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The Nobel Prize is a lottery


'Choose your mentors well'
Christian de Duve Scientist
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One question that's sometimes asked in relation to the Nobel Prize is: is it hereditary? I don't mean genetically, although there are a couple of father-son combinations – the Braggs, for instance – but, I mean, does working with a Nobel Laureate increase your chances of getting one yourself? Well, the answer could be yes because if you go... for instance, you go to a German city called Giessen – there you can visit the laboratory of a very famous German chemist: Justus von Liebig. Justus von Liebig was best known by some meat extract that he made, but he was really one of the founders of organic and of biological chemistry. Well, in Giessen you can visit his laboratory, you can see it, and in that laboratory they have a chart which is a sort of genealogical tree of Nobel Prize winners, and they all go back quite a number... chemistry, medicine, all going back to Justus von Liebig who, of course, died too early to get a Prize himself. And this has continued: for instance, Theorell, who was a pupil of Otto Warburg, has had three Nobel Laureates among his own pupils – Bergström, Chris Anfinsen, and myself. Cori... Cori had six winners in his offspring, if I may say so... scientific offspring: there was Severo Ochoa, Luis Leloir, there was Arthur Kornberg, there was Earl Sutherland, there was, in chronological order, myself and finally Ed Krebs, and this goes on... I mean, my own mentors – I worked with Theorell, I worked with the Cori's, I worked with Earl Sutherland; that's four. My... my mentor Bouckaert worked with AV Hill in England and my other mentor, Maisin, worked with Fibiger in Denmark. So what does this mean? Does this mean that Nobel Laureates somehow have an inner entrance to the Nobel committee and then they can lobby for their friends and that they can influence the committee? Well, I'm sure this happens – I mean, the Nobel committees are made of human beings, Swedish scientists... they are very conscientious; they really do, I think, in most cases... I'm not talking about myself, of course, they seem to be doing a good job, but they make mistakes and certainly they have to get advice from the outside from time to time. They consult and I'm sure, from time to time, some people try to influence them. This may very well have happened and there may be a couple of instances where I suspect it did happen, but I don't think that is really the important thing. I think what is really important and, I think, interesting in this observation is that the art, and I use the word art intentionally... the art or the craft of scientific research is not learned in books; it is just like the crafts in the middle ages – it is learned from a master, and unless you have had the opportunity, the luck of working with a master, you may never really catch the art, learn the art, the craft. What exactly it consists of, I can't tell you – I mean, I don't know the recipe but I think that this is not just a coincidence, that so many Laureates have worked with previous Laureates and the conclusion of this is for the young people, not a recipe to get the Nobel Prize, but, in general, if you want to be successful in science, work with a master. Choose your mentors well.

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: Giessen, Joseph Maisin, Johannes Fibiger, Joseph Bouckaert, AV Hill, Carl Cori, Hugo Theorell, Otto Warburg, Justus von Liebig, Chris Anfinsen, Sune K Bergström, Severo Ochoa, Luis Leloir, Arthur Kornberg, Earl Sutherland, Edward Krebs

Duration: 4 minutes, 57 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008