I was born in Belgium, in 1899. Longlier, my birthplace, is located in a high point of the Belgian Ardennes, atop the rising spur of an eroded remnant of the foot of the Alps, next to a deep valley. In the Middle Ages, it had been a fortified place, of the Francs and Carolegian dynasties. Pepin le Bref, crowned King of the Francs in 751 spent in Longlier two winters, from October to Easter, in the years 750 and 763. His son Charlemagne who by then had become Emperor of the Occident called a High Court of Justice of the Empire to meet in Longlier: the diploma, still preserved, was signed by him there in 771. In the year 1050, the Charlemagne Villa became a Monastery, and renamed later “Ferme Charlemagne”. In the 17th-18th century, it was adorned with a high sloping roof “à la mansarde”, whereas the round towers, standing high at the wall corners, matched the roof with elegant, bell-shaped tops, a situation which remained unchanged until 1914.
The landscape of the Longlier region is covered with remnants of the primeval forest of oak trees, progressively invaded by evergreens. The bluegreen color of the pines, which blends with the blue-grey color of the massif of slate rocks emerging through a meager soil gives the countryside an aspect, severe, but also of serene beauty, and even more, when the pure coat of the snow covers it during the long and cold winters.
The population was sparse, at least at the time I was a boy. Our agglomeration was made of scattered small farms, regrouped into hamlets which, with the village, amounted to about 800 inhabitants in all. Rarely, because the people were few, a funeral procession was climbing slowly from the valley, back of our house, and to the old church next to the Charlemagne farm, with the cemetery between them.
The unique school of the Longlier region was built at the outskirt, a kilometer from my home, and about equal distance from the surrounding hamlets, so that the children could leave their home, and reach the school at about the same time. Actually, this school was just a single room with high windows, and a central stove, fed with coal and wood, by the teacher himself. As I remember, there was a set of 5 benches at either side of the stove, with a common sitting board which could accommodate 5 children, in all 50 seats, for an average population, from year to year, of 40 pupils, at the most. The sexes and grades were mixed, and the ages, from 6 to 11 years old. All the courses were taught at the same time, in the same room, by the same and unique teacher. Under this highly pluralistic system, the school was running smoothly, and the results, as remembered over the years, turned out to be, in every respect, excellent.
As usual for the time, the roads were not lighted at night, and no water distribution was available, nor in prospect. Due to the elevation of the site, we had to rely on rainwater, collected from the roofs, and on the clear water, filtering and running from the bare rocks, to the river and the streams below.
In the Ardennes, the washed soil is poor, and the configuration rugged. When the spring and summer came, the heat of the sun brought life and beauty to the land. The farmers, however, rose early and worked late, each on their farm, relatively far apart, without the occasion, or the need, to communicate between themselves. Even more than in the cold of the winter, there was a strange stillness, in the heat of the afternoon.
After supper, and when the daily work was over, we did not light the kerosene lamp, nor the makeshift carbide lamp we used, when the war came upon us, but sat outdoors, in the silence and the darkness of the night. As many have done before us, since the early rise of mankind, I reclined on the sloping back of a chair, and gazed intensely, and for hours, at the quivering milky way, and watched the coming of falling stars.
When I became old enough, I took my turn in getting up early, and ringing the church bells (there were two of them) calling for the daily mass, at six o’clock in the morning. The ropes of the bells were hanging freely down the hollow shaft of the church tower, so that we could seize them and pull them from the ground, with the bells seen overhead. When the bells were in full swing, we used to grasp the rope firmly and let ourselves be lifted, just when the hammer hit the roaring bronze. This little familiarity had created an affectionate and reciprocal understanding between us and the Bells. One night, during a heavy storm, we were awakened by a crash. The Pepin le Bref tower, as it was called, which had stood there for many centuries had collapsed, bringing down, with it, the church bells. A few years later, in 1914, the madness of war reached our peaceful shores; the Charlemagne Villa, and part of the village, next to our home, was burnt. I was 15 years old, and starting to become an adult. For us, and for the dying Europe, and the thousands years of its past, it was a new World, and the end of an Era.
My grandfather was born in 1830, just the year the Flemish and French speaking Catholics decided to secede from the Lutheran Dutch people of the low lands, governed by the House of Orange. His place of birth was not Longlier. For a number of generations tracing back to the 17th century, his ancestors had been active in maintaining a Relay, or Stagecoach stop, providing horses, food and lodging for travellers, and wagons for the conveyance of goods. The site of this undertaking was a small plateau, about the locality of Offaing, rising from the opposite side of the Longlier valley, away and higher up from the Charlemagne Villa. From this rather ancient time, I have a witness helping me to imagine and recreate the past. It is a chest of heavy oak with a secret lock, and a slit with a receptacle underneath, in which the hostess, my great-grandmother, would drop the coins she received from the customers, in payment for their expenditure at the inn. This chest, for the past twenty years, has been in my bedroom, next to my bed, supporting a lamp and a clock.
