Childhood memories of early Nobel Prize ceremonies and laureates

by Stina Mörner-Paasche*
21 February 2002

Along with Robert Tigerstedt, Karl Mörner was the Institute’s (Karolinska) delegate in the task of putting Nobel’s imprecisely worded will into executable shape. Negotiations among the representatives of the Academy of Sciences, the Swedish Academy, Karolinska Institutet and Nobel’s heirs were long and difficult. One spokesman for the heirs was Alfred Nobel’s nephew Emanuel Nobel, who strongly urged that the wishes of the donor should be carried out and certainly agreed with Mörner’s strict demand that the final clauses should be in a form so clear that they could not be misunderstood.

Alfred Nobel died in 1896. The task of dealing with his will took several years. The first Prize Award Ceremony took place in 1901, on the anniversary of the donor’s death, December 10. It felt like a big day for the country. And in those days, the country was Sweden and Norway.

Nobel is part of my childhood memories. As Chairman of the Nobel Committee for Medicine from 1901 until his death in 1917, Papa presented the Nobel Prize in Medicine 1901-1906 and 1908-1911. In 1907, the year of the big Linnaeus Festival, he was President of the Academy of Sciences and presented the Prize in Chemistry.

The Nobel ceremony was held in the Academy of Music, with royalty and all the pomp that Stockholm could muster. I saw Papa after one speech, first about the Laureate, then directed to him, step down from the lectern and hand over the medal and diploma to the king, who then gave them to the Laureate. After the ceremony there was a gala dinner in the main hall of the biggest hotel. But I was not able to experience that until once as a grown-up girl.

During all of Papa’s years, the names of every Laureate were kept secret until shortly before the Ceremony. But we children knew the secret long before. We heard Papa tell about the Laureates, we saw their portraits and admired the medal and the artistically painted diploma. And we heard Papa practicing foreign languages. After having held his big speech at the Nobel ceremony about the Laureate’s work, he turned and directed some words to him in his own language. He spoke to Pavlov in Russian, to Golgi in Italian, to Ramon y Cajal in Spanish. And it was supposed to sound correct and understandable to the person to whom the speech was directed. Papa’s oratorical practice made a big impression on us.

And then it was exciting to see the Laureate. Two days after the big ceremony, a dinner was held for him at our home.

In 1902, along with my classmate Elisabet, I was infatuated with the Laureate, Sir Ronald Ross. He looked so handsome in his picture. But I was somewhat disappointed when I met him later. His face was ruddy and rough after many years of work in India and Africa. It helped, in any case, that he had solved the riddle of the terrible disease malaria and that he spoke a healthy and friendly English, laughed a lot and was Papa’s friend.

Sometimes the Laureate came to our home on a private visit, like two years later the remarkable Russian, Pavlov, the man who switched the legs of dogs. There was a Russian scare in Sweden. We had been frightened when our maids said, “If you’re not nice, the Russians will come and get you!” And rumors were circulating about itinerant Russian saw sharpeners who were looking for work in the eastern coastal provinces and were actually spies. It was almost with a little trembling that I went in and shook the hand of Pavlov – a warmly smiling white-bearded little man.

The annual Nobel dinner in our home was Mamma’s shining test as an organizer and hostess. A couple of days before, Mrs. Andersson arrived. Mamma and she worked out the menu. Purchases were made. Mrs. Andersson controlled the kitchen, cooked the broth, fried the poultry, made the ice cream.

author's parents

The author’s parents, Fanny (née Ekengren) and Karl Mörner.

Photo: Atelier Florman, 1894

Mamma had a list of 12 waitresses who were called in year after year. In the dining room, two long tables were set for 60 people. There stood the two five-armed silver candlesticks, the faculty’s gift to Papa on his 60th birthday. There were flower vases, small silver bowls of “dessert,” that is, sweets, and two silver baskets of fruit. I was allowed to help prepare the fruit. I greedily stole and ate a loose grape. Grapes were not seen except at big dinners.

