From First Woman to First African American, These Nobel Prize Firsts Are Both Shocking and Inspiring

Photo of India Irving
Social Media Editor7 October 2017

With Japan-born British author, Kazuo Ishiguro, honoured yesterday with the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, it seems important to commemorate the distinguished visionaries who came before him. It was on December 10, 1901 that the first prestigious prizes were awarded as dictated by the last will and testament of Swedish philanthropist, entrepreneur, scientist and engineer Alfred Nobel, following his passing five years earlier.

Kazuo Ishiguro | © Faber & Faber

Nobel’s hope for the award was to celebrate leaders in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace who dedicate their lives to the benefit and progress of mankind. The winners however, were not always as diverse as the fields they represented, nor even always happy to accept the accolade. Below we reveal 11 Nobel Prize facts you may not know.

First Winners

Alfred Nobel | © Gösta Florman (1831–1900)/The Royal Library/WikiCommons

The first Nobel Prize winners ever, awarded at the original 1901 ceremony at the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in Nybroviken, Stockholm were Wilhelm Rontgen for Physics, Jacobus Henricus van ‘t Hoff for Chemistry, Emil Adolf von Behring for Physiology/Medicine and Sully Prudhomme for literature.

The First Woman to Win

Marie Curie in Her Laboratory | © Musée Curie/WikiCommons

The first woman to win the Nobel Prize was Marie Curie for Physics in 1903.

The First Person to Win for Multiple Disciplines

Marie Curie | © Fotograv Generalstabens Litografiska Anstalt Stockholm/WikiCommons

Surprise, surprise, the first person to win a Nobel Prize for multiple disciplines was yet again, Marie Curie, this time for chemistry in 1911.

The First Asian Winner

Rabindranath Tagore and Gandhi in 1940 | via

The first person of Asian descent to be awarded the Nobel Peace prize was Rabindranath Tagore, who was also the first Indian winner. He was honoured for his contribution to literature in 1913.

The First African American to Win

Portrait of Ralph Bunche

The first African American to win the Nobel Prize was Ralph Bunche for Peace. This didn’t happen until 1950, which is a sad reminder of the troubling racism the Black community has faced through the decades.

The First Woman of Color to Win

<caption> | © Xinhua News Agency/REX/Shutterstock

The first woman of colour to achieve Nobel winning status was Burmese diplomat, author and politician Aung San Suu Kyi. This happened in 1991, 41 years after the first Black winner and a full 78 years after the first Asian winner. Most interestingly, Aung was also the first person to receive the honour whilst under house arrest.

The First Hispanic and Latino Winners

Carlos Saavedra Lamas | via WikiCommons

The first Hispanic winner of the prize was Spanish author, Jose Echegaray for Peace in 1905 and the first Latino was Carlos Saavedra Lamas, also for Peace in 1936.

The First LGBTQ Winner

Rainbow Flag | © Ludovic Bertron/WikiCommons

Another disturbing Nobel Prize anomaly is that there has never been an openly LGBTQ person awarded for any of the categories. There are of course hopes that this could change, but so far, nothing.

The First Person to Decline the Prize

Jean-Paul Sartre, 1967 | © UserT1980/WikiCommons

On a lighter note, the first person to reject the Nobel was existentialist author, political activist and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in 1964. His subsequent statement to the Swedish Press explained that his reasons were both ‘personal and objective.’

First Year Without A Prize

American Troops Climbing A Hill During WWI | © Moore, William E.; Russell, James C./WikiCommons

The first year without a Prize since it’s inception in 1901 was in 1914, during World War I, where Prizes were not awarded for Peace or Literature. In total however, there have only been 49 occasions in its 116 year history that Nobel Prizes have not been awarded.

The Youngest Winner

Malala Yousafzai | © DFID - UK Department for International Development/WikiCommons

The first and only person under 25 to win a Nobel Prize was Pakistani teenager, Malala Yousafzai, who won the award for Peace in 2014 at just 17 years of age for her exemplary defense of girl’s education in third world countries.

The Oldest Winner

Leonid Hurwicz | © Dong Oh/Wikicommons

The first and only person, 90 years or older, to win the award was Leonid Hurwicz who was honoured with the 2007 Award in Economic Sciences at the ripe age of 90.

Cookies Policy

We and our partners use cookies to better understand your needs, improve performance and provide you with personalised content and advertisements. To allow us to provide a better and more tailored experience please click "OK"