05 Oct 2020
Issue #27: First Monday in October
Setting it Straight - Issue #27
Written by Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty
The names of the 2020 Nobel Prize winners for Physiology or Medicine will be announced this Monday, to be followed on subsequent days by Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Peace and, finally, Economics on the following Monday. The medals and the certificates for all except the Peace Prize, which is awarded in Oslo, would normally be handed over on 10 December (the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death) at a very formal ‘white tie and tails’ event held in the Stockholm Concert Hall, followed by an elaborate, 1200 person banquet at the town hall. Because of COVID-19, the 2020 Laureates will receive the awards in their home countries, the first ‘away game’ in a 120-year history.
Operating under the umbrella of Stockholm’s Nobel Foundation, Alfred Nobel’s Will assigned the job of selecting the Medicine Laureates to Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute, which defines itself as a ‘research-led medical school’. The medical Nobel Assembly is comprised of 50 Karolinska Institute Professors who, at around 10am on this first Monday of October, vote on a prioritised list of ‘tickets’ presented to them by the chair of the very hard working, five-member Nobel Medicine Committee. Through the previous nine months, they‘ve screened several hundred documented cases sent to them from prominent Institutions that were invited to nominate, or by prior Nobel Medicine Laureates. Each ‘ticket’ can consist of one to three names of individuals working in the same, or a related field. Generally, though not invariably, the Assembly accepts the first choice on the Committee’s list.
The Nobel is the big one, but there are a number of other prestigious medical research prizes. In the 1980’s, Rolf Zinkernagel and I shared the German Paul Ehrlich Prize, and a Canadian Gairdner International Award. Then, in 1995, along with the ‘Harvard ticket’ of Jack Strominger, Don Wylie and Emile Unanue, we fronted up at New York’s Pierre Hotel on Central Park to accept the US Lasker Basic Science Award. Both the Gairdner and the Laskers are regarded as ‘predictor prizes’ for the Nobel. Also on the Lasker stage at New York’s elegant Pierre Hotel was fellow Australian, Barry Marshall, who collected the Medical Award for showing that Helicobacter pylori is the primary cause of stomach ulcers. The ebullient Barry and his reserved WA colleague, Robin Warren, had to wait until 2005 for their ‘meet and greet’ with King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden: Barry’s self-experiment of drinking the ‘yucky stuff’ is part of the folklore at the Nobel Museum.
Thinking we were out of the Nobel running because an earlier Prize (1980) was awarded for the Major Histocompatibility Complex, the topic where our experiments and theoretical synthesis from 1973-5 had major impact, the first Monday in October had no particular significance for me. Back in 1996, I‘d been working for eight years as head of the Department of Immunology at the wonderful St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee (Elvis territory). When the phone rang at 4am, our immediate reaction was that something had gone wrong with family back home in Australia.
As it was on her side of the bed, my wife Penny picked up the phone and heard: ‘This is Nils Ringertz from the Nobel Foundation’. She said: ‘this is for you’. Nils related that Rolf and I had been awarded the Nobel Prize for our work on T cell-mediated immunity and warned that, when this was announced publicly in 15 minutes, our world would go crazy. In those pre-mobile phone days, I hadn’t even started to use e-mail! We alerted our two sons, one in Australia, one in Boston, and woke up Jerry Chipman, the head of the St. Jude publicity department. Then the phone rang incessantly. Within hours, Jerry had organised for incoming calls to be answered at St. Jude, and for us to have a ‘minder’, an experienced journalist who would look after the media interface through the coming year.
Before turning up in Stockholm for Nobel week, the primary job of each recipient is to write a biographical account and a Nobel Lecture which, for the medicine laureates, is delivered at the Karolinska Institute. Going back to the first awards in 1901, these can be read on the Nobel.Se website. Our Nobel year marked the 100th anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death and the founding of the (initially online) Nobel Museum by Nils Ringertz. Beginning with a dinner hosted by the medicine committee, we got to know Nils that December and saw him for the last time (he died at age 69 in 2002) when all the Nobel Laureates who were still vertical and interested in doing so came back to Stockholm in 2001 to celebrate the centenary of the Prizes. This was the year that Paul Nurse, Tim Hunt and Lee Hartwell were recognised for their work on the cell cycle. And it also saw the Nobel Museum become a physical entity, and tourist attraction in the old Stock Exchange Building.
Some of our December 1996 experience in Stockholm is described in The Beginner’s Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize (2005). And I’ll write about the science later as we develop our understanding of the complexities of T cell-mediated immunity. On this first Monday in October, some medical scientist, or two or three, somewhere on the planet, will have a very interesting and busy day.