Stanley B. Prusiner’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, December 10, 1997
King Carl Gustaf, Queen Silvia, Distinguished Guests,
Tonight’s awarding of the Nobel Prizes and this elegant Banquet are a grand celebration of science and culture. These events honor the vision, courage, and wisdom of Alfred Nobel, a superb scientist in his own right.
And they honor the Swedish people’s uncommon sense of commitment to fulfill the enlightened wishes of Alfred Nobel – the Nobel Prizes have truly become important benchmarks in the history of science.
But the Nobel Prizes are much more than awards to scholars, they are a celebration of civilization, of mankind, and of what makes humans unique – that is their intellect from which springs creativity. I continue to be delightfully surprised by the joy, excitement, and happiness that so many of my friends and colleagues have felt when they learned of this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine; moreover, many of these friends are nonscientists who hail from many parts of our planet.
People often ask me why I persisted in doing research on a subject that was so controversial. I frequently respond by telling them that only a few scientists are granted the great fortune to pursue topics that are so new and different that only a small number of people can grasp the meaning of such discoveries initially. I am one of those genuinely lucky scientists who was handed a special opportunity to work on such a problem – that of prions.
Because our results were so novel, my colleagues and I had great difficulty convincing other scientists of the veracity of our findings and communicating to lay people the importance of work that seemed so esoteric! As more and more compelling data accumulated, many scientists became convinced. But it was the “mad cow” epidemic in Britain and the likely transmission of bovine prions to humans producing a fatal brain illness called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease that introduced prions to the public. Yet the principles of prion biology are still so new that some scientists and most laymen, including the press, still have considerable difficulty grasping the most fundamental concepts.
Being a scientist is a special privilege: for it brings the opportunity to be creative, the passionate quest for answers to nature’s most precious secrets, and the warm friendships of many valued colleagues. Collaborations extend far beyond the scientific achievements, no matter how great the accomplishments might be, the rich friendships which have no national borders are treasured even more.
Besides scientific achievement, the Nobel Prizes honor the scientific process. In science, each new result, sometimes quite surprising, heralds a step forward and allows one to discard some hypotheses, even though one or two of these might have been highly favored. No matter how new and revolutionary the findings may be, as data accumulates, even the skeptical scholars eventually become convinced except for a few who will always remain resistant. Indeed, the story of prions is truly an odyssey that has taken us from heresy to orthodoxy.
Lastly, we celebrate on the occasion of these Nobel Prizes, the triumph of science over prejudice. The wondrous tools of modern science allowed my colleagues and me to demonstrate that prions exist and that they are responsible for an entirely new principle of infection.
Tack så mycket!