7 Firsts From Nobel Peace Prize History

6 minute read

As they do every year, the Norwegian Nobel Committee will announce this year’s Nobel Peace Prize honoree on Friday morning. The peace prize is one of five endowed in Alfred Nobel’s will, awarded to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

In over a century of selecting a suitable champion of peace, there have been plenty of firsts. Here are just a few:

First Joint Prize: Jean Henri Dunant and Frédéric Passy, 1901

The first joint peace prize was also the first Nobel Peace Prize ever awarded. Dunant was the founder of the the Red Cross and his ideas had prompted the first Geneva convention. He wrote an account of the suffering he had witnessed among the nearly 40,000 casualties of the Battle of Solferino in northern Italy in 1859, in which he proposed an international agreement to tend to the wounded regardless of what side they were on. Passy—an economist who promoted free trade as the path to peace—was the founder of the French peace society and highly regarded and well known for his work in the international peace movement.

First Organization: Institut de droit international (Institute of International Law), 1904

The Institute was founded in 1873 as an organization of lawyers and became the authority on international law, encouraging states to accept the rule of law in wartime. The award speech emphasized the Institute’s independence and thoughtful mode of inquiry, noting that “the annals of the Institute are veritable mines of information for all those who seek to put into practice the principles of international law.”

First Woman: Baroness Bertha Sophie Felicita von Suttner, née Countess Kinsky von Chinic und Tettau, 1905

The Austrian aristocrat wrote an influential novel, Lay Down Your Arms, whose antiwar sentiment lived up to its title; she was even called the “generalissimo” of the peace movement. In addition she was a close friend of Alfred Nobel’s, and their correspondence likely influenced his decision to endow the peace prize. In 1978, TIME wrote that she was “a longtime confidante of Nobel’s known popularly as ‘Peace Bertha’ who founded the Austrian Peace Society in 1891.”

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First Sitting U.S. President: Theodore Roosevelt, 1906

Roosevelt was the U.S. President when he was awarded the Nobel for negotiating peace after the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5. His being a statesman as opposed to a member of the peace movement was controversial at the time, especially given Roosevelt’s history of aggressive foreign policy and imperialism. Nevertheless the award ceremony speech described a unique approach: “The United States of America was among the first to infuse the ideal of peace into practical politics. Peace and arbitration treaties have now been concluded between the United States and the governments of several countries.” Roosevelt did not himself attend the ceremony, delivering his Nobel lecture only in 1910 when his time as President was completed.

First Year With No Winner: 1914

The Nobel Foundation statutes declare that “a work may not be awarded a prize, unless it by experience or expert scrutiny has been found to be of such outstanding importance as is manifestly intended by the will” and that, if nothing fits the bill, “the prize money shall be reserved until the following year.”

The First World War broke out over the summer of 1914, and that year the Nobel Committee decided not to award anyone the Peace Prize. It continued to hold off until 1917 when the Red Cross was awarded the prize, and again in 1918 and 1919 declined to award a prize. (The 1919 Prize was awarded a year later to Woodrow Wilson.) The Nobel Peace Prize has been not awarded a total of 19 times, mostly during the two World Wars. The most recent time the Committee decided to not award the Prize was in 1972.

First Person of Color: Ralph Bunche, 1950

Ralph Bunche—an African-American U.N. employee whose grandmother had been born into slavery—was selected for successfully negotiating an Arab-Israeli truce in 1949, after the assassination of the original chief mediator. The parties would not sit at the same table so he had to shuttle between them. “At his headquarters on the Aegean Island of Rhodes the American charmed, cajoled and sometimes bullied testy, mistrustful Arab and Israeli peace negotiators. Bunche worked tirelessly 16 to 20 hours a day, lighting one cigarette off another and drinking vast quantities of orange juice,” TIME wrote in 1950, and “After 81 days of bargaining, Bunche achieved the three armistice agreements which finally put an end to the war—and gave U.N. one of its few claims to solid achievement. ‘Ralph Bunche,’ said an Egyptian delegate, ‘is one of the world’s greatest men.'”

First Individual to Win Twice: Linus Pauling, 1962

Okay, the Red Cross had previously won the Nobel Peace Prize twice (in 1917 and 1944) and Pauling wasn’t the first individual to win any two Nobel prizes (that was Marie Curie in Physics and Chemistry) but this was the first time the Peace Prize was an individual’s second Nobel, and the first time an individual won two unshared prizes.

Having won the Chemistry Nobel in 1954, Pauling turned his attention to opposing nuclear weapons: he decried their development, wrote the “Hiroshima Appeal” in 1959 and helped encourage nuclear powers to sign a nuclear test ban treaty. The Award ceremony speech described his work: “since 1946 has campaigned ceaselessly, not only against nuclear weapons tests, not only against the spread of these armaments, not only against their very use, but against all warfare as a means of solving international conflicts.” TIME commented: “As for Pauling, who got the news at his Big Sur, Calif., retreat, he remembered that the test ban had that morning gone into effect. ‘I thought,’ said he quietly, ‘that it was a nice day for the committee to make the announcement.'”

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