Ernst B. Chain

Banquet speech

Ernst B. Chain’s speech at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1945

Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I should like to express to you my deep gratitude for the very great honour conferred on me by the award of a Nobel prize which has come to be regarded universally as the highest distinction a scientist may hope to achieve. The universal honour in which the Nobel prize is held the world over is due to the internationally recognized long-standing tradition of absolute impartiality of the Nobel Committees who reach their decisions purely on scientific grounds and regardless of the race, creed or nationality of the candidate. This is of particular value and importance at the present time when we live in a world rent by violent racial and nationalist divisions, far removed from the high humanitarian ideals of Alfred Nobel.

The recognition of my work in this singular manner has naturally given me enormous encouragement. As a member of one of the most cruelly persecuted races in the world I am profoundly grateful to Providence that it has fallen to me, together with my friend Sir Howard Florey, to originate this work on penicillin which has helped to alleviate the suffering of the wounded soldiers of Britain, the country that has adopted me, and the wounded soldiers of our Allies, among them many thousands belonging to my own race, in their bitter struggle against one of the blood lost and most inhuman tyrannies the world has ever seen.

During recent times the adventurous human mind has created several discoveries which are changing completely the character of our civilisation and have immeasurably increased our control over some of the forces of nature. But unfortunately as yet we have not been able to master those forces within ourselves, greed, the lust for power, fear and intolerance, which so far have dominated the structure of our society and human relationship. Shall we be able to achieve this most difficult of all aims? After the terrible and almost unbelievable experiences of the last six years we are not justified in making a lightheartedly optimistic forecast. It is absolutely certain, however, that unless we do succeed in building up a social structure which enables us to keep pace with and control over the scientific advances we shall irretrievably and completely loose all that civilisation which has been our heritage, often bitterly fought for, of the last 5,000 years. The construction of such an international society cannot be achieved by mere formulae elaborated by diplomatists at the green table or a handful of intellectuals. If it is to succeed it can only come through the full realisation of the common man and woman that they are in imminent mortal danger if control is lost of the scientific creation, but that on the other hand vast and unparalled opportunities are open to them if the discoveries, under proper and rational control of the people, are turned to beneficial purposes. It is necessary that the common man and woman be made aware and conscious of both their dangers and their hopes, and this task is the precious privilege of the scientists and their sacred duty. Polite opportunism and passive retreat into the ivory towers of abstract thought will not absolve them from it. Scientists now realise what the cost has been of not having resisted with all their power barbarism between 1933-1939 on the plea that this was the job of the politician. Some of my colleagues in the U.S.A. and in England have given proof of a new attitude of real humanism which rises above mere specialisation and which intergrated morality and scientific progress. Without such intergration progress will not be towards a new height in spite of technical excellence but will lead inevitably towards the abyss which we have just, but only just, avoided.

This beautiful land of yours, Sweden, with its high standard of science and its wonderful literature which has long held the admiration of the world, has been spared the horrors and privations brought about by the cataclysm that has ravaged Europe during the last six years.

It has preserved that truly democratic structure of society build in past centuries which by its tolerance has enabled the maintenance of culture, the basis of all true greatness, when it deteriorated in so many less fortunate European countries. In consequence we are now, after a long and sinister interval, able again to take part in these magnificent and unforgettable commemoration day celebrations in your beautiful capital and thereby honour the memory of that great Swedish philantropist Alfred Nobel.

May the great institution which he founded continue for many years to promote international good will and understanding.

May Sweden be permitted to develop in undisturbed peace her arts and her science and her democratic forms and may she thereby continue, as she has done in the past, to set a standard for the rest of the world.

Prior to the speech, Professor A.H.T. Theorell, Director of the Department of Biochemistry at the Nobel Institute of Medicine, addressed the laureate: “To you, Ernst Chain, Howard Florey and Alexander Fleming, I will relate one of Grimm’s fairy-tales, that I heard as a child. A poor student heard under an oak a wailing voice that begged to be set free. He began to dig at the root, and found there a corked bottle with a little frog in it. It was this frog that wanted so badly to be set at liberty. The student pulled the cork, and out came a mighty spirit, who by way of thanks for the help gave him a wonderful plaster. With the one side one could heal all sores; with the other one could turn iron into silver. The student thereafter performed both operations, and became the most famous physician in the whole world – perhaps also the richest.

You have dug up a wonderful plaster, too, that has healed countless sores. This achievement called for years of labour, unerring instinct, profound and wide knowledge, team-work and some luck. Your penicillin was made available to mankind during the biggest of wars; but it is unable to serve anything but peaceful purposes. It cannot kill a mouse, though it can heal a man.

You have become the most famous doctors in the whole world; but there is a difference between you and the student – you have not used that side of the plaster which made silver. We follow Alfred Nobel’s intentions in giving you gold, instead of silver.”

From Les Prix Nobel en 1945, Editor Arne Holmberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1946

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1945

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