Why is a book on the Nobel Prize in Medicine pertinent today?
“The purpose of human life is to serve and to show compassion and the will to help others.”
— Dr. Albert Schweitzer, Nobel Peace Prize Winner
Some of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine were wonderfully humanitarian scientists who exemplified this sentiment.
Consider the selfless work of the British scientist AV Hill in the years before the US joined WWII. In several secretive trips, he convinced American scientists to share advanced technology that made the English radar system powerful enough to detect German Luftwaffe, even in the dense North Sea fog.
Imagine what it was like for Albert Szent-Gyorgyi to hide out in his Nazi-occupied country of Hungary, while the Gestapo searched for him house to house. He sent his Nobel medal to Finland to be melted down in order to fund the resistance movement fighting the occupying Russians there.
What was endured by Gerty Cori, the first woman to win the Noble Prize in Medicine? She was repeatedly denied positions in academic research labs across the country, supposedly because her feminine wiles would be a distraction to the men of science.
Other prizewinners ranged from simply small-minded to downright anti-social.
Howard Florey, who shared the prize for penicillin, said, “People sometimes think that I and the others worked on penicillin because we were interested in suffering humanity. I don’t think it ever crossed our minds about suffering humanity.”
Then there was Julius Wagner-Jauregg, who was tried for war crimes after WWI for his brutal electroshock torture of deserters and soldiers with battle fatigue.
And Charles Richet, who wrote in his book Idiot Man, “Yes, in my inmost being, I am humiliated because I belong to this vile animal species, the most foolish of all created things.”
Alexis Carrel was another in this category of the anti-social scientist. In his 1935 book Man, the Unknown, Carrel advocated the efficient disposal of unwanted persons by means of gas chambers.
In the modern era of scientists advising governments on everything from climate change to global infectious disease outbreaks, the smart health care consumer is wise to know more about the characters that are shaping our world.
In researching for this book, I was alternately delighted, surprised and dismayed by what I found, but it certainly changed my view of the lofty pronouncements from on high. Find out more in Boneheads & Brainiacs: Heroes and Scoundrels of the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Today, book release day, I appreciate each one of you who has supported my book project. I sincerely hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed composing it!
Moira Dolan, MD
Albert Schweitzer quote: Harold E. Robles, comp., Reverence for Life: The Words of Albert Schweitzer (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993).
Charles Richet quote: Charles R. Richet, Idiot Man; or The Follies of Mankind (L’homme stupide) (London: T. Werner Laurie, 1925).
Howard Florey quote: Hazel de Berg, interview with Sir Howard Florey, quoted in Denise Sutherland, “Sir Howard Florey—A Driven Spirit,” Australasian Science (February 1998): 9.
Alexis Carrel Man, The Unknown. Garden City, NY: Halycon House, 1938.