My great-grandfather, Godfroid, born on the heights of Offaing in 1800, or about, had five or six sons, including my grandfather, and a similar number of daughters, most of them promised to live well over ninety. In this healthy, no doubt dynamic, but crowded environment, my grandfather may have felt the pressure of competition, but most likely happened to the most adventurous and most farsighted: he decided to move and settle on his own.
Following the Belgian revolution of 1830 the new nation decided to give itself a King, the choice being Léopold, Prince of Saxe-Cobourg and recent widower of the heir of the throne of England, with the crowning in 1831. Léopold the First was a man of high character and wisdom. It is to his knowledge of the industry of England and to his own initiative that Belgium owed to have had the first railroad lines on the Continent, the first one connecting Bruxelles with Antwerp and its harbor. The next undertaking was much more ambitious. This second line was to be transcontinental, starting from Brussels, through Namur, Luxembourg, Vienna, and further on.
The Longlier valley gap, however, which happened to stand exactly across the projected direction of the new railroad line, would have to be bridged. In addition to this technical difficulty, it was found that the Devonian synclinal, which is the geologic substructure of the region was disturbed by a tectonic anomaly in the form of a narrow band, less than one kilometer in width, which had become deflected in front of the Longlier valley, passing just under the terminal point where the construction of the railroad had stopped. The problems were such that the construction of the line was postponed, for an undetermined length of time. My grandfather saw the opportunity and moved to Longlier. Apparently, he was not without means. Within a relatively short time he built a hotel, next to the freight depot of the railroad terminus. From the commissioned Agency handling the freight traffic for the line, the “Messageries Van Gent”, he obtained some agreement whereby he would be responsible for the freight that landed at the Terminal, for its distribution outside the railroad areas. Very soon, he had horses and wagons distributing goods and wares in various directions, as far as the north of France, especially Sedan and Bazeilles, where we had some relatives. His business prospered rapidly, and he became relatively wealthy.
For me, this story of railroads and of a diligent grandfather, which I have recalled, has been more meaningful than the effect of a tectonic anomaly on a Devonian synclinal. Without the decision of my grandfather to move to Longlier, my mother would have been someone else, and there would have been no tales of ringing bells in a medieval church tower, and no ailing uncle to take care of. It was a question of being, or not being. Once the first step taken, what remains to deal with are the important but universal problems of the individual, versus his environment. My mother, Glaudice Watriquant, was 45 years old when I was born, and my father 43. I was the youngest of four, two brothers and one sister, with a gap of 9 years with the oldest. As it happened, most of my early years were spent in the company of old, or very old people, each having their problems and ailments, but never complaining. This created a pervading feeling of tolerance, kindness, and stoic strength which made me happy and feel secure.
For a while, my father worked for my grandfather. As a child eight years old he was already accompanying the driver, not much older than himself, returning by night bringing back fresh vegetables and labile goods from the renowned French market-garden of Fonds-de-Givonne. They took turn to rest, although the traffic was rare at night, especially in the long forest roads; moreover, the horses knew the way and kept on driving even if both drivers fell asleep, as occurred more than once. It was pleasant for youngsters to wake up at the songs of the birds, in a mellow summer night. I would have enjoyed it as they did. My father was gentle, and romantic, in tune with his century. He liked to memorize poetry, from Lamartine, and especially Victor Hugo, whom he admired the most. When he returned from his work and we were very young, we asked him to recite verses to us or sing a lieder, quite well, of the same vein. When he came of age, my father chose to become a baker and pastry maker, perhaps as a complement to the hotel, and for which he spent three years of training in Paris. He was there the year the poet Hugo died. On the Champs Elysées early, he found his way on the top of a gas lamp-post from where he watched pass the funeral procession of hundreds of thousands, for hours. It was in 1885, and my father was 29. It was also his last year of training. His first residence when married, two years later, was in the right wing of the Charlemagne Farm, next to the round tower, and my eldest brother was born there. The second residence, with the bakery and a store, where my second brother and my sister were born, was next to the railroad station. By the time of my birth, my father had taken over a former property of my grandfather, remodeled it and added a large building to serve as a kind of general store. During my time, the local work was already done by hired bakers, my father being away all day, taking care of orders and deliveries.
