Harold E. Varmus’ speech at the Nobel Banquet, December 10, 1989
The literature of my native tongue had its beginnings in your traditional stories, set down in Anglo-Saxon, a language descended from yours, and ancestral to mine. One of the great remnants of this early work, the epic poem Beowulf, teaches the importance of the great halls of Scandinavia during the harsh lives endured more than a thousand years ago – how the concentration of light, warmth, and vitality within those buildings offered comfort against the winter’s darkness, the cold, and the constant threat of death.
The halls were physically magnificent and welcome sights for weary voyagers:
signo ætsamne oþ-þæt híe sæl timbred,
zeatulíc and gold-fág, onzietan meahton;
þæt wæs foremærost fold-búendum
receda under rodorum on þæm se ríca bád;
líexte se léoma ofer landa fela.*
(Briskly the men went
marching together, making out at last
the ample eaves adorned with gold:
to earth’s men the most glorious
of houses under heaven, the home of the king;
its radiance lighted the lands of the world)**
We read also about delights within these halls: the joyous fellowship; the story-telling and the songs; the food, wine, and mead passed around. Gifts of gold and crafts were lavished upon visitors from afar and upon those bold in battle with dreaded monsters, like Grendel and his mother.
In these festivities tonight in your Blue Hall, we honor the vitality of this great tradition, not just the few of us fortunate to receive its bounty. For those whose exploits are being sung here, Grendel is a symbol for other dangers (as doubtless he has always been): for disease and ignorance, for human greed and brutality. As Mike Bishop and I listen to your praise and music, accept your art and gold, and enjoy your food, drink, and good company, we recognize that, unlike Beowulf at the hall of Hrothgar, we have not slain our enemy, the cancer cell, or figuratively torn the limbs from his body. In our adventures, we have only seen our monster more clearly and described his scales and fangs in new ways – ways that reveal a cancer cell to be, like Grendel, a distorted version of our normal selves. May this new vision and the spirit of tonight’s festivities inspire our band of biological warriors to inflict much greater wounds tomorrow.