Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Deserving but unrecognized: the forty-first seat

Marshall A. Lichtman
Rochester, New York, United States

The Nobel Prizes

Medal awarded for Nobel Prize in Literature
This gold medal is given to each laureate in literature. Each medal has one face that bears a profile of Alfred Nobel with his name and the date of his birth and death inscribed; the alternative side is unique to the discipline being honored. The medal for literature shows a young man sitting beneath a laurel tree listening to, and writing down, the song of the muse. The inscription on the edge is adapted from Virgil’s Aeneid. In English, it states “It is beneficial to have improved (human) life through discovered arts.” The medal is now made of 18 carat green gold and plated with 24 carat pure gold. Source.

Each year on December 10th, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death, the Nobel Foundation and the Swedish royal family recognize the individuals deemed to have made the greatest achievements in chemistry, physics, physiology or medicine, and literature; and the Norwegian Nobel Committee recognizes “the person who shall have done the most or best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reducing of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses,” the Nobel Prize for Peace. These prizes have been made each year since 1901, except for interruptions during World War I and II and in the earlier years of the prizes when the relevant selection committees did not feel a nominee worthy. The prizes were established as a result of Alfred Nobel’s bequest, the details of which were carefully specified in his will and left virtually all his assets to this purpose. Upon his death in San Remo, Italy in 1896, his decision was met with challenges by his brother’s children and a former paramour (he was a bachelor and childless), but in the end these matters were settled and the bulk of his estate was used to establish the prizes.

No other prize for achievement in a discipline holds the same prestige. The laureates will be hailed throughout the world; the science winners will attract the most talented students to their laboratories. The laureates will be honored by political leaders and claimed as products of any institution they attended from grade school to graduate school and beyond, even if the work for which they were recognized occurred decades later. Harvard is among the most fastidious in this regard: only laureates who did the work that led to the prize while at Harvard are recognized. Most other institutions wrap themselves in their alumni’s achievements, hoping to share the luster. Research granting agencies will embrace laureates who had received their funding in an attempt to add luster to the agency, implying the quality of their applicants and decisions. The notoriety of a laureate results in invitations for interviews, distinguished lectures, visiting professorships, and requests to support causes of all sorts, which may intrude on productivity. Nobel’s goal was to provide laureates with sufficient life-long financial support to encourage their pursuits and enhance their productivity. Life expectancy in Europe in 1900 made that possible.

As in all selections of “winners” of major prizes for some intellectual achievement among many outstanding nominees, worthy candidates will be left unchosen. This difficulty is especially true when Nobel Laureates are selected. Picking a prize winner is fraught with challenges and rarefied decisions. A former President of the Nobel Foundation, Arne Tiselius, himself a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, in a response to a query as to how candidates were selected, said that “one cannot in practice apply the principle that the Nobel Prize should be given to the person who is best; it is impossible to define who is best. Hence there is only one alternative: to try to find a particularly worthy candidate.” As soon as the prizes are awarded in December, the committees again begin a year-long process to select the next laureates: the Royal Swedish Academy of Science for the chemistry, physics, and economics1 prize; the Nobel Assembly at the Royal Caroline Institute (Karolinska Institutet) for the physiology or medicine prize; the Swedish Academy for the literature prize; and the Norwegian Nobel Committee for the peace prize. The announcement of the laureates each October, the month of Alfred Nobel’s birth, is heralded more expansively than the formal awards presentation on December 10th, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death.

Omissions of notables by the Nobel Foundation and its selection committees are inevitable. In 1855, the French poet and novelist, Arsène Houssaye, coined the expression “forty-first seat” for individuals of great achievement who were not elected to the Académie Française, which limits its membership to forty individuals. These forty are referred to by the Académie as “les immortels.” The Académie was established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu during the reign of King Louis the XIII. Notable omissions to membership include Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean-Paul Sartre, René Descartes, Marcel Proust, Jules Verne, and Émile Zola, among other French giants of literature or science.

