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Decision to go into research


The Second World War
Christian de Duve Scientist
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Another war starts. The Second World War, 1940. I remember that day very well because I was living, at that time, I was living actually in the physiology institute, say that the assistants were not paid but there were a couple of rooms that were allocated to student assistants and I was fortunate enough to have a room... for several years I lived in the attic of the physiology institute, so I could work late at night and so on. And I remember being... woken up by... by another assistant who lived in the room next door to me, came at five o'clock in the morning, said, 'The war has started, the war has started!' and I had worked very late that night, I was sleeping. I said, 'It can wait' and I went back to sleep. But in the meantime, German bombers – Stukas – were actually bombing the city of Louvain and they were bombing, especially, the library. Now this is a... I don't want to go into that story, but the Louvain library was a sort of symbol because it was burnt to the ground by the Germans in the 1914 war and it was replaced by a beautiful building, built in the old style, with American funds. All over the United States money was collected, in every school and college and university, to rebuild the University of Louvain, which had become a symbol of civilisation against Teutonic barba... barbary. And so the first thing they did was to bomb down the new library. Yes, I should perhaps have mentioned that, of course, the war did not start as a big surprise. Having... spent many of my... part of my holidays in Germany, during the years between 1930 and 1940, having relatives in Germany, I had really experienced, from the inside, the uprise [sic]of Nazism and of Hitler. I even remember one year, 1939, I think, spending summer with relatives of mine on the island of Sylt, which is an island north of Germany, and Goering was there, so I... I saw Goering. Actually I saw him going down and taking... bathing in the sea, but anyway. So, I had seen all that and I had felt this rising menace of Nazism. I still see those newspapers with the big attacks against the Jews... Juden, Juden, Juden... so I was really very much concerned with the whole thing. And so, when the war broke out it was not a big surprise, but obviously it changed things very much again.

Anyway, what I did, when the war broke out, I... I took my bicycle and went back to Antwerp, to my family, then took my bicycle, went to Gent to enlist in the Belgian army. So I was enlisted in the medical corps; I had not finished my medical studies, but I was enlisted in the medical corps and I never did anything, because all we did was just to... to go down to France, they put us in a train and then we spent six days in... cattle wagons and finally got to France and were taken... taken prisoners by the Germans after a few weeks. And so, that was my only feat during the war, was to escape. I... I was in a column of prisoners marching on the road, the weather was beautiful, and I had stopped with a couple of friends in a café to have a drink, and suddenly a German officer came in and he started screaming at us and hitting us with a... he had a stick, and so I decided, no this is not for me. I can't stand it. And so I sort of stayed at the back of this column and there were cars moving along the column, French cars, and they still had, I don't know how you call them, marchepied in French, things on which you stepped to get into the car, you know, on the outside of the car, I don't know the English word. Anyway, so I just stood up... stood on one of these cars and we passed the column and the Germans just looked at us, and, of course the people inside the car were terrified, but eventually I escaped and so came back to Belgium. There are many other things that I could tell, but I mean these details are really not important. What it means is I was able to get back eventually to Louvain, to the lab and to... especially to, complete my studies.

Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve (1917-2013) was best known for his work on understanding and categorising subcellular organelles. He won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1974 for his joint discovery of lysosomes, the subcellular organelles that digest macromolecules and deal with ingested bacteria.

Listeners: Peter Newmark

Peter Newmark has recently retired as Editorial Director of BioMed Central Ltd, the Open Access journal publisher. He obtained a D. Phil. from Oxford University and was originally a research biochemist at St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical School in London, but left research to become Biology Editor and then Deputy Editor of the journal Nature. He then became Managing Director of Current Biology Ltd, where he started a series of Current Opinion journals, and was founding Editor of the journal Current Biology. Subsequently he was Editorial Director for Elsevier Science London, before joining BioMed Central Ltd.

Tags: Second World War, 1940, Louvain, University of Louvain, Germany, 1939, Sylt, Hermann Göring, Belgium

Duration: 6 minutes, 24 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008