Receiving “the Call” From the Nobel Committee

A conversation with Stanley Prusiner

By Douglas J. Lanska, MD, MS, MSPH, FAAN

In an oral history interview for the American Academy of Neurology, conducted April 27, 2017, at the Boston Convention Center, I spoke with Nobel laureate Stanley B. Prusiner, the only living neurologist who has won a Nobel Prize (Lanska and Klaffke, 2017, Lanska, 2017). Prusiner was the sole recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1997 “for his discovery of Prions — a new biological principle of infection.”

Here is an excerpt from that interview concerning the call at 5:05 a.m. EDT on Oct. 6, 1997, from the Nobel Committee, notifying Prusiner that he had won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (Prusiner, 2014, p. 218). The call was from cell geneticist Nils Ringertz (1932-2002), professor and chair of the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, who was then-secretary of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine, as well as a member of the Nobel Foundation’s Board of Directors.

Lanska: When you got the call that you had won the Nobel Prize, [what was] your reaction to that call?

Prusiner: First of all, my ex-wife [Sandy Turk Prusiner], who was my wife at that time, she got the call. She was in San Francisco, and I was in Bethesda at an FDA meeting. She got the call, then she told them where I [was]. Then, the guy woke me up. I knew him. I had met him. [He was] named Nils Ringertz.

He said, “Do you remember me?” I said, “Yes! We had dinner together six months earlier.” He said, “Well, we’ve decided that we’re going to give you the entire prize.” That was really a surprise to me. I thought surely they were going to have some other people. And, you know … I was shocked, because I knew people were nominating me for three or four years before that.

It was really nice, but it wasn’t as though I was jumping up and down. It was just really nice that this had happened. I thought this is great.

People would ask me all the time, “How does it feel?” I would say, “You know, I recommend this.” It’s a nice thing to have happen to you.

Lanska: “Yeah, everybody, I recommend it!” [laughter]

Prusiner: I sat there, and I was sort of stunned. I was really stunned about the whole thing, about getting the prize alone.

Then I turned on CNN, and there was nothing about this Nobel Prize or any Nobel Prize at that moment. The time goes on and on, and I’m not finding anything, and I think this is a hoax, because I knew this had happened. It’s not the first time some reporter called up and convinced somebody that they had been given the Nobel Prize. But this was not a joke. This was real. But I said, “I screwed up,” because I should have said to Nils Ringertz, “I don’t want to recite to you where I met you. I want you to recite to me where you met me, so I know it’s you.’” I didn’t do that. I said, “Well, alright.”

Then, 7 a.m. comes, and there’s nothing more on the TV. I turn on the radio. That I found a radio was amazing. The radio was on, and then there it’s all laid out, and I said [expressing relief], “Oh, OK.”

Skepticism Abounds

Prusiner’s skeptical reaction that the call might be a hoax was certainly not unique among Nobel laureates. Many, if not most, Nobel laureates are initially skeptical. For example, Romanian-born German physicist Stefan W. Hell (Chemistry 2014) said, “The first moment I thought it was perhaps a hoax” (Hell, 2014). Similarly, British-American economist Sir Angus S. Deacon (Economics 2015) recalled:

“And then they were very keen to make sure that I did not think it was a prank. I don’t know whether this is common. I’ve never had a prank phone call telling me that. And, of course, as soon as they said that, I thought, ‘Oh, my god, maybe it is a prank.’” (Dubner, 2015)

Several recipients have suspected that their students had orchestrated a prank. Australian physicist Brian P. Schmidt (Physics 2011) recalled, “I’m thinking, ‘Jeez, my graduate students are getting pretty good with the accent this year.” (Taylor, 2011) Likewise, American physicist Richard P. Feynman (Physics 1965) ruefully recounted:

“I thought it was some student calling as a prank. I wasn’t too polite. But after the third call I was convinced. I hope the guys who called will accept my apologies.” (Hendrickson et al, 1965)

Many look for some means of verification, even during the call itself. For example, Scottish economist James A. Mirrlees (Economics 1996) remembered, “I politely suggested that I’d need some proof.” (Griehsel, 2004a)

