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Last update 2021.06.21

MAXAM Foundation - Alfred Nobel - Inventor, entrepreneur, business leader, humanist


1833 (Stockholm, Sweden) -1896 (San Remo, Italy). His journey begins with the education he received in the city where he lived from the age of six, St. Petersburg, and with his own experience witnessing the projects and industrial ambitions of his father, Immanuel. It was in the Russian city that the elder Nobel, after having his first company fall into bankruptcy back in Sweden, sought to start a new project related to the defense industry, a project which eventually proved to be highly successful.


Immanuel Nobel’s success gave him the liberty to grant his children a completely personalized education, with classes provided by personally selected teachers who taught the younger generation from the comfort of the family home. It was thus that Alfred was formed in mathematics, physics, chemistry, literature, history and philosophy; by the age of 17 he spoke five languages: Swedish, Russian, English, French and German. His formative stage would be complimented by two years of travel throughout Sweden, Germany, France and the United States of America.

On these trips he met noted persons like the Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero, inventor of nitroglycerin, in Paris, and 
John Ericsson, the Swedish-American engineer who designed the first boat propeller engines, in New York. 

Chemical Entrepreneur: dynamite and oil

The enormous potential represented by nitroglycerin caught Nobel’seye from the first moment. His quest led him lead research in order to find the formula that would allow for the safe and practical use of the product; that work would eventually lead to the creation of dynamite, its spread through Europe and the U.S., and the production and industrial use of explosives.

Nobel obtained considerable benefits as a shareholder in the oil extraction and refinery business directed by his brothers Robert and Ludvig in modern-day Azerbaijan (at the time -1870- part of the Russian Empire).

This region had significant oil reserves, and their exploitation passed from those carried out with limited means (such as animal traction logistics) to the triple output (from 22,000 tons in 1872 to 75,000 in 1877) under their leadership. The oil was transported from wells to refineries via a pipeline, and then taken onto specially adapted ships: the first oil tankers. 

Interest in medicine

Despite their success, Alfred never actually visited these businesses, in which he was a major stockholder. The reason for this was his everdelicate 
health, worsened by long working hours –many of them in laboratories where he was exposed to chemicals–, and his continuous trips abroad.
His interest in medicine was largely rooted in his general scientific curiosity, as well as his work with nitroglycerin within his lab. It was in this setting that he discovered the side effects of manipulating the product (which brought on headaches),as well as its potential benefits (as a coronary vasodilator for conditions such as the angina pectoris from which he suffered). 

The notebooks he kept in his laboratory reflect many of the diverse topics that interested him, and which he felt required further research, as looking for anesthetic alternatives -he believed intravenous injection might be more effective-.

Alfred Nobel believed that medical research was an important area in order to further the greater progress and development of mankind, as he made clear in the wording of his will, which established the Nobel Prizes. One of the prizes should specifically reward “the person or persons who have made the most important discovery in the field of physiology or medicine”. The other prizes were to recognize the leading figures in chemistry, literature and peace. The Nobel Prize in Economy was not be established until 1968.

His second passion, after work andresearch, was literature and writing. After his death Nobel left behind a private library of over 1,500 volumes, the majority of which dealt with theology and history, among other disciplines. Along with this literary legacy, Nobel left behind his own written trajectory: his lifetime’s correspondence, poems written in his youth, several novels, two theatrical works, plus hundreds of notes and reflections in his notebooks, which made observations like:

“The reality of life is bared and of the dream of happiness only the ghost of memory remains”. 

During the final year of life (1896), and while living in San Remo (Italy), Nobel wrote Nemesis, a play in which the many dialogues of the characters clearly reflect his personal philosophy, as well as the melancholic experience of life itself:

"Thus I grew and developed into a thinking and feeling creature with an inner world of poetry that no tyranny has been able to extirpate. Our wonderful poets’ songs to me were enchanting and soothing echoes from the spiritual world of emotion and thought””.

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