Hans Krebs’ speech at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1953
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
When I reflected on what I might say on this great occasion many thoughts and feelings came to my mind, but I do not find it easy to express them adequately. So I must ask your forgiveness if I fail to do justice to the occasion.
Foremost there is the deep sense of gratitude and pleasure for having been found worthy of this high distinction by the Caroline Institute. I am also anxious to offer my sincere thanks to the Nobel Foundation, and in fact to all Sweden, for the warmth and friendliness of your welcome, and the generosity and considerateness of your hospitality which you have extended also to my wife and three children. There have been many occasions in these last few days when we felt deeply moved.
The research I have been doing – studying how foodstuffs yield energy in living cells – does not lead to the kind of knowledge that can be expected to give immediate practical benefits to mankind. If I have chosen this field of study, it was because I believed in its importance in spite of its theoretical character. My reason for this belief was that all living things must be continuously fed with energy and I am convinced that an understanding of the process of energy production will eventually help us in solving some of the practical problems of medicine. As I started my career in medicine I cannot help having the problems of medicine at the back of my mind. I especially appreciate Professor Liljestrand’s reference to Benjamin Franklin who likened the possibilities of fundamental research to a new-born baby. This is a very generous tribute, but I do not know whether it is really justified, especially when I think of an (unauthenticated) elaboration of this comparison. About 100 years ago Michael Faraday, when asked by Mr. Gladstone, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, about the use of his research into electrical phenomena, replied, so the story goes, with Franklin’s counterquestion “What is the use of a newborn baby?”, adding, “Well, sir, one day you might tax him”. I do not think that I could, with any confidence, hold out hopes to a hard-pressed Minister of Finance that my work will one day help his exchequer – in the way it has helped my own.
Because there are no immediate practical benefits the immediate rewards of such work tend to be meagre. So much greater is my delight at the Prize, and my gratitude to the Caroline Institute, for having approved of these very academic studies.
There is another feeling on which I should like to dwell for a moment. It concerns the work of the Nobel Committees. Anybody who reflects on their task cannot be but impressed by the high standard of conduct at which they discharge their difficult duty. There is an enormous amount of conscientious and painstaking work. There is, as Professor Liljestrand told us, the keen endeavour to arrive at a fair and honest judgement, without prejudice of any kind, neither national, nor racial, nor personal; and as such, to echo Sir Winston‘s message, their verdict is accepted. Considering this impartiality and unselfishness it may well be said that the conduct of the Committees is at the highest level humanity has achieved. It teaches us a standard we should try to emulate in other spheres. To find the facts by hard and honest work, to evaluate them carefully and judiciously, and to make a final decision with courage and without prejudice – if these principles guided our affairs throughout, the world would soon become a better place. I do not think that this is a totally Utopian hope and that human nature will always be an obstacle. Slowly the world is in fact becoming a better place. I confess that I am not quite so pessimistic as was Professor Liljestrand when he referred to the difficulties of conquering the “microbes of the soul”. These are not fought in the laboratory by the tools of science. They are fought by the lofty example set by men dealing with affairs. The model of conduct shown by the great Swedish Institution which brought us together today may well be said to be an inspiration showing us the way to further progress.
So I would like to couple my expression of gratitude with the affirmation of my belief that thanks to the high ideals which the Nobel Committees have set themselves, their work has indeed a wide significance, as was the hope of Alfred Nobel.
Prior to the speech, G. Liljestrand, Member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, addressed the laureate: Few processes are more fundamental than the slow burning or oxidation of organic matter in our body. And yet the intimate mechanism of this stepwise disintegration is only very incompletely known. Thanks to the investigations of Professor Krebs and Professor Lipmann, new light has been shed on what is actually going on. We have learnt that suitable fragments of our foodstuffs become incorporated in the so-called Krebs cycle where they will be able to act as the fuel of life. And Professor Lipmann has taught us the prominent role in this connection of one of those mysterious substances which occupy a key position in the living organism. His coenzyme A is a necessary link in the transformations of some substances into the Krebs cycle as well as in many other processes. These are fundamental discoveries, but the layman will probably ask for some immediate practical application. We may answer with the counterquestion of Benjamin Franklin: “What is the use of a new-born baby?” And we think that you, the fathers of these babies, who have grown rapidly and already displayed unusual qualities and vigour, have every reason to be proud of your offspring. We offer you our homage and good wishes for their future development.