Peyton Rous

Banquet speech

Peyton Rous’ speech at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1966

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen: –

In 1901 I was a student at The Johns Hopkins Medical School and knew enough to realize the great significance of Alfred Nobel’s effort to aid human progress by giving prizes, and to follow from its beginning the ever-widening scope and shining success of his plan. The Nobel Prize Committee, in honoring workers throughout the years, have shown themselves to be statesmen concerned with the state of humanity, not with that of nations. How eagerly does one scan their choices each autumn for what these may reveal or imply! I stand here happy, and humbly proud, in the distinction the Committee have conferred upon me.

This seems a fitting time and place to tell how lasting happiness of a different sort was bestowed upon me many years ago through another of Sweden’s greatest men, Carl Linnaeus.

As a boy I used to roam through the woods and fields near the city of Baltimore in Maryland, my home, and thus came to love its wild flowers, though knowing nothing about them except that many were lovely and all were interesting. Money was scarce in our family yet one day I managed to buy for a few pennies a shabby, worn book on wild flowers, which had been printed in a neighboring city, Philadelphia, in 1834. Its aim had been to teach botany to girls studying in “finishing schools” – the word “finish” meaning in such relation that this was all the formal education these prosperous damsels would ever get. What did the shabby book contain but lists of the flowering plants of the region, arranged according to the binomial system of Linnaeus, a system easy for me to understand! Forthwith I began to try and find as many of the listed wild flowers as possible, and by the age of eighteen had come upon so many that, though still knowing nothing of Linnaeus himself or of his Floral Calendar, I wrote, just before spring, an article headed Wild Flowers of the Month, telling about anemones, arbutus and the like, which were soon to bloom. Venturing to send this paper to the Baltimore Sun, chief newspaper of the city, I was enraptured to have it not only printed but paid for! Of course from then on I joyfully wrote an article for each month until autumn had frozen the last petals; but this could not be done again, so my career as a columnist ended. Not my love for wild flowers though! I still treasure the shabby book of 1834, crowded as it is with my notes concerning them.

The world that Linnaeus thus opened to me steadily widened. On going into new countries I came upon new, entrancing plants that plainly belonged to the families he had so truly described. And there was more to the matter: he opened a wide door for me into natural history, including that of the human body, and finally led me to observe intently, and study by experiment, the unnatural phenomena of the disease called cancer. With good reason am I here today as apprenticed to Linnaeus in youth.

May I ask one question, please, of the distinguished geneticists present in this gathering? Alan Hodgkin, my son-in-law, is here, who received a Nobel Prize in 1963. Can it be possible that my own Prize has been inherited through him? Between ourselves, I do hope not!

Mr Rous, Address to the University Students on the Evening of December 10, 1966

Tonight I am supposed to speak to you as the oldest of our Nobel group. But William James, a greatly loved American philosopher of long ago, once said: “Many of the old are young to life” – and that is my state this evening. I greet you as a fellow student.

Teachers tell us what to study and we go about this in a more or less earnest way; but they seldom suggest that we study ourselves, doubtless assuming that our egos will attend to that. Sometimes these overdo it as the phrase “selfconscious” shows. Yet how shall we get the best out of ourselves if we remain ignorant of our resources? Perhaps you will be interested in the story of a man who went to extreme lengths to find out about himself: Henry Thoreau.

Thoreau was a New Englander who grew up in the early part of the last century near Boston in the small town of Concord, where there were many ardent thinkers. So simple were the times that he was able to go to Harvard though his father had no greater support for his family than the making of lead pencils by hand. At college he learned to write well before graduating, and while working on odd jobs afterwards he so enlarged his knowledge of languages and of human thought as to become a teacher. Then he suddenly realized that he knew little about himself. What did he do? In the spring of 1845, when he was 28 years old, he built on land lent to him by a friend a one-room, wooden hut next to a pond called Walden, and planted slightly more than two acres with beans, hoping that their sale would support him. They sold so well that he spent all of his time throughout a harsh winter in reading, writing, walking in the wild wood, and, above all, in thinking. When spring came he planted beans again and got another crop as good as the first. His high aim was, in his own words, “to think and read and write”, and “Not when I come to die discover that I have not lived”. Only after two whole years did he quit the hut, and by then he had written the book called “Walden” which has since become a classic in America and England. Later he got along by doing odd jobs again – whitewashing, building fences and surveying; and he found that six weeks of work a year would cover all his living expenses. His thoughts and words carry their message still. Recently when journeying in a New York bus I saw amongst the spaces given to advertisements one which had but a single sentence on it: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake!”, and the name under it was Thoreau. He wasn’t interested in women. Once when I was telling fellow internes in The Johns Hopkins Hospital about him one of them snorted and said “I’d have worked a little harder and given a girl a box of candy now and then”. Most of us will agree to that.

Who was the philosopher who first exclaimed “Know thyself!”? Yet one must not be fooled when trying. Thoreau held that people are often the slaves of their possessions and in this relation he once said “Many men lead lives of quiet desperation”.

Some while ago some energetic scholars founded an Institute that had the aim of judging a youngster’s capabilities, in music for example. They’d send a report on what they’d found to his parents, and if he had no gift for music they advised that he be urged to leave it off no matter how much he loved it. But that Institute did not last because it ignored deep likings. These deserve great respect. One of my own friends was tone deaf, yet he delighted in singing; and he was able to keep on enjoying it and still be popular because he did it only when alone.

This ends my remarks except for one that’s anything but casual. I shoot it at you as if it were an arrow: The Future is yours! Hurrah for You!!

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1966


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