The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1901
Emil von Behring
Presentation Speech by Professor the Count K.A.H. Mörner, Rector of the Royal Caroline Institute, on December 10, 1901
Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and
The interest in medical science which was expressed in Alfred Nobel's will must have sprung from two roots.
His heart was warmly inclined towards everything which could be of use and benefit to humanity; he gave plenty of evidence of this both in his lifetime and in the clauses of his will.
Closely connected with this, but also, one might almost say, as an independent feeling, was his love for scientific research. This interest he brought not only to those questions which belonged to his immediate sphere of activity. I know from experience that Dr. Nobel occupied himself with the solution of medical problems and that he spared neither trouble nor expense to obtain an explanation of the question raised. A long time ago his love of medical research was already expressed through a large donation which he made to the Caroline Institute.
But it is hardly surprising that medical research had a fascination for a man of Dr. Nobel's nature and attitude to life. He rated the medical sciences highly and placed great hopes on their successful development.
In this he was justified.
During the last century, medical science has developed in a manner never before paralleled. Already in the first half of the century fresh ground was broken and the foundations for further development were laid. The second half of the century has been even richer in important work and brilliant achievements.
There is not room here to even hint at all of them. I will permit myself to mention bacteriology and to remind you of Pasteur, the founder of this magnificent system of Science, of Robert Koch who made such splendid additions to it, of Lister who directed the beneficial application of this new science towards surgery.
I particularly wanted to mention bacteriology, because this has had the most extensive and revolutionary influence on the different branches of medical science. It must be well-known what a powerful influence it has had on our concept of general hygiene and how it has left its mark on almost everything which is done in this connection. The splendid development of surgery and all sciences connected with it is largely thanks to bacteriology.
In the branches of pure medical science, too, bacteriology has already produced mature fruits of the highest value, while those still being developed are too numerous to be accounted.
Through the knowledge that bacteria engender disease and through our insight into their living conditions, the possibility of conquering the diseases is revealed, even in those cases where the bacteria have obtained a firm foothold and are developing in the organism. The most splendid proof so far of what can be done in this direction is offered in the case of diphtheria.
As far back in time as the knowledge of human illnesses extends, diphtheria and its modification croup have been a scourge of the human race. At times the incidence has, it is true, decreased, so that it apparently ceased to exist, but always, after some time, it has flared up again, causing devastating epidemics of greater or lesser extent. For many decades it has raged among the different nations of the civilized world.
I need not describe the terror which it caused and the despair left in its trail in families from which it tore one member after another. Now, conditions are greatly changed and the picture can be painted in very much lighter colours.
Of course diphtheria still presents a threat and will probably always do so. One can hardly hope ever to reach a stage where it will be completely stamped out, or that in each case there will be a happy ending. But the fight against it is no longer so unequal as it once was. It can be conducted with confidence and hope now that we have a weapon against it which, in thousands of cases, has proved extremely effective.
The year 1883 marks a turning-point in the history of diphtheria. It had been assumed earlier by one or two workers that diphtheria was a disease which was caused by bacteria, but on the other hand this was contested by prominent experts. Nothing positive was known and there had been no scientific argument on the subject. Still less could it be said that there was any certain knowledge of the kind of illness-producing parasite involved.
In the above-mentioned year Löffler completed his comprehensive and extremely significant investigation on the bacteriology of diphtheria. This investigation laid the foundations for the further development of the study of diphtheria treatment. Because of Löffler's work, the foe was obliged to drop his mask and make known his battle tactics. Using his own weapons against him was to be reserved for later.
In general, the disease-causing bacteria produce poisons which in their turn give rise to a toxic condition in the individual in which they develop. And it is precisely because of these poisons that the bacteria are so dangerous. Nevertheless, it has been shown that the poisons, under certain conditions, will lead the organism to produce substances which render them harmless and which prevent the development of the bacteria. When such a condition of «immunity» has been built up, the individual can become insensitive to the baceria in question and resistant to the poisons.
These facts have in many respects proved to be of great practical importance and capable of immediate application.
But it was necessary, nevertheless, in order to achieve success in the battle against diphtheria, to carry research another step forward. Science has succeeded in doing this and results have been obtained which are of the greatest practical significance with regard to diphtheria and also other diseases.
Blood fluid - or blood serum - from an individual who has been immunized with poisons from a certain bacterium, can, namely, when introduced into the organs of another individual, confer resistance upon him against the bacterium in question. Upon this fact modern serum therapy is based.
Up until now, serum therapy has had particularly splendid triumphs in the case of diphtheria, but its significance is not limited to this disease but extends much further. The field which is opened up for research by the development of serum therapy has therefore - for the present - no discernible limits. Much ground has been gained already and we are justified in expecting a great deal of important progress.
The pioneer in this new area of medical research, Professor Emil von Behring, has been chosen by the Professorial Staff of the Caroline Institute as the recipient of this year's Nobel Prize for Medicine.
From Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine 1901-1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1967
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1901
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