19 August is World Humanitarian Day, an initiative to commemorate “those who lost their lives in humanitarian service” and “to celebrate the spirit that inspires humanitarian work around the world.”
The theme of the 2015 World Humanitarian Day is Humanitarian Heroes – “people from all walks of life, who are committed to making a difference.”
It’s with this in mind that we’d like to take this opportunity to tell the story of Alfred Nobel.
Alfred Nobel is known to most for the Nobel Prize, which recognises outstanding contributions for humanity in chemistry, literature, peace, physics, physiology or medicine.
Does this make Alfred Nobel the ultimate Humanitarian Hero?
Not quite. When reporting the death of Alfred Nobel, one French obituary stated “Le marchand de la mort est mort.”
The merchant of death is dead.
Why? Because Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, and spent his life pioneering efficient new ways to kill people.
So how did a man who dedicated his life to death, end up giving his name to peace?
The Life and Times of Alfred Nobel
Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm in 1833. His father, Immanuel Nobel, was an inventor and an engineer who taught his son the basic principles of engineering. Above all, Alfred found himself fascinated by explosives.
Two of Immanuel Nobel’s inventions ultimately brought him fame and fortune – plywood, and the naval mine. From 1842 he was able to have Alfred privately educated. Alfred excelled in his studies of chemistry, and became fluent in English, French, German, and Russian.
Continuing his studies, Alfred would work with such notable chemists as Nikolai Zinin and John Ericsson. In 1857 he filed his first patent, for a gas meter.
From 1853 to 1856, the Nobel family produced armaments for the Crimean War. But when the war ended, they had difficulty returning to domestic production, and were eventually forced to file for bankruptcy. In 1859 Alfred returned to Sweden with his parents, where he devoted himself to the study of explosives.
Alfred invented a detonator in 1863, and designed the blasting cap in 1865. In 1867 came the highlight of his career – the invention of dynamite.
A Legacy of Peace
To understand Alfred Nobel’s legacy, it is first important to consider what might have driven him to develop dynamite.
In 1864, some unstable nitroglycerine caused an explosion at the Nobel factory. Five people were killed, including Alfred’s younger brother, Emil. Dynamite was developed to be a safer, simpler, and more stable alternative to nitroglycerine. And crucially, it was originally developed for use in the mining and building industries.
Nonetheless, his efficient explosive would later have wider, less peaceful applications. Then, in 1888, a strange misunderstanding gave Alfred a rare glimpse into the future.
Alfred’s brother Ludvig died while visiting Cannes. But rather than printing Ludvig’s obituary, a French newspaper instead printed Alfred’s, which read “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”
Unmarried and without children, Alfred read this and saw that his legacy would be one of bloodshed and resentment. So, like Ebenezer Scrooge, he decided to redeem himself.
When Alfred died in 1896, his family were surprised to find that 94% of his fortune had been left in trust, to fund the awards that would ultimately become known as the Nobel Prizes.
From the start, five prizes have been awarded each year. The first three recognise achievements in physical science, chemistry, and in either medical science or physiology. The fourth is for literary work, and the fifth is given to “the person or society that renders the greatest service to the cause of international fraternity, in the suppression or reduction of standing armies, or in the establishment or furtherance of peace congresses.”
This is the Nobel Peace Prize, and it’s one of life’s great ironies that this internationally renowned award was established by somebody who, over the course of his life, established 90 armament factories.
Alfred Nobel – A Humanitarian Hero?
The Humanitarian Heroes that the 2015 World Humanitarian Day intends to honour are those “who face danger to help people in need.”
Alfred Nobel never risked his life in pursuit of humanitarian causes. Despite being a self-proclaimed pacifist, it cannot be denied that he found fame and fortune in making the world a significantly less peaceful place.
By World Humanitarian Day standards, by no means is Alfred Nobel a Humanitarian Hero.
But that said, between 1901 and 2012, 555 Nobel Prizes were awarded to 856 people and organisations, including such figures as Mother Teresa, Tawakkol Karman, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela and Albert Einstein.
Whether a peaceful legacy can make up for a life’s misdeeds is a different discussion entirely. But on World Humanitarian Day, the story of Alfred Nobel could perhaps be treated as evidence that it’s never too late for anybody to turn around and dedicate their lives to worthier causes.