Niels K. Jerne

Banquet speech

Niels K. Jerne’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, December 10, 1984

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Nobel Prize is a precious gift, and it is wonderful to receive this gift rather late in life: one does not then have to carry for a very long time the burden that this distinction imposes. This does not apply to my friends César Milstein and Georges Köhler with whom I have the pleasure to share the prize in Physiology or Medicine. We represent three scientific generations. In fact, I was already working in an immunological laboratory before Georges Köhler was born. That this year’s prize is given for work in immunology follows a long tradition. The first Nobel Prize in our field was given, in 1901, to Emil von Behring who, together with Shibasaburo Kitasato, discovered the presence of specific antibody molecules in the cell-free scrum of immunized animals. This demonstration had a tremendous impact on the direction into which immunology developed. It turned the attention of two following generations of scientists towards antibodies and away from the cells which produce them. These antibodies were polyclonal because many different cells participate. My two fellow-laureates have introduced a marvellous technique which permits the production of antibodies by a single cell and its clonal descendants. I have had no part in this monoclonal invention. Of course, biologists are not just laboratory people that mix liquids in test tubes. Most of their time is devoted to the discussion of ideas and to the replacement of these ideas with better ones. My concern has always been synthetic ideas, trying to read road-signs leading into the future. Thinking back over my own years, my thoughts now often return to a happy childhood. My parents died thirty years ago, and I wish to dedicate my part of this Nobel Prize to them, with a poem from Jutland in Denmark. As we are here in Scandinavia, I hope you will permit me to do this in the language of the poet Jeppe Aakjær:

Her vendte far sin plov, å så mangen, mangen gang,
Nar grålærken højt over sandmarken sang.
Her gik min stille mor i sin grove grå kjol,
Og så med tynget blik mod den synkende sol.
Thi satte eders søn denne liden grå sten,
Til minde om en færd der som duggen var ren.

(English translation:
Here did my father turn his plough, oh, so many, many times,
While the grey lark sang over the sandy fields.
Here walked my silent mother in her coarse grey dress,
And turned a heavy look towards the sinking sun.
Thus placed your son this little grey stone,
In remembrance of your journey that was pure as the dew.)

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1984, Editor Wilhelm Odelberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1985

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1984

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