The Beginner’s Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize

October 5, 2007 at 1:01 pm Leave a comment

By Peter Doherty

Until they win, few Nobel laureates realise that the award ceremony is associated with an intense but exhausting week that thrusts them suddenly into the media spotlight, and requires a high level of energy and — unless they are teetotal — a reasonably tolerant liver. Neither would they anticipate the other accoutrements, including a chauffeur and a junior Swedish diplomat assigned as helper and advisor. Scientists, at least, don’t normally live in a world of minders and personal limousines — certainly not one of celebrities. However, when the king confers that award, handing the winner a gold medal and a leather-bound certificate in an atmosphere of solemn dignity, he also bestows a kind of celebrity status that has its own rewards and limitations.

The latter mainly involves the loss of personal and professional time that goes with public attention, but the compensations are the broader awareness of your work, gaining a public ‘voice’ and the opportunities to meet extraordinary people. I had a lot of media coverage in Memphis at the time of the award, and am on radio and television from time to time in Australia. A few people recognise me in the street. So far as popular celebrity goes, I’ve likened it to being equivalent to that of someone in a crowd scene in a television coffee commercial. It may be different for those few Nobel laureates who are recognised while they’re still young and handsome, but most of us tend to look more like the frog than the prince.

The presentation ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall is followed by the white-tie Nobel banquet — complete with gold-leafed plates and gold-plated cutlery — for 1,200 in the town hall. Protocol is paramount: laureates are taught how to bow, and are told it is all right to turn their back on the king as they return to their seat (we were shown a video of a statuesque Pearl Buck, the 1938 literature winner, reversing very uncomfortably in a tight evening dress for what seems about a hundred feet). Laureates are also taught how to make the Scandinavian toast ‘skal’, and the men must wear full evening dress for the ceremony and dinners.

At the banquet wine is drunk from Orrefors crystal glasses, of course. The crash when large numbers of plates hit the table simultaneously is deafening. Waiters volunteer from all over Sweden and are thick on the ground, but as the Nobel Foundation is the host, the comperes and ushers for the evening are young, attractive university students. Places are set aside for both local and international students. There is classical music, a few songs from opera and one representative from each of the prize categories gives a short speech. (Co-winner) Rolf Zinkernagel spoke with eloquence and charm for the two of us.

I may have been the only person at the dinner who didn’t have the famous Nobel ice cream. Not long before, I’d been diagnosed as having problems relating to the high blood cholesterol that shortened the lives of both my father and grandfather. We have a picture of me with a very elaborate pineapple concoction. Since then, as a consequence of the work that won Joe Goldstein and Mike Brown the 1985 Medicine Prize, I have been taking high doses of the very effective cholesterol-lowering statins. (It seems to be working: when all the laureates who were in good enough health were called back for a repeat dinner at the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prizes in 2001, I was finally allowed to taste the ice cream.)

The following night, the king and queen hosted a spectacular dinner at the Royal Palace. This was only the second time I’d ever worn white tie and tails. Scientists live by Murphy’s Law (‘Anything that can go wrong will go wrong’), and I discovered that this extends to minor sartorial disasters. Just as we were stepping out of our stretch Volvo at the palace, the elastic holding the starched front that goes under the dark jacket snapped and it shot out like a white, horizontal flag. Perhaps for the first time in her life Penny, who was carrying a very small evening bag, did not have a safety pin. Our driver, Gretel Lundstrom, immediately recognising the emergency, sped us away from the palace grounds in a dramatic exit that apparently caused some alarm for the organisers. We made the short trip back to the Grand Hotel, rushed to our room and repaired the damage with safety pins on the way down in the elevator. Then back to the palace with a police escort and flashing blue lights, followed by a quick dash up the stairs to be the last arrivals.

We crept into our correct place in the reception line: protocol requires that the medicine laureates and their spouses are behind the chemists, but preceding the literature laureate. Our escapade was an amusing diversion for the rather shy Polish poet Wislawa Zymborska. On the other hand, it taught me that members of the Nobel Foundation, like the Swedish people, are quite unflappable. Over the course of 100 years they have seen just about everything — including at least two laureates who turned up with three wives, past, present and future. Only in the fictitious plot of the 1963 Hollywood movie, The Prize, did they ever have to deal with a murder.

The setting for the royal dinner was again formal, though the atmosphere was a little more relaxed than at the awards. The king described it as ‘a family dinner’. The servers were dressed as footmen, the one standing behind the queen sporting an enormous feather projecting far above his head. This tradition was evidently started by an earlier king so that he could immediately find the queen in a crowded reception.

My dinner companions were the Swedish foreign minister, Lena Hjelm-Wallen, on one side and Princess Lillian of Sweden on the other. Princess Lillian, the wife of the king’s popular uncle, Prince Bertil, was born in Swansea, Wales, and is greatly loved in Sweden. She has a wicked and irreverent sense of humour and, at the age of 81, was a very enthusiastic ‘skaaler’, if there is such a word. We ate venison that had been shot on the royal estate by the king, and it was in every way an enjoyable evening. Talking with the Swedish heir apparent, Princess Victoria, during her recent visit to Australia, I was delighted to hear that Princess Lillian is still in fine fettle.

As new — and in some ways overwhelming — as it is, the experience of the Nobel week stands you in good stead for the reality of the very busy ‘Nobel year’ that all laureates face when the celebrations in Scandinavia end and they return home. You can avoid the endless rounds of engagements, of course, by either refusing invitations or by giving talks so appallingly bad that even the Nobel cachet cannot improve them — the word gets around. Most people take the responsibility seriously because it provides the opportunity to air issues they care about in a broad, public forum. The pressure generally tends to tail off after the next series of awards is announced, though there are always invitations that seem to relate purely to the status of the Nobel Prize. The Nobel year’s commitments consume a lot of time and take active scientists away from their research programs. Some, who are in the later stages of their careers, lose traction and never really get back to what had been their life’s work. All laureates, at any rate, lose a measure of the personal space required for introspection and creativity.

My year, however, like that of most senior scientists, was essentially booked and committed before the call came from Stockholm. Apart from my own ongoing work at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, I was serving on various national committees and was booked to give numerous seminars. The Nobel adds a further level of invitations, many of which cannot be refused. I received Australia’s highest civil award, the Companion of the Order of Australia, from the then Governor-General, Sir William Deane, and gave masses of lectures associated with visits ‘back home’, including an address to the National Press Club in Canberra that was broadcast over and over. I was constantly giving public talks and appearing at public events while in Australia. There was never a spare half-day, or so it seemed. The publicity also draws old friends back into contact, while the various institutions and groups that can claim some affiliation take pride in that and issue invitations accordingly.

In order to cope, I chose to drop out of the time-consuming work of reviewing grants and manuscripts, and put off planned seminars at several universities. I also had to excuse myself from the review committee for the US Multiple Sclerosis Society, which was close to my heart. They had funded me in the past, and a dear friend had committed suicide years before because of her MS. It was all pretty exhausting, and even now I still have to be extremely judicious about the commitments I accept.

*Peter Doherty was a co-recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discoveries concerning the specificity of the cell-mediated immune defense.


Entry filed under: nobel prize.

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