Max Theiler’s speech at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1951
Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen.
To have been considered worthy of receiving the Nobel Prize – the highest honor that any scientist can receive – gives me a feeling of great personal satisfaction. Such tangible evidence that my work has been considered of benefit to mankind is indeed very gratifying.
Apart from these personal feelings, I am glad that the Award has gone to someone working on yellow fever, for the conquest of this disease has been one of the great epics in medical history. It is barely fifty years ago that this disease was shown to be transmitted by a mosquito – knowledge gained by the use of human volunteers of whom several died. Surely this was one of the most glorious and heroic episodes ever recorded, but these deaths brought to an end further investigations. However, by the application of the knowledge thus gained, the devastating epidemics became a thing of the past, and the control of this disease in cities where for ages it had been prevalent, led the Rockefeller Foundation to undertake the ambitious program of attempting to eradicate yellow fever from the whole world. Just when it appeared that this program was about to be crowned with success in the Americas, it was discovered that yellow fever is primarily a disease of wild animals in the jungles, and thus an eternal potential danger. Old methods of control were inadequate and new ones had to be found.
The modern phase of yellow fever research commenced in 1928, when it was discovered that this disease could be transmitted to laboratory animals. I have had the good fortune to be associated with this great adventure since that time, and it has been a thrilling experience. Like the early one, this modern phase was not without danger, for many accidental infections and several deaths occurred. In spite of these, the work went on.
The study of yellow fever, in all its aspects, under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation, has been a magnificent example of international cooperation in which important advances were made by representatives in many countries on four continents. I like to feel that in honoring me you are honoring all the workers in the laboratory, field, and jungle who have contributed so much, often under conditions of hardship and danger, to our understanding of this disease. I would also like to feel that you are honoring the memory of those who gave their lives in gaining knowledge which was of inestimable value. They were truly martyrs of science, who died that others might live. And, finally, I would like to feel that in honoring me you are honoring the Rockefeller Foundation under whose auspices most of the modern work on yellow fever has been done – a gesture from one great foundation to another – both having the ideal of benefiting mankind throughout the world. I thank you.
Prior to the speech, Einar Löfstedt, member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, addressed the laureate: “Dr. Theiler! You are one of those famous microbe hunters whose life and work form such a fascinating chapter in the history of medical science. It is a difficult calling, and a dangerous one. Often it takes the form of an adventure, with life as the stake, and more than one of your valiant predecessors has, unfortunately, lost his stake. We therefore rejoice all the more at your brilliant success. As a real benefactor of humanity you have delivered millions of people from the dreaded scourge of yellow fever, you have saved human lives to an almost inconceivable extent, and we have been told that through the admirable results achieved, you have also indicated a means to combat – perhaps effectively – other dangerous and often fatal diseases as well.
Science knows no difference of rank, nor did Alfred Nobel. His only concern was to reward those who had done most for the benefit of humanity. For that very reason I think that you, in the long and imposing succession of laureates, would have been especially dear to his warm, philanthropic heart. You, more than most, have fought in the cause of life. We offer you our heart-felt homage and good wishes. “
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