Interview with John O’Keefe

“I thought ‘Oh this couldn’t possibly be, this couldn’t possibly be what I think it is.’ But of course it was.”

Telephone interview with John O’Keefe following the announcement of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 6 October 2014. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.

[John O’Keefe] Hello.

[Adam Smith] Hello, this is Adam Smith calling from, the website of the Nobel Prize. First of …

[JO] Hi there!

[AS] Hi. First of all many congratulations on the award of the Nobel Prize.

[JO] Well thank you very much, I’m over the moon actually.

[AS] Where were you when you got the news?

[JO] I was working at my desk at home. I sometimes work in the mornings here. What I tend to do is I try and get as much writing done … I get as much writing done at home before I go into work.

[AS] What was your first reaction on the call, on receiving the call?

[JO] I thought it was terrific. I thought it was … I had just been to Oslo a couple of weeks ago to receive the Kavli Prize, and I thought “Oh this couldn’t possibly be, this couldn’t possibly be what I think it is.” But of course it was. So I’m absolutely delighted of course. It’s a tremendous honour. It is the acme of scientific prizes and I think it’s, you know I’m very humbled by the whole thing, but I’m delighted as well.

[AS] And you know your co-Laureates very well indeed; the Mosers.

[JO] Yes, they came … I had known them actually for many, many years. I knew them when they were students with Per Andersen in Oslo, and they were already clearly destined to be stars and I was delighted when they wanted to come and spend some time in my laboratory to learn some of our techniques. And I think they put them to very good use I must say.

[AS] It’s 43 years since you first found these place cells in the hippocampus, I suppose the lesson from that is that one has to be pretty patient in unravelling the secrets of the brain.

[JO] [Laughs] Yes, I think I have a reputation for being patient. Actually I hadn’t realised it was that long, but it is, yes it is 43 years. And I have to say that at the beginning most people were quite sceptical at the idea that you could go deep inside the brain and find things which corresponded to aspects of the environment. People were a little bit surprised and sceptical about that. I think it’s taken a while, but there were some people early on who accepted it and of course I’m grateful and of course now the field has blossomed. And I think the Prize actually is as much for the field as for myself and the Mosers. I think, you know, we’re just representatives of a large number of people who are working away at the hippocampus and memory and spatial navigation.

[AS] Yes, there must be an enormous number of happy people around today.

[JO] Yeah.

[AS] OK. Well, thank you very much indeed, I hope you have the most splendid day. And are you still at home? Are you still …

[JO] I’m hiding at home, yes. [Laughs]

[AS] Probably wise to do that for as long as you can.

[JO] What we’re … I’ve been of course in contact with the people in my office and what we’re proposing to do is set up a press conference, probably at the Wellcome Trust media centre, which is up the road from University College London, probably this afternoon I think. So I have another hour.

[AS] Stay relatively low key in that hour, yes, and avoid too many glasses of champagne. 

[JO] Yes, I’ll certainly do that.

[AS] OK, Alright, well many, many congratulations and thank you very much for talking to us.

[JO] Thank you very much Adam.

[AS] Thank you, bye bye.

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MLA style: Interview with John O’Keefe. Nobel Media AB 2019. Sat. 25 May 2019. <>

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