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Books, Journals, New Media
September 11, 2002

Nobel Prize: The Nobel Prize in Medicine and the Karolinska Institute: The Story of Axel Key and Alfred Nobel

Author Affiliations

Harriet S.MeyerMD, Contributing EditorDavid H.MorseMS, Journal Review EditorRobertHoganMD, adviser for new media


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JAMA. 2002;288(10):1293-1294. doi:10.1001/jama.288.10.1293-JBK0911-2-1

Although there are richer prizes in science today, none confers celebrity, peer-envy, or the license to speak authoritatively on any subject like a Nobel. The myth persists that intimate contact with the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, home institution of the prize in Physiology or Medicine, increases one's chances of winning. Scientists at the Karolinska have one of the best seminar series in the world; almost nobody turns down their invitations.

The histories of the prize, its host institutions, and its benefactor Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite (philanthropy is the last refuge of the scoundrel), therefore have an intrinsic, gossipy interest. Moreover, the prize turned 100 in 2001, prompting the gush of retrospectives typical around anniversaries. In this spirit, Bengt Ljunggren, a neurosurgeon who began his career at the Karolinska and now works in the United Arab Emirates, and George Bruyn, a retired neurologist from Leiden University, have composed a quirky prehistory of the medicine prize. They have drawn on a wealth of sources, including many obscure publications in Swedish and unpublished correspondence and speeches. The history is celebratory and antiquarian, sweetened with anecdote rather than spiced with analysis. References, at the back, are keyed only to a given chapter, and the chapters are not numbered. The book itself—coffee-table format, with three-inch margins, more than 100 illustrations, and an understated, elegant design—is clearly intended as a specimen, not a workhorse. Nevertheless, it relates a history that will be brand-new to most readers.