Lederberg on his reception of the Nobel Prize

Well, that's an interesting story in itself. A Swedish newspaper reporter called me and wanted to get my reactions. I said, to what? and he said, well, you've been awarded the Prize, and I said, you are pulling my leg. And I was quite sure it was a practical joke, and he talked to me some more, and he persuaded me that maybe it's true, but I didn't want to take my chances on believing it, and I was a little concerned that the rumor would get around and prove to be a false rumor, and remember what I said before about not wanting to have false hopes about experiments. I didn't want it to happen in this context, so I decided to get out of sight for a while until I was absolutely certain. I didn't want to run into people who had congratulated me, and then would not want to face me the next day, when they found out it was all a mistake. So making sure it was so was the first consideration. Then you get a formal invitation, and you, my wife and I, packed up to go to Stockholm, and we were greeted very graciously, and the whole town turns out to be celebrations, from the Royal family on down, they do nothing else but celebrate Nobel for that week, so it's one party after another. And some scientific discussions, and meetings there with a lot of press. So, it's quite a festival, it's a way to brighten up a very dark December, at a very high latitude.

In a way it was rather poignant and had some difficulties. The news of the award was in October, 1958. The month before, in September, I have already agreed to leave Wisconsin to go to Stanford U, and I was literally in the middle of packing up to move, I was planning to move in January. And so I was stuck on two counts: one -- this was bad for Wisconsin: they have somebody who's leaving the institution, that's awarded the Prize, sort of on his way out. It isn't that good news for Stanford, because he's not there yet, so institutional glories... Imagine, a near-graduate of Stuyvesant going to Bronx High School [of Science] and getting a great award just at the point of leaving Stuyvesant. So, it was difficult enough, I've been there 12 years, I've consummated many very close friendships, and while I felt that there were significant research opportunities, and Stanford had a broader horizon, especially a new medical school that was just being established there. There were a lot of painful personal wrenches, and they were aggravated by all the hoopla. The other was a practical consideration: there was no way in the world that I could drop everything and prepare my lecture, so I very carefully read the statutes, and I found out that I have the privilege of deferring, giving the Prize lecture within six months, and I elected to do that, so I came and collected the Prize but on track to come back again in the spring after I was settled. So I did that in May '59, I returned to Stockholm for the completion of the process. So, literally this is the process. So I left Wisconsin as I said in January, set up at Stanford, left in the middle of a blinding snowstorm. But, really felt that all the goodbyes have been said, and really had to leave. It would have been just too anticlimactic to go back home, so I just said -- Chicago was closed out, most of the other airports were closed out -- find me an airplane anywhere, we just leaving, we finally ended up getting to California by way of two other cities. I left many close friends behind, but there are still close friends at Madison.