Nobel Winners Give Back: A Brief History

Nobel Prize winners are the crème de la crème in their respective fields.  These intellectual giants possess expertise surpassing the mastery of even the most resourceful sandwich architect.  Even though Nobel Laureates are the élite, they are not elitists, as proven by their rich tradition of giving back to the community.

A Heated Start

A cart filled with women's shoes.

Albert Einstein created the legacy of paying it forward in 1921 when he won the Nobel prize for physics. After receiving the award, he dropped off a closet full of women’s shoes at a local thrift store.  In a 1928 interview with Scientific American, Einstein detailed his motivation behind the contribution.  “My wife Elsa had spent a substantial portion of the prize money on shoes.  I wanted to buy a Tinker Toy set.  I told her, ‘You’re crazy, buying all these shoes!  I can use the Tinker Toys to create a new model of the universe!’  But no! Day after day, more shoes.  So finally I told her, ‘No more shoes!’ and I took them to a thrift store.  I still had some prize money left but the Tinker Toys were sold out.  Instead, I found a blackboard and some nice chalk.  But they didn’t have any erasers.  That’s my biggest regret.”

An Untimely End?

The tradition came to an abrupt, yet temporary, end in 1954 after Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel prize for literature.  While on safari in Africa, the “For Whom the Bell Tolls” author suffered two life threatening events.  First, a hippopotamus mauled Hemingway when he took the water pig to a Chinese restaurant.  Next, on the way to the hospital, Hemingway suddenly gave in to the urge to teach a herd of wildebeest how to samba.  The lengthy hospital stay and no time for a beard trim kept Papa from attending the Nobel ceremony.

A room full of donated merchandise.

Nonetheless, Hemingway remained determined to make his donation.  He intended to donate his entire hospital ward to a thrift store in Paris, France.  However, an error on the shipping label instead sent the unit to Paris, Texas.  Adding insult to injury, prior to shipment, a swarm of tsetse flies had infested the crates and sleeping sickness afflicted the entire Texas town.  Three days later, the Nobel Committee ended all donations, citing health reasons and misuse of address labels.

The Ban Is Lifted

In 1960, Willard Libby won the Nobel Chemistry prize “for his method to use carbon-14 for age determination in chicken legs.”  During his acceptance speech, he turned around to see a large cardboard poster taped to the curtain that read: “NO DONATIONS PLEASE.”

Libby invited the Nobel Committee to his house and they defrosted his freezer.  While Nobel Committee chairman Gunnar Jahn scraped ice from the freezer walls, Libby argued his case. “Hey, I’d love to accept the award but I’ve got all this stuff on the wall in my den.  Take a look.  See?  No room to hang the medal.  I’d like to hang the medal but I can’t throw away all this stuff.  My wife will kill me.  Could I give it to a second-hand store or something?”

The committee gave in to his request and the tradition of donating was reborn.

Debatable Donations

The practice of donating hasn’t been without its controversial moments.  In 1962, Francis Crick and James Watson received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery that DNA is shaped like two scoops of rainbow sherbet.  Maurice Wilkins received a share of the prize due to his proof supporting Crick’s and Watson’s revelation-Wilkins used a mechanical ice cream scoop with a built-in scraper to map out the form of the sherbet dollops. 

Seven throw pillow on a cart.

Controversy still surrounds their donation of seven decorative throw pillows because Rosalind Franklin was not included.  She had invited Crick, Watson and Wilkins to her house to play Monopoly and show them her new interior design.  When Wilkins’ turn came up, he “dropped” the dice on the floor and asked Franklin to pick them up.  When she bent down to pick up the dice, Crick and Watson took the pillows and stuffed them in the trunk of their Studebaker.  Her contribution to the donation remained overlooked for years.

Symbols of Excellence

Over the years, donations have become as symbolic as practical. 

Garden tools on a cart.

In 2004, the Nobel Committee awarded the frequently overlooked Landscaping Nobel prize to Finn E. Kydland and Edward C. Prescott for their contributions to dynamic macro gardening. The Committee praised the yardwork theorists for revealing the time consistency of tree pruning and the driving forces behind poison ivy. To show their appreciation, Kydland and Prescott donated an assortment of gardening tools. 

Stuffed animals on a cart.

The true showstopper occurred after the European Union won the Peace Prize in 2012.  In a true display of solidarity, a representative of each nation rode together in a Volkswagen minibus to donate a closet full of stuffed animals. A minor disagreement arose because the representatives from Denmark and Croatia squabbled over who would place the blue Tyrannosaurus Rex on the cart.  Cooler heads prevailed and, in a handshake agreement, both delegates placed the toy dinosaur on the cart together.

Thorbjørn Jagland, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, lauded the EU “for their continuing contribution to the advancement of getting rid of monsters under the bed, playdate fun and easy cleanup in the washing machine.”  Jagland also noted that the stuffed animal donation represents “warm, squishy hugs,” and amounts to a form of the “relief for Mom and Dad on a car trip” to which Alfred Nobel cites as requirements for the Peace Prize in his 1895 will.

To sum up, the next time you’re shopping at a thrift store, remember that your purchase could benefit all humankind.

2 thoughts on “Nobel Winners Give Back: A Brief History

  1. I love this! Paying it forward is a tradition that is a rewarding act of love for humankind. It creates a sense of care and that we are all in this together. It’s a glimmer of hope that there are still good people out there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank You so much! I appreciate the feedback!


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