Does a “shameful” disease explain the enigma Alfred Nobel?

Through-out his life Alfred Nobel cultivated an image of himself as a life-weary melancholic, plagued by a longed-for but never-experienced love and bereft of normal human fellowship. Was it in reality a stigmatizing disease that drove him to this?  Author Bengt Jangfeldt has found what could be the answer in an old letter from Nobel to his brother.

This text was first published in its Swedish original in Svenska Dagbladet on 23 Feb 2019.  English translation by Anders Sjöman and Stephen Whitlock.

The answer to the enigma Alfred Nobel?

Every year on December 10, a ceremony in Stockholm reminds the world of one of the most famous Swedes of all time: Alfred Nobel, the founder of the Nobel Prize.

Nevertheless, a noun frequently associated with Alfred Nobel is “enigma”. Partly because of his complex personality and the contradictory nature of his work, which encompassed proliferation of dynamite with the pursuit of world peace, partly because of his personal life. Alfred Nobel never married and never expressed a desire to do so, other than as a very young man. Over the years he developed into a sickly and misanthropic loner.

Even as a young man, Nobel was regarded as an enigma. He was not just a brilliant inventor but also a playwright and a poet at high amateur level. His most famous poem begins, “You say I am a riddle…” Written when he was 18, it was addressed to a woman who found his personality mysterious. The poem exists in several versions in English and also one in Swedish, showing how important it must have been to him. It begins:

You say I am a riddle – it may be
For all of us are riddles unexplained
Begun in pain, in deeper torture ended,
This breathing clay what business has it here?
Some petty wants to chain us to the Earth,
Some lofty thoughts to lift us to the spheres
And cheat us with that semblance of a soul.

Thus, already as a young man, Nobel had a romantic, melancholic view of life. The fact that he became gloomy and misanthropic as an adult could therefore be seen as a natural development, as a result of his disposition. However, there is another – and much more tangible – explanation for his growing gloominess. It is to be found in a phrase in Russian in one of Nobel’s letters, previously passed over or ignored.

To put the letter in context, we need to start with some biographical details about Alfred Nobel and his years as young man in St. Petersburg.

Alfred was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1833, the youngest of three brothers. His father, Immanuel, was an inventor and architect who, when Alfred was four years old, had to leave Stockholm to escape his debtors. After a year in the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland he traveled to St. Petersburg, where he quickly made a name for himself as a weapons constructor. His greatest invention was the design of a sea mine that the Russian authorities bought the rights to in 1842.

The money Immanuel Nobel was paid allowed him to relocate his family from Stockholm: his wife, Andriette, and sons Robert, Ludvig and Alfred. Over the following years, Immanuel built a successful mechanical workshop that made products for military and civilian use. During the Crimean War he received such large orders that he became a wealthy man. When the war was over, however, and Russia had a new emperor in Alexander II, the government broke the contract with the workshop and it went into liquidation.

In 1859, Immanuel Nobel moved back to Sweden, leaving his three sons in St. Petersburg to try to save the workshop. Their efforts failed, and it went bankrupt in 1861. That same year, Robert Nobel moved to Helsinki to get married. Two years later, Alfred left the Russian capital for a life in Stockholm. Ludvig remained in St. Petersburg, where he started a new mechanical workshop, which in the 1870s became one of Russia’s most successful. A decade later Robert returned to Russia where he laid the foundations for the Nobel Oil Production Company (Branobel), which in time would become one of the world’s leading companies in the oil industry.

Meanwhile, dynamite inventor Alfred built his business in Europe and the United States, and only returned to Russia for two short visits in 1871 and 1883. This notwithstanding Ludvig’s insistent invitations for him to visit. As explanations Alfred referred either to bad health or to a heavy work load – or to both. Those were valid reasons. His health was poor and he worked around the clock, but it is hard not to see them as excuses. Considering the fact that Alfred had spent 20 years of his life in St. Petersburg, between his tenth and thirtieth year, it seems strange that he would not have felt tempted to reconnect with old friends and acquaintances. If he had wished to, health and work obstacles could surely have been overcome.

In 1952 Ludvig’s daughter Marta Nobel-Oleinikoff published a book, “Ludvig Nobel and his work.” It was printed “in a very limited edition and only at the disposal of the Nobel family.” (The book was made accessible to the public in 1977.) In it she suggests that the reason why Alfred was reluctant to visit St. Petersburg was that “since the 1860s, he had kept with him some embarrassing memories from there, whose nature however is shrouded in mystery.” One may doubt whether the sub-clause was entirely truthful. In all probability, she knew exactly what Alfred’s “embarrassing memories” were. That, however, was a well-kept family secret.