Two or 3 years after I was born, my mother developed a carcinoma of the breast which appeared shortly after she hurt herself in a fall. She died when I was 7. Too young to go to school, and my elder brothers away in the high school in the town nearby, I was with her most of the time. She suffered, but calmly. I was careful not to make demands on her, and tried to help her when I could. Neighbours and acquaintances came to visit her, sometimes two or three at a time. They didn’t pay attention to me; on their way out I followed them to the door, and heard them describe, in their own way, the future course of the disease. I was sad but kept it to myself. Not to leave me alone at home, she took me with her when visiting some healer that had been recommended to her. For one of them, in Marbehan, we had to take the train. Living close to her and partaking of her pain, I felt more and more being as a little nurse at her side. But like the grown-ups of that time, I could not help.
The death of our mother made a big change in the family. After a few years of increasing difficulties (there was a pre-war depression going-on), the decision was made to move to Athus, a prosperous steel mills region bordering both France and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. A couple of years before we left, my eldest brother Léon, student at the high school was sitting, one day, at the kitchen table with a book flat beside him. Cautiously, I approached him and said, pointing the right hand page to him: what is this? I remember that, in order to see the page, I had to stand on the tip of my toes, and stretch my head forward. What I saw was the simple outline of a retord, drawn in a square, marginal indentation of the text. My brother did not turn me but began to explain, molding his words with his hands. I did not remember what he said, and could not understand their technical meaning, but as he was speaking I felt my chest, my heart, and the roots of my soul expand. It was a revelation, never to be forgotten. How beautiful this world within the book. I intensely wished to see and know more. In the innocence of my age, I did not doubt that I could. I was 8 1/2 years old. The kitchen table of our youth followed in Athus, an is now in Brussels, in the kitchen of our home.
My attendance at the Longlier primary school was curtailed more than a year before the moving. When we arrived in Athus, we found ourselves in an essentially German speaking community. In the church, the hymns and prayers were said in German, and German was spoken in the school where I was received. Every day at 4 PM, each pupil in turn had to read aloud a chapter of the bible. The bible in use, and of which I had a copy, was printed in gothic characters of the oldest type. I may have practiced the sound of them at home, orduring the long, idle hours in the school: when my turn came, I succeeded in reading my part aloud without knowing the words. Again, as before in the world of the aged people I had lived in, I was made to observe my environment from without, in an abstract way, as visitors in an aquarium.
After a year or two, I was asked to return to Longlier to help in the care of an uncle who had suffered a major cerebral hemorrhage. His right side was paralyzed and he had lost the use of his speech. He was tall and heavy, and my aunt was in her 60th year, and ailing. Soon, I took over all the care of my uncle, day and night, and later, progressively the responsibility of the management and the routine work of the household. I was about 13 years old, and more duties and problems of other sorts were added when the war came. My only outside contacts then were the frequent visits of the doctor, who came regularly, or when we called for him in case of emergencies. He came driving himself his horse and cab which he used also when making the rounds of his patients in the country. To me, he looked old, but must have been less than 60. He had experience and common sense, and never seemed in a hurry. I reported to him about my uncle, and listened to his comments and advices. Finally, we conversed about other subjects and the news of the day. This familiarity with a respected physician and my appreciation of his work, or the tragedy I experienced with the long, tormented agony and death of my mother might have influenced me in wanting to study medicine. It was not the case. As far as I remember, even younger than eight, I have always been guided by reason. Not cold reason, but that which leads to the truth, to the real, and to sane Justice. When I went to the University, the medical school was the only place where one could hope to find the means to study life, its nature, its origins, and its ills.
Summarized Civic and Academic Status
Albert Claude was born in Longlier, Belgium, August 24, 1899, and obtained his medical degree from the Université de Liège, Belgium, in 1928.
He spent the winter of 1928-29 in Berlin, first at the Institute für Krebsforschung, and then at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, Dahlem, in the laboratory of tissues culture of Prof. Albert Fischer.
He joined the Rockefeller Institute (now the Rockefeller University), in the summer of 1929, and has been connected with this Institution, in different degrees, ever since.
He is Director emeritus of the Jules Bordet Institute for Cancer Researche and treatment, and Professor emeritus, the Faculty of Medicine, at the University of Brussels, Belgium.
He is now Professor, at the Rockefeller University, New York, N.Y., and Professor, at the Université Catholique de Louvain, Louvain, Belgium.
He is Director of the “Laboratoire de Biologie Cellulaire et Cancérologie”, at the Université Catholique de Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium.
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.
Albert Claude died on May 22, 1983.
See the full schedule