American biologist and parasitologist William C. Campbell (Physiology or Medicine 2015) replied skeptically, “You must be kidding.” He later recounted, “The first thing I did after that was to ask for a way to verify that this could be genuine, because it just seemed impossible.” (Cohen 2015)

In 2015, the Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Cohen outlined a common reaction among newly informed Nobel laureates who were only convinced of the call’s veracity upon speaking to members of the awards committees with whom they were already familiar:

[M]any Nobel laureates start their celebrations in the same way. They assume it’s a prank call. The organizations that oversee the awards, including the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, are actually used to dealing with disbelief. They even have unofficial protocols for assuring the newly named laureates that they are not, in fact, at the center of an elaborate hoax. First, a calming Swedish voice says hello. But an accent would be easy to fake. Then he says that you have won the Nobel Prize. But that could be a lie too. Then he might insist it isn’t a prank. But, of course, he would say that. For some winners, only when he passes the phone to members of the committee whom they know personally does the achievement finally sink in. (Cohen, 2015)

The scenario outlined by Cohen has indeed been described by several Nobel laureates. For example, it wasn’t until the caller passed the phone to members of the Chemistry Committee that American physiologist Brian K. Kobilka (Chemistry 2012) believed the call was not a prank: “Then I really knew it was real; you know, I don’t think any of my friends, first of all, would be able to put together such an elaborate hoax.” (Kobilka, 2012) Likewise, American astrophysicist and cosmologist George F. Smoot (Physics 2006) recounted:

“So they called, and at first, I thought I’d better be careful, this could be a hoax or something like that. But the guy sounded really serious and the next guy had a Swedish accent, so you know … I think I’d better take him really seriously. And so finally somebody I knew got on the phone, so I thought this was either a really elaborate hoax or this is the real thing, and I was kind of believing it, but I thought I better get on the web and check.” (Smoot, 2015)

Most, like Prusiner and Smoot, seek verification in the media or on the internet. For example, American geneticist and chronobiologist Jeffrey C. Hall (Physiology or Medicine 2017) replied, “Is this a prank?” “I didn’t really believe it,” he later said. The caller responded, “No, it’s not a prank,’’ but Hall wasn’t convinced until the Nobel Prize Assembly posted the official announcement later that morning (Koch and Hall, 2017; McCrea, 2017; Ritter and Heintz, 2017). Similarly, American economist William F. Sharpe (Economics 1990) recalled:

“…and then, of course, your second thought is it’s a hoax, one of your friends or colleagues. After we’d finished the chat, we turned on CNN and within about 5 minutes the first announcement came across, and it had many inaccuracies… but nonetheless there was enough there that we were pretty sure that it was real.” (Griehsel, 2004b)

British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (Literature 2017) said:

“I thought it was a hoax in this time of fake news and everything. I didn’t believe it for a long time. Then, my publisher phoned, and finally when the BBC phoned, I thought it might be true.” (Ishiguro, 2017)

Swedish jurist Beatrice Fihn, the director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) (Peace 2017) similarly said:

“I was worried that it was a prank. You just get so nervous that maybe it’s not real. So, it wasn’t really until the actual broadcast, when [the announcer] spoke and said the name ICAN, that we really understood that it was real.” (Fihn, 2017)

In some cases, the first call the scientist received was from a reporter, but typically their reactions were similar to those engendered by the calls from Stockholm. In response to a call from a reporter at CBS New York, Swiss-American geneticist Edmund H. Fischer (Physiology or Medicine 1992) said, “I don’t believe you. What are you saying?” (Chu, Fischer, et al, 2016)

Similarly, a reporter called and asked American physicist Steven Chu (Physics 1997), “How does it feel to win a Nobel Prize?” Chu responded suspiciously, “Is this real?” The caller said, “Oh yes, it’s actually on the Web.” Chu countered disapprovingly, “You believe everything you hear on the Web?” (Chu, Fischer, et al, 2016)

While Prusiner believed that prank calls have occurred falsely notifying scientists that they have won a Nobel Prize, I found no clear evidence of this. The idea has certainly been discussed by scientists, though, as noted by Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Cohen:

Whether or not a prankster has ever pulled off a successful Nobel Prize caper is uncertain. But there are at least some laureates who think the con could work. Dr. [Venkatraman] Ramakrishnan [Chemistry 2009], for one, said the idea has popped up in conversations with friends who love practical jokes. There are some scientists, he said, who almost actively campaign for the honor. That only makes them easier targets.