Alfred was the only one of the three brothers who did not marry or have children. Robert had four children, Ludvig a total of 18 (through two marriages). The fact that Alfred never married and had no known intimate relationship with women has attracted speculation. However, nothing indicates that he was a homosexual. Young Alfred was in fact very interested in women. For instance, he courted Robert’s fiancé with such fervor that it led to discord between the brothers, and as a 26-year-old he took English lessons in St. Petersburg, despite speaking the language well, solely to get in touch with women. He explained to Robert how the women admired him for his quick progress, and for the verses he wrote in their honor. He believed that poetry would help him “catch a rich and beautiful girl” and that he would “be the only one in the family to marry rich.” When Alfred visited St. Petersburg in 1871, Robert’s wife believed he went there to get engaged to “an old flame,” whoever that might have been.

Young Alfred was in fact very interested in women. He courted Robert’s fiance with such fervor that it led to discord between the brothers.

It never came to that. Alfred never got engaged or married. His known relationships with women were few and by all indications non-physical. They played out mainly in letters. This holds true also for the only erotically tinged relationship that is known, the one with the much younger Sophie Hess, a Pygmalion-like liaison marked by “avuncular care,” to quote Erik Bergengren, one of Alfred’s biographers. To Vilgot Sjöman, who wrote two books trying to understand Alfred’s personal life and made a film about him, it was clear that Alfred “starves himself emotionally throughout his life.”

The Nobel Brothers were prolific letter writers. Alfred claimed he wrote between 20 and 40 letters per day, which seems to be correct, at least periodically. His brothers were almost as diligent. The letters number in the thousands. Business correspondence was conducted in German, Russian, French and English, whereas letters between family members are in Swedish. All three brothers write in an idiomatic, varied and expressive language, despite having had only a few years of formal schooling before coming to Russia, where they were home-schooled by a Swedish tutor.

Russian expressions do occur in the brothers’ letters, usually when equivalent words or expressions do not exist in Swedish or when they come more naturally in Russian, sometimes to quote a saying, sometimes to convey sensitive information. The latter is the case with a letter from Alfred to Robert, which has been kept in Robert’s archive. Alfred had moved to Stockholm in the summer of 1863 while his brother lived in Helsinki with his family. The letter is dated December 19, 1864. After the usual greetings, Alfred continues:

I must be brief, as I am inflicted with an eye inflammation, following on a bulge on my eye that I neglected for business reasons. Worst of all is that ’Докторъ уверяет что старая Венера выскочила и счёлъ нужным свести ее с Меркурiемъ. Все это очень скучно’.

The Russian text, which Alfred himself put in quotes, means:

The doctor assures me that it is old Venus that has popped out and he found it necessary to acquaint her with Mercury. All this is very sad.

The phrase may seem odd but was fully comprehensible for Alfred’s contemporaries. It is a paraphrase of the old English saying: “A night with Venus and a life with Mercury.” Meaning, : A night with the love goddess Venus will bring you a life with the god Mercury. Of course, Mercury is not just a Roman god, but also a chemical element. What Alfred is saying, in Russian so that only his brother will understand, is that he has syphilis and has been prescribed (or already undergone) the standard cure at this time – a mercury treatment. The phrases “old Venus” and “popped out”, as well as the descriptions of his symptoms, indicate that it is syphilis in one of the disease’s later stages. The time of infection was, in other words, some time ago.

What Alfred is saying, in Russian so that only his brother will understand, is that he has syphilis and has been prescribed (or already undergone) the standard cure at this time – a mercury treatment.

This may very well be what Marta Nobel-Oleinikoff referred to when she wrote about her uncle’s “embarrassing memories” from St. Petersburg; it seems unlikely that Robert would have been the only one in the family to know the truth. But it was a well-guarded secret. The disease also casts his mother’s relationship with Alfred in a new light. Of her three sons, Alfred was her favorite, something she did not hide. In her letters she addresses him, even in his fifties, as “my own little Alfred”, “my deeply beloved boy”, and in one instance writes to him that he is the son “that I love the most.” With our knowledge of Alfred’s disease, it is hard not to see this flowing maternal love as an expression of compassion for a son who has been robbed of all that his brothers had been granted: family and children. The feelings were reciprocated. When his mother died, Alfred wrote that she “loved me like no one loves today.” Perhaps his mother was the only woman who truly meant something to him.

Alfred was 31 years old when he wrote that letter to Robert. The source of his infliction was most likely a prostitute. Many young men of the time visited prostitutes. A contemporary of Alfred, novelist Leo Tolstoy, writes openly in his diary about the brothels he visited before his marriage. Brothels had been legalized in Russia in 1843. How many of these were officially registered in the 1860s is unknown to me, but in 1901 15,000 women worked in 2,400 brothels. In addition to the registered brothels, there were also illegal ones and many street prostitutes, so the total number of prostitutes in Russia was considerably larger than that.

How Alfred incurred the infection is, of course, impossible to know. Syphilis had long been a major problem in Russia and following the 1861 emancipation of the serfs, with the ensuing social and geographic mobility, the disease took on epidemic proportions. In 1869, 44.5 percent of Moscow’s prostitutes carried syphilis and 86 percent of syphilis-infected men had received the disease through association with prostitutes. The situation in St. Petersburg, with its many street girls, was similar if not worse.

