Nobel Prize Winners

The following four scientists attached to the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences have received the Nobel Prize in Medicine:

  • Niels Finsen (1903)
  • Johannes Fibiger (1926)
  • Henrik Dam (1943)
  • Niels Kaj Jerne (1984)

Niels Finsen

Niels Ryberg Finsen (15 December 1860 - 24 September 1904) moved into Regensen (dormitory) in 1882 to study medicine at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences. He graduated in 1890 and was subsequently made associate rector at the Institute of Anatomy.

Light Therapy

In 1893, Finsen published his first dissertation "On Light's Effect on the Skin." Following this, he started experimenting with artificial light, and in 1895 he constructed a simple device with which to treat a patient suffering from tuberculosis of the skin (Lupus vulgaris). After five months, the patient was almost cured.

Finsen described this treatment, and its results in 1896, in his dissertation "On the application of concentrated chemical light beams in medicine." That same year, the Finsen Institute for Phototherapy was founded, which today bears the name Finsen Institute, and is part of Copenhagen University Hospital.

The Nobel Prize

In 1903, Niels Finsen was rewarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his impressive feat of curing several patients using light therapy. When Finsen died only nine months after having received the Nobel Prize, he was hailed as a hero by the people.

Niels Finsen's light therapy is no longer used, and many consider it forgotten. However, a great deal of Finsen's work was used as a basis for developing treatment possibilities with x-ray and radio waves, and therefore has a great impact even today.

Johannes Fibiger

The Danish physician, pathologist and bacteriologist Johannes Andreas Grib Fibiger (1867-1928) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1926 for his cancer research, and for discovering a parasite which he claimed caused cancer.

In 1907, while dissecting rats infected with tuberculosis, Fibiger observed cancer tumours in the stomachs of three of the animals. Following intensive research, he discovered that the apparently malignant tumours were caused by a parasite that had infected the abdominal region. He named the parasite Spiroptera Carcinoma, but it now goes by the name Gongylonema Neoplasticum. The worms had infected cockroaches, which the rats subsequently had eaten.

Hereafter, Fibiger concentrated entirely on his cancer research, and in 1913 he was able to consistently develop tumours in mice and rats by feeding them cockroaches, which had been infected with the parasite. That same year he published his description of the parasite, which won him the Nobel Prize.

Unfortunately, the great expectations of a practical cure for cancer which Fibiger's research heralded were not fulfilled. Other researchers found it difficult to repeat his results, and later it turned out that a lack of Vitamin A, among other things, was an important factor in the tumour build-up in the test animals. Nonetheless, Fibiger's work represents an important chapter in the development of new methods and ways of thinking within the field of oncology.

Henrik Dam

Nobel Prize Winner in Medicine 1943.

Carl Peter Henrik Dam (21 February 1895 - 17 April 1976) completed ex.phil. at the University of Copenhagen following his A-levels in 1913. Hereafter, he obtained an engineering degree from the College of Advanced Technology (today: Technical University of Denmark).

Vitamin K

Dam showed an interest in the physiological and nutritional aspects of biochemistry. In 1923, this landed him a position at the physiological laboratory at the University of Copenhagen, from which he was later transferred to the Institute of Biochemistry.

In 1934, Dam was conferred a doctorate degree on the basis of his dissertation, "The Biological Significance of Sterines." This was the beginning of the work which led to the discovery of Vitamin K. In 1938-39, Dam, in collaboration with Paul Karrer, managed to isolate Vitamin K.

The Nobel Prize

At approximately the same time, American scientist Edward Adelbert Doisy made the same discovery in the U.S. Vitamin K is important because it makes it possible for blood to coagulate, and is today used in injections for newborns.

Dam received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1943, during which time he was in New York. The prize was to be shared with Doisy: Dam was rewarded half of the prize for discovering Vitamin K; Doisy the other half for having identified the structure of the Vitamin.

In 1946 Dam returned to Denmark, where he was tenured as professor at the College of Advanced Technology.

Niels Kaj Jerne

Nobel Prize Winner in Medicine 1984.

Niels Kaj Jerne (23 December 1911 - 7 October 1997) was born in London to parents from Fanø and Jutland. He grew up in the Netherlands, where he also ended up studying physics. Subsequently, he moved to Denmark to study medicine at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, University of Copenhagen.

The Denmark Years

In Denmark, Jerne worked at Statens Seruminstitut concurrently with his studies. This meant that he only obtained his medical degree in 1947. In 1951 he published his dissertation "A Study of Avidity Based on Rabbit Skin Responses to Diphtheria Toxin-Antitoxin Mixtures," which conferred on him the title Doctor of Medicine.

Jerne's subsequent career was defined by three major dissertations: The first ground-breaking dissertation appeared in 1955. "The Natural Selection Theory of Antibody Formation" became extremely significant for the further development of immunology.

The Network Theory

Jerne published his next major theory in 1971 in his dissertation "The Somatic Generation of Immune Recognition on the Generation of Anti-matter." And in 1973, he put forward his third major (and most widely discussed) theory: the network theory, which describes the immune system as a complex, self-regulating network that can activate and deactivate itself according to need.

Jerne received the Nobel Prize in 1984. As far as we know, it is the first time that the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine has been given to a theoretician. Jerne received the prize for his extensive work and primary research on the human immune system.

Niels K. Jerne was made honorary doctor at the University of Copenhagen in 1979.

Text: Maja Maria Rønsch.

Read more about The University of Copenhagen Nobel Prize Winners.