Opening address – 1999

The Nobel Prize Award Ceremony 1999

Speech by Professor Bengt Samuelsson, Chairman of the Board of Directors, The Nobel Foundation

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highness, Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of the Nobel Foundation, I welcome you to the 1999 Prize Award Ceremony. I would especially like to welcome this year’s laureates and their families to the Nobel festivities in Stockholm. I congratulate you for your outstanding work. You have added to the prestige and stature enjoyed by the Nobel Prizes. Earlier today the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in Oslo to Doctors Without Borders for their pioneering humanitarian work.

With this year’s Nobel Prizes, we are awarding the last Prizes of the 20th century. The first Prize Award Ceremony took place in 1901. It may therefore be of interest to look back at the Nobel Prizes of this century. I shall limit my remarks to the scientific Prizes and the Literature Prize.

The Prize in Literature, which is awarded by the Swedish Academy, has honored distinguished writers. As with the other Prizes, the will of Alfred Nobel expressly asked that “no consideration be given to the nationality of the candidates.” As a result of this, writers from many different nations have received the Prize, which thereby reflects an important part of 20th century cultural developments.

In his book The Nobel Prize in Literature, Swedish Academy member Kjell Espmark has analyzed and identified certain criteria that have been used during part of this century in choosing Literature laureates. I shall mention a few of them. According to the will, the works awarded the Prize shall have an “ideal direction”. This expression has been subjected to different interpretations in different eras. These different interpretations have left their marks on the history of the Literature Prize. Another selection criterion has been a policy of literary neutralism, which appears to have benefited Nordic writers during the period around World War I.

According to Professor Espmark, a new epoch can be identified during the 1920s and was connected to changes in the Nobel Committee. This has been labeled the era of “the grand style” – a reference to the Committee’s interest in Goethe’s monumental style. As a result, the Academy selected such writers as Anatole France, George Bernard Shaw and Thomas Mann as laureates.

The postwar period witnessed a radical break with the direction of the preceding era. This was clear from the 1948 Prize citation accompanying the selection of T.S. Eliot: “for his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry.” The key word “pioneer” is most closely associated with Academy member Anders Österling. Its aim was to call attention to the works of daring and innovative writers.

During the 1970s, Lars Gyllensten introduced a new concept to the Swedish Academy’s prize assessment work. He called it the “pragmatic attitude” and believed that the Academy should combine its quality requirement for laureates with a usefulness requirement for the Prize. This policy of focusing attention on important writers and promoting the dissemination of their works achieved its breakthrough when the 1978 Prize was awarded to Isaac Bashevis Singer. With the Nobel Prize, he left a lonely existence in front of his Yiddish typewriter and stepped onto the world stage, where his unique narrative art was opened up to a broad readership.

The scientific Prizes are closely associated with the vigorous technological progress of the 20th century. In a recently published list of the one hundred most important events of the past century, nearly half were advances in science and technology. I shall comment on a few of these from each Prize field.

The perception that atoms are indivisible was altered by the discovery of radioactivity at the turn of the century by Henri Becquerel and by Marie and Pierre Curie. In the 1930s, Otto Hahn and others discovered nuclear fission in heavy atoms and its ability to generate energy. In 1942, Enrico Fermi started the first controlled chain reaction. These developments not only gave us a new understanding of the smallest building blocks of matter, but also a powerful new source of energy, for better or worse.

Advances in chemistry have been as revolutionary as in physics. Linus Pauling’s first revelations of protein structure during the 1930s opened the way for molecular biology – today a field of research that is vigorously moving ahead. Giulio Natta and Karl Ziegler‘s discoveries in the 1950s concerning polymers gave us plastic materials that we could hardly imagine living without today. In the early 1970s, Paul Berg discovered that it is possible to move genes from one organism to another. This marked the beginning of a new field: genetic engineering, which will affect us more and more in the future.

Advances in medicine have been like those in physics and chemistry. Early in this century, Paul Ehrlich founded the field of chemotherapy for infections. Alexander Fleming‘s discovery of penicillin in 1928 later proved highly important to the treatment of bacterial diseases. In 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson revealed the structure of genetic material – DNA – the now-familiar double helix.

This century has also witnessed major technological advances – new technologies that were inconceivable a hundred years ago. Today the world is tied together by a global telecommunications system. The foundation for this was laid in 1901, when Guglielmo Marconi successfully transmitted a radio signal across the Atlantic. In the late 1940s, the discovery of the transistor effect by William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain paved the way for today’s computers and the information technology revolution, Internet and World Wide Web.

Yet all these advances must not delude us into thinking that all inventions have already been made. The early 17th century English philosopher Francis Bacon, one of the pioneers of scientific thinking, put it this way:

“It appears incredible that any such discovery should be made, and when it has been made, it appears incredible that it should so long have escaped men’s research. All of which affords good reason for the hope that a vast mass of inventions yet remains.” No, the researchers of the next century will not have any shortage of work, but they will need the strong support of society.

From the first Prizes in 1901 until this year, a total of about 700 Nobel Prizes have been conferred – and today’s laureates are part of this multitude. We do not know what other Nobel laureates will join this group during the next century, and we can only speculate about the contributions for which they will be awarded their Prizes. However, I am convinced that their contributions will be just as epoch-making and praiseworthy as the contributions of this year’s laureates – those whom we have gathered here today to reward and to honor.

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1999, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 2000

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2000

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