One notable Nobel omission: Leo Tolstoy

There have been several striking omissions in selecting a laureate by the Nobel Foundation. The failure to recognize Mahatma Gandhi with the Nobel Prize for Peace, after his achievement leading India to independence from Great Britain, declared in August 1947, using non-violence, and his championing non-violence in other freedom movements throughout the world is the most extraordinary omission in the history of this prize. The omission of Jonas Salk in the selection for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine following the success of his singular effort to develop a vaccine to prevent polio, announced in April 1955, prevented Nobel’s stipulation to be adhered to explicitly. Nobel’s central theme was to select a person in each category “who, during the preceding year, conferred the greatest benefit to humankind . . .” Gandhi and Salk would have, if selected, fit this description, precisely.

Nobel was devoted to the arts, especially literature. He had a library of over 1,500 volumes, many in their original language; these included the works of great writers of the nineteenth century and timeless classics written by philosophers, historians, and scientists. He was fluent in Swedish, Russian, German, French, and English. He wrote poetry, several drafts of novels, published a tragedy, mingled among the literati in Paris, and had a close friendship with Victor Hugo. Hence his decision to devote one prize to literature is fully explained in his life’s interests. He stipulated in his will that “The interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: . . . one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction . . .” The stipulation about the work having an ideal direction is thought to have led to unusual selections in this category by the Swedish Academy as the members tried to adhere to whatever Nobel meant in those instructions. “Ideal direction” was interpreted to mean a “conservative idealism,” which upheld church, state, and family.

The most striking omission in the early years of the choice for the Nobel Prize in Literature was the failure to name Leo Tolstoy a laureate, despite being nominated in 1901, 1902, 1903, 1904, 1905, and 1906. He was also nominated for the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1901, 1902, and 1910, all unsuccessful. Leo Tolstoy is among the greatest authors of all time; two of his novels, Anna Karenina and War and Peace, would be ranked among the masterpieces of literature. After he was overlooked in 1901, the first year the Nobel Prizes were given, over forty writers, artists, and critics sent Tolstoy a proclamation lamenting the failure to select him as the first Nobel Laureate in Literature. The proclamation included the following “. . . we see in your person not only the most revered patriarch of today’s literature, but also for us the greatest and most profound poet . . .” The letter castigated the selection committee as reflecting neither the view of artists nor public opinion. In 1906, when Tolstoy was nominated for the sixth time, he discreetly asked that he be removed from the list of those under consideration as he would not want to refuse the prize if it was awarded. That was done by the Nobel selection committee. As an aside, John-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, but declined the prize because he had always declined such honors. The Nobel Foundation, nevertheless, lists those who declined the award as the awardee in their official documents; the awardee, however, does not receive the gold medal, monetary prize, nor travels to Stockholm to give the Nobel lecture and attend the banquet hosted by the Swedish royal family. The failure to recognize Tolstoy, among the greatest and enduring contributors to literature, cast an early pall on that prize, especially since several selected in those early years have been lost to obscurity.


  1. The so-called “Nobel Prize in Economics” was not established by Alfred Nobel. It was established in 1968 by the Bank of Sweden and is officially designated as “The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.” There was some consternation about this intrusion on Nobel’s very successful longstanding initiative, but in time it is has become generally accepted as the sixth Nobel Prize. Omitting economics in the late 19th century was understandable, but not including achievement in mathematics among the prizes has led to many discussions about “why this omission?” A satisfactory reason, other than oversight or the lack of immediacy of benefits to mankind, a feature of Nobel’s reasoning, has not been found in Nobel’s writings.

For a more comprehensive exploration of the Nobel Prizes see: Lichtman MA. Alfred Nobel and his Prizes: From Dynamite to DNA. Rambam Maimonides Medical Journal Open Access: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5548114/

MARSHALL A. LICHTMAN, M.D., M.A.C.P., is Professor Emeritus of Medicine and of Biochemistry and Biophysics and Dean, Emeritus, of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. In 2017, he received the Wallace H. Coulter Award for Lifetime Achievement in Hematology from the American Society of Hematology. 

Summer 2020



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