In its primary stage, syphilis presents itself with sores at the point of infection, which heal after one to two months. Then follows the secondary stage, which normally involves skin, mucous membranes and lymph nodes. As in the primary stage, patients are infectious through their wounds during this stage. After three to six weeks, the most acute problems disappear, and a latency period follows, during which the disease shows no or few symptoms. This period can last anywhere from three up to 15 years. Then follows the tertiary stage, which presents as symptoms of the heart, skeleton and central nervous system, sometimes also as skin issues. This stage is not contagious.

Judging from the wording in his letter to Robert, Alfred’s “Venus” is of the tertiary kind: an illness that, after a symptom-free latency period, makes itself known again, “pops out”. Considering the latency period’s time window, the infection must have occurred at least three year earlier, that is the end of 1861 at the latest. In the summer of 1859, Alfred was bed-ridden with what Marta Nobel-Oleinikoff describes as a “life-threatening disease.” The quotation marks are hers – perhaps she was referring to syphilis.

Treatment normally meant placing the patient in a hot room, where the body was rubbed with a mercury ointment several times a day. The infected was then placed by a fireplace to sweat. The procedure continued for a week, up to a month, during which the patient was not allowed to leave the room. The treatment was repeated if needed. Hence the expression “a life with Mercury”. The efficiency of the treatment is disputed, and it was not infrequent that the patient, instead of being cured, died of mercury poisoning. Whether Alfred took his doctor’s advice and underwent this treatment is unclear.

Alfred, like Robert and Ludvig, suffered frail health from an early age. There is hardly a letter between them in which they do not comment on their health, chiefly to complain about how poorly they feel. Even though they suffered from actual health problems, with the years hypochondria became part of their identities. All three died relatively young: Ludvig at 57, Alfred at 63 and Robert at 67.

Many of Alfred’s health struggles were of such a general nature that they could be syphilis-related but did not have to be: headaches (migraine), stomach pain, heart problems, cold sores, skin rashes, issues with his gums, eyes and nerves. To determine which of his many ailments could have been caused by syphilis is therefore difficult – and in this context also less interesting.

What is important is that Alfred Nobel carried a disease that was deeply stigmatizing. It did not affect his intellectual capacity, but it did have an impact on his self-perception and view on life, and not least on his relationship with the opposite sex. Syphilis was at this time not a rare but still a shameful disease. Even if he was cured, how could he marry, or even initiate an intimate relationship, without telling his partner about it? How he had been infected, by whom? Perhaps he was – or feared that he was – infertile, a less common but still known effect of syphilis?

Of course, it cannot be ruled out that Nobel had sexual contacts after his syphilis diagnosis, but in no case did he have relationships; those took place by distance, by letter.

Throughout his life, Alfred Nobel cultivated an image of himself, persistently and successfully, as a life-weary melancholic, plagued by a longed-for but never-experienced love and bereft of normal human fellowship. He was, as he wrote to his sister-in-law, Ludvigs’ wife Edla, a “useless life-wreck, broken by fate.” Unlike her he is excluded from “love, pleasure, joyful noise, vibrant life, being caring and cared for, caressing and being caressed.” And when his brother Ludvig asked him to summarize his life for a family chronicle, Alfred’s brief reply was that his has been a “pitiful half-life,” not worth living.

That “half-life” refers to the absence of love is evident from the poem “Dedication”, where Alfred turns to a woman “whom I only in my mind found”: “You are but dreamed, but he who cannot dream / Has but a half-life with neither hue nor joy.” Another late poem describes thus the clash between dreams and reality:

If I have loved? Ah your query wakens
Within my memory many a sweet picture
Of dreamt-of bliss which life has grudged me,
Of cherished love which withered ere it grew
You know not how reality doth mock
The young heart’s ideal world […]

It is difficult to establish to what extent Alfred Nobel’s melancholy, bordering on self-contempt, was due to his temperament and how much it may have depended on the venereal disease that he contracted at a young age. What is unquestionable, however, is that the information disclosed in his letter to Robert puts his life in a new and sharper contrast.

Bengt Jangfeldt

Read Bengt’s article in its original Swedish (from Svenska Dagbladet 23 Feb 2019):
Brev till brodern avslöjar Alfred Nobels hemlighet


About the book project

The book project about the brothers Nobel  marks the continuation of earlier projects where the Centre for Business History in Stockholm has focused on Swedish business history in Russia, before the Russian Revolution, such as digitization of archive material in archives in Baku (Azerbaijan), Tbilisi (Georgia) and St Petersburg (Russia). The book, which will be published in 2020, will present a unique industrial family’s history, starting with Immanuel Nobel’s journey to Russia in 1838 and continuing with the sons Robert and Ludvig’s enterprising years with mechanical workshops and the Russian oil industry. The oil company Branobel became one of the world’s largest, only surpassed by the American Rockefeller family and their Standard Oil.  Brother Alfred’s activities in Tsarist Russia will also be covered.

Radio CfN: Listen to Bengt Jangfeldt in conversations about Nobel in Russia with professor Thomas Tydén from the Nobel Family Association (in Swedish).


Share your thoughts