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The Nobel prize in medicine and the Karolinska Institute
  1. W I McDonald

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    By Bengt Ljunggren and George W Bruyn (Pp 229, US$119.25). Published by Karger, Basel, 2002. ISBN 3-8055-7297-2

    The considerable enjoyment to be had from this unusual book is not altogether to be anticipated from the title. It derives from the diversity of material it contains, which ranges from the history of medicine in Sweden and the rivalry between the upstart Karolinska Institute (founded in 1810) and the old universities of Uppsala (1477) and Lund (1668), to the opening lines of a poem written at the age of 19 by Alfred Nobel after his first meeting with a Mlle Riviére in Paris. The book is built around the life and contributions of Axel Key, whom neurologists remember for his definitive demonstration with Retzius of the nature of the circulation of the cerebrospinal fluid. His achievements were, however, much wider. Under his influence first as Professor of Pathological Anatomy (from 1862) and later as Rector (1886-1897) and a Member of Parliament (1881-1890), the Karolinska Institute expanded and gained in international prestige until by 1895 it was the natural choice of Alfred Nobel for the responsibility of selecting the laureates for his prize in physiology or medicine. More generally, Key raised the profile of Scandinavian medicine by founding, in 1862, a journal for the Institute, which in 1869 became the Nordic Medical Archives, the forerunner of the Acta Medica and Acta Chirugica Scandinavica. Key’s other great achievement was a huge study of school hygiene that led directly to the establishment of the school medicine system in Sweden and was widely influential elsewhere in Europe.

    The style of the present book is discursive. For example, there is a chapter devoted to the life, loves, and intellectual achievements of the extraordinary Russian Professor of Mathematics in Stockholm, Sonya Kovalevskaya, the first woman professor in any subject in Europe; this because Kay had performed a postmortem on her in 1891. There are lengthy extracts from Key’s letters to his wife written on his two great journeys to European university centres in 1872 and in 1893. During the former Key met again Rudolf Virchow, with whom he had studied in l861, and some of his fellow students from that period, including Billroth and von Recklinghausen. On the later journey he spent an evening, by chance, with Alfred Nobel—their only meeting. Nobel had already made a generous gift to the Karolinska and told Key it would not be the last. The letters tell of Key’s impressions of the people he met and give a flavour of the (often very grand) style in which senior figures in the university world lived in those days. The scientific contributions of many of his hosts are summarised in an extensive appendix.

    There is much less about Nobel, although his originality, his breadth (he was interested in experimental physiology as well as explosives), and his naive faith that “my dynamite factories can put an end to war quicker than.... peace congresses” comes clearly across.

    The book is extensively illustrated, mostly by portraits, and is lavishly produced.

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