Blackburn Receives Nobel Prize at Spectacular Ceremony

Elizabeth Blackburn smiling

With a serene smile and a dignified bow, UCSF molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, on Thursday accepted her Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine before an audience of hundreds of dignitaries, academics and members of Sweden’s royal family. Watch the video.

The ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall marked the latest of many high points in Blackburn’s career since she first began studying telomeres, the DNA units that seal off the ends of chromosomes, in the 1970s. That led to her co-discovery in 1985 of telomerase, an enzyme that plays a key role in normal cell function, as well as in aging and most cancers.

That groundbreaking discovery is what earned Blackburn the Nobel Prize, along with her fellow researchers Carol Greider, PhD, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and Jack Szostak, PhD, of Harvard Medical School.

“You have solved a longstanding and fundamental problem in biology, provided insight into disease mechanisms, and raised hope” that new therapies can be developed to fight cancer, said Rune Toftgard, a professor of environmental toxicology and a member of the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, who spoke about the trio’s achievements at the ceremony.

In addition to Blackburn, Greider and Szostak, the recipients of this year’s Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, literature, and economic sciences also received their awards at the ceremony.

The 12 laureates entered the concert hall shortly after 7:30 a.m. (PST) to the strains of Mozart, played by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, and took their seats at the front of the stage. The laureates were joined up front by Sweden’s royal family, while behind them sat a collection of the country’s top scientists and academics, members of the Board of Directors of the Nobel Foundation and various past Nobel laureates.

In his opening remarks, Marcus Storch, MD, chairman of the board of the Nobel Foundation, noted that after 108 years, the Nobel Prize still “enjoys a unique standing…and is regarded as a measure of excellence.”

The prize, Storch said, has also held true to the wish founder Alfred Nobel expressed in his will in 1895: that “in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be Scandinavian or not.”

Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf handed each of the laureates their gold medals and diplomas and shook their hands.

Blackburn, wearing a flowing black strapless gown and a silky red shawl, appeared perfectly composed as she took center stage, to receive the prize bowing graciously to the 1,500 guests as they applauded her achievement.

Blackburn and Greider are among just 40 women to have won the prestigious prizes since they were first awarded in 1901, and Blackburn is the fourth UCSF scientist to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

After the ceremony, Blackburn and her fellow laureates relocated to Stockholm’s City Hall for a lavish banquet.

Earlier on Thursday, President Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway. Obama praised peacemakers of the past, and said that while war is sometimes justified, the world should maintain an unwavering commitment to pursuing peace.

“Let us reach for the world that ought to be,” he said in his acceptance speech. “Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace.”

The Nobel Prizes awarded today are part of a 108-year-old tradition, which now encompasses 822 laureates.