspaper published the obituary under the title: “The Merchant of Death is Dead”, going on to state: “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”

When Nobel read this, he began thinking of how to improve his public image after his death and decided on leaving his enormous fortune to fund a set of prizes named after himself. The Nobel Prizes were created as awards for people who made the greatest contributions to mankind in subjects that interested Nobel, namely Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature and Peace.

Nobel did a lot of his own work in Physics and Chemistry and was an enthusiast of various literature of the day.  He also saw the benefit to advancements in medicine. The “peace” prize was thought to have been suggested and promoted by his former lover and secretary Bertha Kinsky, who later won the award in 1905, just a few years after the Nobel Prizes were established.  This is thought to have appealed to him because of his reputation as a war monger, and a huge point to the Nobel Prizes, as stated, was to fix his reputation as a “merchant of death”.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Alfred Nobel invented around 355 things, most notable was his invention of dynamite, in 1867, which he was originally going to call “Nobel’s Safety Powder”, as it was basically a safer version of nitroglycerin and he was attempting to improve his image as a maker of dangerous explosives. He ultimately went with “dynamite”, which was derived from Greek, meaning “power”.
  • All total, Nobel left 94% of his fortune to be used towards the Nobel Prizes.  His total fortune, adjusted for inflation, would be worth about $250 million today.
  • Along with the groups setup to select the winners of the Nobel Prizes, a separate group, The Nobel Foundation, was founded to manage Nobel’s money.  To date, along with annually bequeathing money to award winners, The Nobel Foundation has grown Nobel’s assets up to around half a billion dollars.  This may seem an extremely poor improvement over the $250 million they started with over 100 years ago, particularly considering they operate tax free.  However, that “$250 million” is already adjusted for inflation and they invest very conservatively to make sure to be able to maintain the Nobel Prize awards for years to come.  And of course, they annually dole out quite large prizes to recipients.
  • Each recipient of a Nobel Prize receives a gold medal (18 carat green gold which is then plated with 24 carat gold), a certificate, and some amount of money which varies from year to year.  In 2009, that sum was about $1.4 million. Up to three people can share an award.  When this happens, it is up to the awarding body to decide how the money is divided amongst the winners.  Most winners end up donating their award money to various causes and charities.  When Mother Theresa won a Peace Prize, she even refused to go to the award dinner, stating that the money could be better used elsewhere.  The $7000 that the award dinner costs was then donated to a charity in her name and the dinner was canceled.
  • To date, four people have won a Nobel Prize twice.  Those include: Maria Sklodowska-Curie (1903 and 1911, for discovery of radioactivity (physics) and later for isolating pure radium (chemistry)); John Bardeen (1956 and 1972, for invention of the transistor (physics) and for coming up with the theory of superconductivity(physics)); Linus Pauling (1954 and 1962, for research into the chemical bond in terms of complex substances (chemistry) and for anti-nuclear activism (peace)); and Frederick Sanger (1958 and 1980, for discovering the structure of the insulin molecule (chemistry) and inventing a method to determine base sequences in DNA (chemistry)).
  • Not only did Maria Curie win two Nobel Prizes, but her family has been the recipient of five total Nobel Prizes.  She won two, her husband, Pierre Curie, won one.  Her daughter,  Irène Joliot-Curie, won the Chemistry Prize in 1935 with her husband.  Her second daughter was also the director of UNICEF when it won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965.
  • Curie’s notes from the 1890s are still today considered too dangerous to handle without protection due to the high levels of radioactivity.  They are stored in lead-lined boxes.  Neither she nor her husband, of course, knew anything about that and handled radioactive items all the time in their research.  She eventually paid the price for this, dying from aplastic anemia.  Her husband was killed after being run over by a horse drawn carriage some 28 years before Marie Curie herself died.

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9 Comments »

  1. Glenn November 27, 2013 at 2:07 pm - Reply

    This story is actually a myth. The purported obituary does not exist.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey November 27, 2013 at 6:45 pm - Reply

      @Glenn: And your sources are?

      • Glenn November 28, 2013 at 4:21 am - Reply

        That there is no primary source of the obituary, and that every secondary source is no more specific than “a French newspaper.”

        I don’t really need sources to prove that an obituary *doesn’t* exist, but according to Kenne Fant, Nobel’s biographer, no one has ever found the supposed obituary, and when I looked through your sources, I didn’t see it either.

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