What would you do if you saw your obituary?

Francis H.C. Crick’s Nobel Prize Medal and Nobel Diploma, awarded in 1962 for his work related to DNA molecules, sold for $2.27 million at an April 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1888, a French newspaper published Alfred Nobel’s obituary with the following title: “Le marchand de la mort est mort” or “The merchant of death is dead.”

In reality, it was actually his brother Ludvig who had died, but Alfred was appalled that this kind of sendoff could tarnish his own professional legacy. One presumes that the only error was the mix-up in names since the sobriquet seemed apt given Alfred’s contributions to the effectiveness of substances that resulted in death.

In a complicated maneuver, the inventor of dynamite attempted to rectify future obits by posthumously donating the majority of his estate (94 percent) to the establishment of the Nobel Prizes, designed to expunge his reputation for all the deaths resulting from his explosive product. It was only partially successful since he was accused of treason against France for selling Ballistite (a smokeless propellant composed of two explosives) to Italy. The French forced him to leave Paris and he moved to Sanremo, Italy, where he died in 1896. There were five Nobel categories with an emphasis on “peace” … for obvious reasons.

A native of Stockholm, Nobel made a fortune when he invented dynamite in 1867 as a more reliable alternative to nitroglycerin. As a chemist and engineer, he basically revolutionized the field of explosives. Some accounts give him credit for 355 inventions. In 1895, a year before his death, he signed the final version of his will, which established the organization that would bear his name and “present prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”

Nobel’s family contested the will and the first prizes were not handed out until 1901. Among the first winners were German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, who discovered X-rays, and German microbiologist Emil Adolf von Behring, who developed a treatment for diphtheria. The Nobel Prizes were soon recognized as the most prestigious in the world. Except for war-related interruptions, prizes have been awarded virtually every year. The category of economics was added in 1969.

The first American to receive a Nobel was President Theodore Roosevelt, who garnered the prize in 1906 after he helped mediate an end to the Russian-Japanese war. The German-born American scientist Albert Michelson claimed the physics prize the next year. However, the peace and literature prizes would become the most familiar to Americans and are some of the most controversial. Critics voiced concerns over Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson (1919), George Marshall (1953) and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (1973). More recently, winners have included Al Gore (2007) for making an Oscar-winning documentary on climate change, and Barack Obama (2009) “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” (for more, see Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward).

William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Toni Morrison generally have escaped criticism, as have multiple winners like Marie Curie (the first woman in 1911, and in two separate categories), and Linus Pauling, among others. The Red Cross has snagged three. From a personal standpoint, the most obvious non-winner is Mahatma Gandhi, or as someone quipped, “Gandhi can do without a Nobel Prize, but can the Nobel Committee do without Gandhi?”

I think not.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

How We Record History Has Evolved Over the Ages

A 1935 copy of The History of Herodotus of Halicarnassus (Nonesuch Press) sold for $1,125 at an October 2013 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

We often fail to remember that history (itself) has a history. From the earliest times, all societies told stories from their past, usually imaginative tales involving the acts of heroes or various gods. Later, civilizations kept records inscribed on clay tablets or the walls of caves. However, ancient societies made no attempt at verification of records, and often failed to differentiate between reality and mythical events and legends.

This changed in the 5th century B.C. when historians like Herodotus and Thucydides explored the past by the interpretation of evidence, despite still including a mixture of myth (“history” means “inquiry” in Greek). Still, Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War satisfies most criteria of modern historical study. It was based on interviews with eyewitnesses and attributed actual events to individuals rather than the intervention of gods.

Thus, Thucydides managed to create the most durable form of history: the detailed narrative of war, political conflict, diplomacy and decision-making. Then, the subsequent rise of Rome to dominance of the Mediterranean encouraged other historians like Polybius (Hellenic) and Livy (Roman) to develop narratives to capture a “big picture” that made sense of events on a longer time frame. Although restricted to just the Roman world, it was the beginning of a universal history to describe progress from origin to present, with a goal of giving the past a purpose.

In addition to making sense of events through narratives, there was a tradition growing to examine the behavior of heroes and villains for future moral lessons. We still attempt this today with a steady stream of studies of Lincoln, Churchill and Gandhi, as well as Stalin, Hitler and Mao.

But there was a big hiccup with the rise of Christianity in the late Roman Empire era, which fundamentally changed the concept of history in Europe. Historical events started to be viewed as “divine providence” or the working of God’s will. Skeptical inquiry was usually neglected and miracles routinely accepted without question. Thankfully, the Muslim world was more sophisticated in medieval times and they rejected accounts of events that could not be verified.

However, neither Christians nor Muslims produced anything close to the chronicle of Chinese history published under the Song Dynasty in 1085. It recorded history spanning almost 1,400 years and filled 294 volumes. (I have no idea how accurate it is!)

By the 20th century, the subject matter of history – which had always focused on kings, queens, prime ministers, presidents and generals – increasingly expanded to embrace common people, whose role in historical events became more accessible. But most world history was written as the story of the triumph of Western civilization, until the second half when the notion of a single grand narrative simply collapsed. Instead, the post-colonial, modern world demanded the study of blacks and women’s histories, in addition to Asians, Africans and American Indians.

Now we are in another new place where it is increasingly difficult to know where to find reliable accounts of real events and a flood of “fake news” is competing for widespread acceptance. Maybe Henry Ford was right after all when he declared that “History is bunk!”

Personally, I don’t mind and still enjoy frequent trips to the past … regardless of factual flaws.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].