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Blame Sloppy Journalism for the Nobel Prizes

Sloppy journalism and a early obituary may have prompted Nobel to try to rewrite his legacy

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The Nobel Prize medal. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

You probably know that Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Prizes, was a ridiculously wealthy Swedish scientist, a chemical engineer who earned his coin developing and designing explosives and weapons. You also probably know that before his death Nobel set the vast majority of his fortune aside to found the five Nobel Prizes: chemistry, physics, medicine, literature, and the (arguably ironic) peace prize.

As the inventor of dynamite, Nobel was already set for the history books. What prompted him to found his prizes? Sloppy journalism. Or so the story goes:

In 1888, Nobel’s brother Ludvig died. A French newspaper, confusing the two brothers, ran an obituary for Alfred calling him “the merchant of death,” a man who “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.”

Nobel, says Dan Lewis for NowIKnow, didn’t like this very much.

Nobel spent much of the rest of his life trying to avoid the horrible legacy portended by the erroneous obituary. In September of 1895, unbeknownst to his heirs, he revised his will to leave over 90% of his fortune — accounting for inflation, roughly $250 million (but in Swedish kronor) — to establish what is now known as the Nobel Prizes.

It’s a neat tale, and it’s curious how the world may have been different had the French reporters done their fact checking. Legacy.com spoke to the Nobel Foundation’s Annika Pontikis, who suggested, “Yes, Nobel saw his obituary in advance. And yes, he was unhappy about what he read. Still, it was probably not the only factor that influenced him to create a peace prize.” Maybe the obit was the entire impetus for the prizes; maybe it was just the last push Nobel needed to convince him he needed to shore up his legacy.

The story is neat. But is it too neat? The French paper in question, Ideotie Quotidienne, basically doesn’t exist except attached to this tale. Every telling of the story, of which there are many, relies on the same two quotes used above (or their French translations: “Le marchand de la Mort est mort. Le Dr Alfred Nobel, qui fit fortune en trouvant le moyen de tuer plus de personnes plus rapidement que jamais auparavant, est mort hier.”)  Searching Google books offers nothing new, nor does a search of the news archives. The Nobel Foundation doesn’t tell this tale (though Al Gore did when he accepted his Peace Prize in 2007).

This origin story may just be, as the Economist‘s Oliver Morton suggested last year, a case of “printing the legend.” Sometimes a neat morality tale is just too good to pass up.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Shackleton Probably Never Took Out an Ad Seeking Men for a Hazardous Journey
What Happens When a Homeless New Yorker Dies?
Your Cheat Sheet to the 2013 Nobel Prizes
On This Day in 1901, the First Nobel Prizes Were Awarded

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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