History of the Nobel Prizes

By the fall of 1923, there was enough insulin for any patient who needed it.  Insulin was widely heralded as a wonder of modern medicine.  Diabetes, which had been a fatal disease, was reduced to a chronic disease.  The Toronto team, particularly Fred Banting, were treated as heroes.  Banting’s photo appeared on the cover of the August 27, 1923 issue of Time Magazine, three years after he had been sitting in his empty office in London, Ontario with no patients to see.

The Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel had died in 1896.  He was a wealthy man, primarily from selling armaments. He owned 90 different factories that manufactured explosives and ammunitions. Late in his life he was reclusive.  When he died, to his family’s surprise, his will declared that all his wealth was to be held in trust to establish what is now known as the Nobel Prizes.

The first set of Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901; three science awards were given in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, and Physiology or Medicine.  Science in those days was dominated by Europeans.  All the Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine before 1923 had been awarded to European scientists. Even in Physics and Chemistry, the Europeans dominated the prize.  Only one non-Europeans had won each of those: Theodore Richards (chemistry, 1914) and Albert Michelson (physics, 1907), both from the United States.