A steady guest was Emanuel Nobel, head of the Nobel family’s oil company in Baku and of its factories in St. Petersburg. He was heavily-built and bearded, with a warm Russian eloquence and a hospitality that my parents enjoyed when Papa once took part in an international medical congress in St. Petersburg. From Papa’s account of the congress, one single detail remains in my memory: In the middle of the big festival hall stood a remarkable Norwegian professor and spoke in a voice that made itself heard above all the others. And the others competed to be introduced to Professor Laache (name pronounced in French). Mamma told how Emanuel Nobel’s overwhelming friendliness toward his guests switched to a completely opposite tone, a sharp rebuke to the coachman who was outside the door with the horse and carriage.

Emanuel Nobel arrived before the other guests and presented to the hostess a can that contained a kilo of costly Russian caviar. Distributed on small open sandwiches, it began the dinner. Then came broth, a fancy fish dish, heavy meat like filet of beef or minced ham, a vegetable dish, then poultry (black grouse or hazel grouse), followed by ice cream, then cheese and crackers. Finally fruit and dessert. Of the wine glasses used, there were at least four kinds.

Coffee after dinner, very strong, in very small cups, was passed around in the other rooms to the guests, seated or standing. We children then came downstairs in our finest clothes to say hello to the guests. Mamma was in full dress with a diamond brooch and the pearl necklace that we recognized in the portrait of our foremother from the 17th century. She was surrounded by our admiration, and that of the guests, who turned to Papa: “Ihr wunderschöne Frau Gemahlin.”

As the only adult daughter in the house at that time, I was allowed to join the table. I watched some of the guests in amazement – these respected, otherwise solemn professors with the big white napkin under their chin, faces in disorder, bright red. The foreigners were more exciting. I especially remember, a couple of years after Pavlov, the Italian Golgi and the Spaniard Ramon y Cajal, who had shared that year’s prize. Papa gave a speech for the guests of honor. Golgi’s reply came in gentle French. Then Cajal got up, small and poor, hesitant. They said that at his hotel, the chambermaid had to help him get his dress-suit into usable shape. He stammered a few words in French, broke off, then extended his arms and gave his speech in such glowing, enchanted Spanish that without understanding his words, we sat dumbstruck and moved. And then came the applause!

author and family


The author (seated at foreground, extreme right) with her brothers and sister sometime in 1905.

Photo: Atelier Florman

In 1912 at the Nobel dinner in our house, my table companion was small, bald and silent, the French-American surgeon Alexis Carrel, the first to successfully transplant an organ from one individual to another. In the summer of 1914 he wrote a letter to Papa about a completely new activity: he was going to join the French 14th army as a field doctor. The war seemed close.

His successor the next year occupied a large space in my memory as well as at the Nobel ceremony: the Frenchman Charles Richet. In a letter to Papa in November 1913, he asked Papa to order a suite at the Grand Hôtel with six rooms, including at least four with two beds. He was bringing his wife and five sons and two daughters, some of them with spouses. However, only monsieur le professeur and madame Richet could be invited to the Mörner Nobel dinner.

Charles Richet, tall, stately, white-haired, was a man of many temptations. By scientifically showing what psychological influence means for the secretion of gastric juices, he was a forerunner of Pavlov who, by psychological means, made dogs detest the most desirable foods. What won Richet the Nobel Prize was his discovery of anaphylaxis, a quality of certain toxins that at the first dose are entirely harmless but after two or three weeks of the same dose in the same individual turn out to be fatal. But his limits stretched far beyond physiology and medicine. To the art of flying. He studied hypnotism, and did experiments with hypnosis and telepathy. Under pseudonyms he was a literary author; he wrote poetry, novels, an opera libretto. And he devoted his heart and his writing talents to the peace movement. The basis for this is clear in a letter to Papa in January 1915. He spoke of the nameless horrors of war and French inflexibility in the midst of “larmes et misères.” His five sons were “à la bataille,” one seriously injured, but recovering, the others “exposés” every day. His thoughts turned back a year or so, to his happy days in Stockholm.