“We often thought it would be great fun to have some Swedish postdoc call them up and say you’ve won the Nobel Prize,” he said. “But we’d never do it.” (Cohen, 2015) •

Douglas J. Lanska, MD, MS, MSPH, FAAN, is associate chief of staff for education at the VA Medical Center in Tomah, Wisconsin and professor of neurology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison, Wisconsin; professor of psychiatry at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and chair of the History and Archives Committee of the American Academy of Neurology.

Chu S, Fischer E, et al. When Stockholm called. iBiologie, September 28, 2016. [Accessed 12-24-17]

Cohen B. Is your refrigerator running? No, really, you won a Nobel prize: Persuading laureates they’re winners can be a tough call; ‘It’s not a prank.’ Wall Street Journal, October 7, 2015. [Accessed 12-15-17]

Dubner SJ. How to win a Nobel prize: a new Freakonomics radio episode. October 15, 2015. [Accessed 12-15-17]

Fihn B. Ican director: I thought Nobel peace prize win was a prank. Guardian News, October 6,2017. [Accessed 12-26-17]

Griehsel M. Interview transcript. Transcript from an interview with Professor James A. Mirrlees at the 1st Meeting of Laureates in Economic Sciences in Lindau, Germany, September 1-4, 2004., 2004a. [Accessed 12-24-17]

Griehsel M. Interview transcript. Transcript from an interview with Professor William Sharpe at the 1st Meeting of Laureates in Economic Sciences in Lindau, Germany, September 1-4, 2004., 2004b. [Accessed 12-24-17]

[Hell S]. Chemistry laureate thought Nobel call was a ‘hoax.’ Agence France-Presse, October 8, 2014. [Accessed 12-15-17]

Hendrickson T, Galley S, Lamb F. Richard P. Feynman: Nobel prizewinner. Engineering and Science 1965;29(2):10-13.

Ishiguro K. Nobel winner Ishiguro’s reaction: ‘It was a hoax’: The newest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Kazuo Ishiguro, tells media that he didn’t know he’d won until journalists started looking for him. The Washington Post, October 5, 2017. [Accessed 12-15-17]

Kobilka B. 2012 Chemistry winner let Nobel call go to voice mail. Morning Edition, Wisconsin Public Radio, October 9, 2015. [Accessed 12-15-17]

Koch M, Hall J. A Nobel pursuit may not run like clockwork. Cell 2017;171:1246-1251.

Lanska DJ, Klaffke L. Stanley Prusiner, MD, FAAN. American Academy of Neurology Oral History Archive Private Interview. 69th Annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology, Boston, Massachusetts; April 27, 2017.

Lanska DJ. Stanley Prusiner, MD, FAAN. American Academy of Neurology Oral History Archive Public Interview. 69th Annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology, Boston, Massachusetts; April 27, 2017.

McCrea N. Once ridiculed researcher and retired Cambridge resident wins Nobel Prize. Piscataquis Observer, October 4, 2017. [Accessed 12-15-17]

Prusiner SB. Stockholm. In: Madness and Memory: The Discovery of Prions—A New Biological Principle of Disease. Yale University Press, 2014:213-231.

Ritter M, Heintz J. Biological clock discoveries by 3 Americans earn Nobel prize.

Associated Press, October 2, 2017. [Accessed 12-15-17]

Smoot G. US scientists react to news of Nobel Prize win. Associated Press, July 23, 2015. [Accessed 12-25-17]

Taylor R. Australian Nobel winner thought prize call was a prank. Reuters, October 4, 2011. [Accessed 12-15-17]