Monday, November 07, 2011

Nobel: How He Built His Reputation

At one time or another, most people wonder how they will be remembered. Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, was one of the few individuals who actually discovered what the world would think of him at his death. (This was 115 years ago … before you could Google yourself.) And it turned his life — and reputation — around.

In 1888, Alfred's brother Ludvig died while visiting France, and a French newspaper erroneously published Alfred's obituary. The paper reported, "Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday." It condemned him for his invention of dynamite, saying, “Le marchand de la mort est mort.” ("The merchant of death is dead.")

Alfred was concerned about how he’d be remembered and deeply disappointed with what he read. So, on November 27, 1895, at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris, Nobel signed his last will and testament, setting aside the bulk of his massive estate (the equivalent of about US$250 million) to establish the Nobel Prizes, to be awarded annually to those “who during the preceding year shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” in the areas of medicine, chemistry and physics, literature and peace. (Economics was added later.)

Large philanthropic gifts to science were rare in Nobel’s day. Moreover, establishing annual international prizes in any field was novel. Also, controversial, because some of the prizes were distributed outside of Sweden. He did it anyway.

Nobel’s attempt to salvage his reputation was ultimately a success … and a model for other men of great wealth who followed.

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