The person who seems to me, in purely human terms, to have stood the highest among the winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine is one that we never got to see in Stockholm, the 1903 Laureate, Niels Ryberg Finsen. He was born in the Faroe Islands, where his father, descended from an old Icelandic family, was Danish chief administrative officer. He attended school and received his secondary diploma in Reykjavik. After completing his medical studies in Copenhagen, he had worked at the university there, but resigned after a year in order to devote himself entirely to his own research.

Ten years later he explained in a letter to the head of Karolinska Institutet, Karl Mörner, what role his own illness played in that research. The illness began a year after his secondary school diploma as anemia and tiredness. Since he lived in a room facing north, he found that the best help was to walk as much as possible out in the sun. He had long observed how animals seek sunlight, and he knew that sunlight killed bacteria. Perhaps it could have a deeper effect on the human organism. But a belief must be scientifically proven, and that became the goal of his research. This led him to test the ultraviolet radiation in light as a cure for skin diseases, especially lupus, skin tuberculosis.

Now, in 1903, the world knew that his results were brilliant. Cases of the illness that until then had defied all treatment were now cured. To his tiny, altogether incomplete Light Institute, which he had established with his small funds in Copenhagen, patients came from many countries outside Denmark. The Nobel Prize was now a validation and a help.

The illness from which he had suffered for thirteen years, a “heart and liver insufficiency,” prevented him, he wrote, from using his energy as much as he wished. It was now, along with pleurisy, also the reason why, to his sadness, he could not now receive the prize himself in Stockholm. He hoped that it was not against the intention of the testator if, with the help of the prize, he now wished to fulfill his highest wish: to also establish a sanatorium for heart and liver patients.

This became a reality. He donated 60,000 kronor to the sanatorium and 50,000 kronor to the Light Institute. Personally almost poor, he kept an insignificant part of the prize.

He explained in his letter that his hospital treated patients of limited means, indeed those with no money. Their homes outside the Institute were inspected by the doctors. One part of the Institute housed an evening school that taught writing and handicrafts, and where lectures and musical entertainment took place. By sewing, patients could earn an income. He also wrote that there was a “handicrafts school for male lupus patients.”

Finsen himself had less than one year to enjoy the fulfillment of his wishes. On September 24, 1904 came the end of many years of suffering.

But his work has continued to grow.

The Nobel Prize winner whose name one still encounters as a continuously functioning institution is the first one, the 1901 Physics Prize winner, the Munich-based professor Wilhelm Konrad Röntgen. Papa also met the Laureates from the other disciplines. He and Röntgen must have enjoyed each other’s company. During my winter in Munich 20 years later, I was invited one evening to the home of this powerful, bearded professor and his friendly wife Liena. It was a large gathering. After supper, numerous tankards of beer were carried in. The male contingent was enveloped in clouds of tobacco smoke and lively Bavarian chatting. Once was enough for me. But I was happy to return to visit the plump, friendly Liena, who called me “mein liebes Mäderle.”

The last medical Nobel Laureate during Papa’s era was a professor from Vienna, Robert Bárány. In 1914 he was rewarded for his extremely fine investigations that had solved an old riddle: the connection of the inner ear with balance and, on the basis of this, with other parts of the body. When syringing the inner ear, the temperature of the fluid can affect certain sickly movements in the eyes. By allowing a blindfolded person to aim a finger toward a certain point, his incorrect aim can reveal diseases in the cerebellum, for example. Bárány was captured during the war by the Russians and taken to Turkestan. After he was freed, he came and stayed in Sweden.

In 1915 and 1916 no medical prize was awarded. There was a world war.

Translated into English by Victor Kayfetz.

*The author (1889-1992) was born in Stockholm to Karl and Fanny Mörner (née Ekengren). Karl Mörner was Rector of Karolinska Institutet from 1898 until his death on March 30, 1917.

Every effort has been made by the publisher to credit organizations and individuals with regard to the supply of photographs. The publishers apologize for any omissions which will be corrected in future editions.

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