Sir Howard Florey’s speech at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1945
Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I should wish in the first place to thank most sincerely the Nobel Foundation and the Committee for Physiology and Medicine for the very great honour you have conferred on me today. My colleagues and I have been very fortunate in that we have worked during the last few years on something which has proved to be of some immediate value to mankind. During this work I have had the great pleasure of meeting many hundreds of scientific colleagues in many parts of the world. Apart from the scientific interest attached to my various journeyings it has been made clear to me that human needs and aspirations differ little the world over and that no great difficulties arise in one race dealing with another when matters of scientific importance are involved. Thus on a personal plane science can act as a force to bring people together but no-one can I think be optimistic at the present time about civilisation as we know it. During the last few years the demonstration of what the application of scientific methods can achieve has been so striking and of such a magnitude that even those brought up in the classical tradition, who form most of the statesmen and politicians of the world, are at last aware of the tremendous tasks that lie ahead in the utilisation of these forces. We have been astonished at the reaction of some of them to this realisation. Apparently their idea is that they will utilise and control scientists but that we are so ignorant and insensitive that our views on policies to be pursued and the use to which our work is to be put are of little or no importance. This doctrine I am happy to say has had powerful voices raised against it both in England and America. These voices insist that we must be free to pursue scientific enquiries without political interference. Perhaps on those who have today and in former years received the greatest of distinctions in being awarded a Nobel Prize now rests not only the responsibility for furthering the immediate interests of science but also that of ensuring that those who control our destinies are fully informed of the tremendous forces with which they deal. I feel we must all exert ourselves to the utmost to see that the ideals and hopes held by Alfred Nobel, whom we commemorate today, do not fail from lack of purpose on the part of scientists.
Let us all fervently hope that what can be achieved in the way of friendship on the personal plane among scientists may soon be translated to wider spheres so that the great technical achievements of mankind can indeed be used for its benefit.
May I, in conclusion, once more thank you for this great honour and may I say what enormous pleasure it has given my wife and myself to be received with such unbounded hospitality by so many friends in one of the most beautiful cities in 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.”