Presentation Speech by Professor the Count K.A.H. Mörner, Rector of the Royal Caroline Institute, on December 10, 1910
Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen.
As you are aware the medical Nobel Prize has this year been conferred on the Professor of Physiology at the University of Heidelberg, Geheimrat Albrecht Kossel.
Before he is presented with the prize I want to try to describe in a few words his scientific work and its significance for biology.
As my starting-point and in connection with the events of the last few days* I would first like to recall a remark made by Berzelius more than a hundred years ago, when he was an assistant professor in the School of Surgery which existed here in Stockholm before the Caroline Institute was formed. Through his lectures there Berzelius gave a fresh impetus and a new direction to the branch of chemical research which was at that time called «animal chemistry» and which is now usually termed physiological chemistry. The direction in which Berzelius sought to lead research strove to link chemical investigations as closely as possible with anatomical observations and with the study of the vital phenomena, in order, as Berzelius says, «to attempt to find a clue to the chemistry of the living body through the chemical knowledge of our laboratories and, if possible, to establish the relationships and the resultant phenomena of which life and its continuance are composed».
Research in physiological chemistry seeks to approach the goal at which Berzelius aimed by following the path which he mapped out.
The studies to which Professor Kossel has devoted himself for more than a quarter of a century are links in a continuous chain of investigation which seeks, as directly as is at present possible, to steer our knowledge towards this goal.
Many vital phenomena are of course such that chemical research, at least at present, is far from being able to illuminate them to any real extent. This is the case, for instance, with mental activity and the manifestations of life related to it.
Other vital phenomena are more easily accessible to the chemist and have for long been the object of his work. This applies to such subjects as nutrition, growth, metabolism, and the chemical composition of the organs and body fluids.
The working methods chosen differ according to the angle from which the problem is attacked. In, for example, the studies on metabolism which have been carried out for several decades, the amount and type of the nutrients which are required by the organism under different conditions are established and the metabolic end-products which are excreted by the organism are determined. Such a determination of the intake and output of the organism gives a picture of its overall economy and can also give certain information on the internal factors of its management.
The problems are attacked in a more direct way by endeavouring by direct experiment to determine the composition of the different organs, their functions, etc. In this the efforts of the anatomist, the histologist, the experimental physiologist and the chemist go hand in hand, as they seek together to penetrate the dark secrets of life. The task of the chemist is to determine the chemical structure of the parts of the body and the chemical processes taking place within them.
The study of the living organism has more and more led to the view that its smallest independent units morphologically speaking – the cells – also to a certain degree lead an independent life and are the real seats of the vital processes. The cells therefore attract special attention in biological research, and studies which widen our knowledge of the cells to any important extent deserve to be given prominence.
Prof. Kossel has chosen to devote himself to this field of research, and it is for his work in this respect that the Nobel Prize has been awarded to him this year.
The cells of the organism exhibit on the one hand certain special characteristics according to the organs to which they belong and on the other hand general, shared characteristics as well. It has long been known, and is easy to demonstrate, that the main mass of their organic substance consists of materials belonging to the group of protein bodies. They are however dissimilar in different cases. The development of protein chemistry in general, and of the specialized knowledge of the protein bodies occurring in cells and of the combined forms in which they appear, is therefore an important link in the chain of knowledge of cell chemistry and consequently also a factor of great importance in research on cellular life and functions.
Professor Kossel has made important contributions to research in the ways we have just mentioned. This is not the place to give a detailed account of his work, but I cannot leave trying, in a few words, to indicate its significance.
For some decades highly successful attempts have been made to learn more of the detailed structure of these biologically significant proteins by studying their breakdown products. It has been shown that proteins are usually built up of a large number of mutually-differing atom complexes. These can, by and large, be arranged in two major groups, the monoamino acids and the basic breakdown products. Among the many research workers who have studied the first group, the Nobel Prize winner for Chemistry in 1902, Emil Fischer, takes first place through his brilliant analytical and synthetic studies. The second group of the breakdown products, is nevertheless no less important, and in the investigation of these Professor Kossel has earned great credit.
The first really clear picture of these substances was given by Drechsel and his students, among whom the name of a Swedish research worker who was recently returned to his native land may be specially mentioned. Professor Kossel has since then enlarged the knowledge by the discovery of new, related substances, and in particular he has, by means of extensive work using new methods which he himself elaborated, carried the knowledge of the quantitative relationships of these substances in the protein molecule further than is the case for the other protein breakdown products.
There are several kinds of proteins. One group which is included here are the so-called protamines obtained from the milt of fish. Kossel has made a detailed study of these. For these a relatively simple structure has been discovered inasmuch as the number of dissimilar atom groups in them is not very great. They therefore present simpler relationships than proteins in general, and consist mainly of substances belonging to the group which I have just called basic breakdown products of protein. For certain protamines Kossel, thanks to his methods of determination, has in fact been able to establish the quantitative relationships of the building blocks making up these protamines, a goal which we seem to be far from attaining where the other proteins are concerned.
Work on these most simple protein bodies, i.e. the protamines, is however not only of great importance because it has explained the structure of such protein bodies. The protamines are also of direct interest for the knowledge of certain cells and their life, because they are in fact characteristic of certain transformation products of the cells and are formed from ordinary protein.
One protein group, first observed by Kossel, consists of the so-called histones. They stand between the protamines and what is termed ordinary protein. This group, again, is important because of its occurrence as a component of certain cells, and has also been studied in detail by Kossel.
Professor Kossel has made an extensive and important study of the problem of the protein compounds in cells. As we have already mentioned, the proteins are very complex bodies. Within the cells the relationships are further complicated by the fact that the proteins there are combined in varying degrees with other substances such as those grouped under the name of «nucleic acids». These, too, are far from simple in structure. They form phosphorus-containing organic substances which, together with a form of phosphoric acid, usually contain purine bodies, pyrimidine bodies and a form of sugar or related substance. Professor Kossel has devoted a great part of his activity to these problems. It is not practicable to give an account of the details without taking up too much time, and they must therefore be passed over on this occasion. I will restrict myself to remarking that these nucleic acids by their presence in the cells and their relation to the protein bodies found there, certainly possess a great biological significance; and furthermore I should like to emphasize that it is to Kossel and his pupils especially that we owe our present advanced knowledge of these problems.
I have tried, albeit in a brief and therefore very incomplete way, to sketch the principal features of Professor Kossel’s valuable contributions to our present knowledge of cell chemistry and therefore to an important sector of biology.
In recognition of his work the Staff of Professors of the Caroline Institute has decided to confer on him this year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.
Geheimrat Professor Kossel. Physiological Chemistry owed its creation to Berzelius. He was even the first who showed its present-day direction and led it onto paved roads. Nevertheless, further development was somewhat retarded. It took place in numerous countries; in Germany in particular by J. von Liebig, W. Kühne and F. Hoppe-Seyler. These scientists all strived – to use Berzelius’ own words – «to trace the chemistry of the living organism with the help of experience gained in the laboratories, in order to learn, if possible, the affinities which form the basis of Life».
It was in this direction that they did their work, thereby studying the chemistry of the elementary constituents of the body – the cells. In this way they have immensely contributed to the development of this aspect of biology. It is this achievement of making possible the solution of fundamental problems in biology, and thereby contributing to the advancement of research – which Berzelius in particular appreciated – that the Staff of Professors of the Caroline Institute wish to distinguish by the award of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Their work and discoveries range from the Earth’s climate and our sense of touch to efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.
See them all presented here.