UPDATED: Kaci Kullmann Five, the leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, has died after a long battle with cancer. The committee announced Monday morning that it had received the news of Five’s death “with great sorrow.”
It was a bad sign when Five, who had been unusually open about her struggle with both breast cancer and diabetes over the years, was absent from the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in December. The reason given for her absence was “illness,” and she’d been known for doing her best to not let that hinder her work. She ultimately, however, was no longer able to keep up her struggle and died Sunday at an age of just 65.
RELATED STORY: Tributes roll in to a leading ‘role model’
“It is indescribably sad that she had to lose against an illness that rammed her again last fall, and which forced her to stay away from last year’s Peace Prize ceremony,” Berit Reiss-Andersen, the head of the Norwegian Bar Association and member of the Nobel Committee who had to step in to replace Five, stated in the announcement.
Both Reiss-Andersen and Olav Njølstad, secretary of the Nobel Committee, noted that Five also had a string of official duties both within and outside the Norwegian and Swedish Nobel Prize system. “She made a formidable contribution and will be deeply missed,” they wrote.
Five, a former government minister in Norway and veteran of the Conservative Party, was considered a pioneer in many aspects of Norwegian politics and society. She was the first woman to lead the Conservative Party and a champion of women’s rights and equality.
“We have lost a strong and warm person and one of those who broke through the most barriers,” stated Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who now leads the Conservative Party. “Our thoughts go to Kaci’s closest family. There are many of us in Høyre (the party) who are thinking of them now.” Tributes to Five continued to roll in all day on Monday.
Five’s official name was Karin Cecilie Kullman Five but she mostly was known both privately and publicly as simply “Kaci” (pronounced “Kah-see”). She was first appointed to the Norwegian Nobel Committee in 2003 after a long career at the highest levels of Norwegian politics. She became the committee’s leader in 2015, after a change in the political make-up of the committee, which, under the terms of Alfred Nobel’s will, is supposed to reflect the make-up of Norway’s Parliament.
Five (pronounced “Fee-vuh”) replaced Thorbjørn Jagland, a former prime minister for the Labour Party who also serves as the head of the Council of Europe. Jagland had been a controversial leader of the committee but Five called him a “good leader” when she took over. She seemed determined, though, to take the committee in new directions and surprised almost everyone when she revealed the two Nobel Peace Prize choices she was able to announce in 2015 and 2016. Neither the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet in 2015 nor Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in 2016 were viewed as likely choices for a number of reasons. For Five and her committee, however, the prizes were well-deserved and in line with the terms of Alfred Nobels will.
Five was accustomed to breaking new ground but also for predictability. She wore her blonde hair in exactly the same style, for example, for decades, in a shoulder-length bob fastened with a hair clip. She only changed it when her cancer treatments left her without any hair : “I have been through three-quarters of a year with treatments for breast cancer, and then there wasn’t much hair for a clip to hold,” she told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “Now I’ve begun to get used to having short hair and begun to like it. Maybe I’ll keep it this way.”
She publicly made a point of not letting the treatments or her illnesses themselves get in the way of her professional duties. She was photographed in newspapers back in the early 1990s giving herself an insulin injection in the stomach while airborne on an official trip as a governnment minister in charge of business and trade for the Conservatives. “I have tried to make illness the smallest possible portion of my life,” she told NRK. She admitted to having reduced her number of appointments the past few years, “but I don’t think I’ve been absent from any meetings. I did have to conduct some by telephone, though, because my immune system was weak.”
That’s why her absence on December 10, 2016 was ominous, and Nobel Committee members were mourning her death this week. “As a leader, she was engaged, inclusive and oriented towards solving problems,” the committee wrote. “With Kaci Kullmann Five’s death the committee has lost a wise and unifying leader.”
She started her political career in Oslo’s western suburban community of Bærum, where she was a member of the local government from 1975 to 1982. She became nationally known in 1977 when, as leader of the Conservatives’ youth organization, she answered complicated political questions on a wide range of issues and in many ways overshadowed the party’s much older male leader at the time, Erling Norvik.
She rose quickly through the ranks of the Conservatives, was an outspoken advocate of Norway joining the EU and on women’s, economic and environmental issues. She became a Member of Parliament in 1981, was government minister in charge of business, trade and maritime issues during the Conservatives-led Syse Government from 1989 to 1990 and took over as party leader in 1991.
She gave up her seat in Parliament in 1997 and left politics to spend more time with her family and in business. She worked for Aker RGI and held seats on the boards of the Norwegian Export Council and Norway’s biggest company, Statoil.
Five is survived by her husband Carsten O Five, two daughters and grandchildren. Her daughter Cristine Five Berg, age 39, published a book in 2015 entitled Kaci, min mamma (Kaci, My Mother) in which she brought up the career and family conflicts still often faced by far more women than men. “My mother was an important contributor to the equality that I now enjoy and of which I reap the benefits,” Berg wrote. “But at the same time I feel I have paid part of the price for that.” She wrote about how her mother was often away and working when she was growing up, but now, as an adult herself, Berg better understood all the battles her mother fought, for such things as more equality in the workplace and social welfare programs that now make it possible for Norwegian women to have among the best paid maternity benefits in the world. Fathers are now expected to take parental leave as well.
“Today I’m proud that she’s my mother,” Berg wrote in 2015. Five herself had expressed pride that same year that she could be the one to rush off and collect her grandchildren at the day care center, and thus help her own busy children as adults.
Funeral arrangements were pending.