George E. Palade’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, December 10, 1974
Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
In the large domain of life sciences, Cell Biology is a field reborn. The last period in which it flourished was at the end of the last century, when light microscopes were brought up to the limit of their power of resolution. That development increased our information, but left a large and deep gap between the world of structures – the domain of the anatomists, histologists and pathologists – and the world of molecules – the province of the chemists and biochemists.
With the rebirth that occurred in our time, the situation was significantly changed. The gap was bridged mainly with the help of two major techniques: electron microscopy and cell fractionation. These two techniques led to many new findings and, more importantly, to a satisfactory correlation of structure and function at the subcellular level of biological organization. In the process, most of the boundaries that used to separate morphologists from physiologists and biochemists have been removed: these scientists can now converse and understand each other over the few lingering barriers.
Cell Biology, reborn, has created a new meeting ground in basic life sciences for it showed that the unity of organization of living matter extends well beyond the level of molecules – that was already known – to the level of macromolecular assemblies, cell organs and cells. A remarkable uniformity of organization applies for all living beings at the subcellular level – as if formulae tested very early in evolution for every cell organ – from ribosomes to the cell membrane – have been vertically transmitted for eons with only minor adjustments, attesting in this way to one of the main characteristics of living forms – their never interrupted continuity from their inception to this very day.
We finally understand in general terms how a cell is organized, how its specialized organs function in a well integrated manner to insure its survival and replication. This new knowledge has already begun to be put to good use in understanding abnormal cell function. Many of the major medical problems of our day are degenerative diseases which can be traced to malfunctions in the regulatory mechanisms of cellular activities. Cell Biology finally makes possible a century old dream: that of analysis of diseases, at the cellular level – the first step towards their final control.
We never truly touch or see these wonderful tiny devices that keep every cell and every being alive – since they are far beyond what our senses can perceive unaided. But for us they are alive in our minds, close to our hearts, very much parts of the real world, just like the galaxies with their neutron stars and their pulsars are at the other end of the spectrum of dimensions of matter for our colleagues, the radioastronomers.
For a scientist, it is a unique experience to live through a period in which his field of endeavour comes to bloom – to be witness to those rare moments when the dawn of understanding finally descends upon what appeared to be confusion only a while ago – to listen to the sound of darkness crumbling.
Claude, de Duve and I have lived through such a period and have already enjoyed the intimate rewards that are part of this rare experience. Now, when we are singled out for this highest of all scientific prizes, we feel that the new distinction acknowledges beyond us, beyond our personal achievements, the rebirth of our field of knowledge and the vistas it has opened for the medicine of tomorrow. We accept the distinction with the deepest gratitude
– for the workings of fate – which we do not control – and which made our achievements possible,
– for the great institutions that have supported our work,
– for our many devoted, skilled, and less recognized coworkers without whom our advances would have been less impressive,
– and, finally, for the noble institutions of your Swedish Kingdom which have nurtured Alfred Nobel’s dream and made out of it a wonderful means to affirm that – at their best – human minds belong to mankind, above nations and above any frontier.
Their work and discoveries range from how cells adapt to changes in levels of oxygen to our ability to fight global poverty.
See them all presented here.