Harald zur Hausen

Banquet speech

Harald zur Hausen’s speech at the Nobel Banquet in the Stockholm City Hall, 10 December 2008.

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Colleagues and Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Having been selected as Nobel Laureates for Physiology or Medicine by the Nobel Foundation represents one of the most unique distinctions I can imagine. Also on behalf of my co-recipients, Dr. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Dr. Luc Montagnier, I would like to express our gratitude and at the same time our joy for this most memorable moment.

Particularly in medicine a large number of awards exist, yet none of them has a similar reputation or is as vibrant as the Nobel Prize. This was even instantly recognized by my 3 year old granddaughter; Hanna. When her parents told her about the Nobel Prize and that her grandfather is receiving it she started to cry. With tears in her eyes she told her parents that she wants the Nobel Prize, too. When I told this to one of my colleagues, his face became thoughtful and he then stated: “Your granddaughter expressed the desire of a multitude of scientists, except that they usually don’t cry in public and are reluctant to talk about it.”

This year’s Laureates are working and have worked on medical problems of enormous magnitude: AIDS represents a global scourge that has already killed several millions of infected patients. The discovery of the responsible agent for this sexually transmitted agent has now paved the way for first modes of prevention, for early diagnosis of this infection, and, most importantly, the development of antiviral therapy, now saving the lives of infected patients who can afford it. Cervical cancer, on the other hand, also originates from a sexually transmitted infection with specific high risk papillomavirus types. This cancer still globally ranks as the second most frequent cancer in women and kills about 250.000 women annually and in all likelihood killed several hundred millions of suffering patients in the course of past centuries and millennia. The identification of the responsible agents has now enabled the development of a vaccine with the prospect of drastically reducing the global burden, wherever these vaccines become affordable. Whereas HIV only in recent decades became infectious for humans, high risk papillomavirus types have in all likelihood been with us for millions of years, accompanying the human race since the early days of our evolution.

Each one of us is exceedingly grateful to the Nobel Prize Committee, the Nobel Foundation and to those who proposed us as candidates for this Award. But, in addition, we owe gratitude to all those who encouraged us, accompanied us during school and university training, and even more so to our mentors.

May I also express my personal gratitude to my former mentors Werner and Gertrude Henle in Philadelphia and Eberhard Wecker in Würzburg who allowed me to establish my own group very early on and to follow what were considered unorthodox ideas at that time. Many very skilful colleagues collaborated with me during the past decades and contributed enormously to the studies leading to this Award today. Some prominent names are Lutz Gissmann, Ethel-Michele de Villiers, Mathias Dürst, Michael Boshart, Elisabeth Schwarz, Magnus von Knebel Doeberitz, and Frank Rösl, although many others would deserve special mention as well. On a more personal note, I must thank my deceased parents who did everything for me, my brothers and my sister in the extremely difficult time period during and after the Second World War. Later on my three sons tolerated more or less the frequent absence of their father. A special note of gratitude goes, however, to my wife, Ethel-Michele de Villiers, who as a scientist not only supported me intensively during a substantial part of my scientific life, but also managed the environment at home with exceptional skill. For all of my relatives and friends, and also for those of my co-laureates, it is a most unusual and uttermost pleasant experience to be invited to this very special event. Thank you once again.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2008

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