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Did this Nobel Prize winner help to launch cancer research, or set it back a few years?

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In 1926, Johannes Fibiger received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. That much is clear. Ever since then, people have been debating whether or not he should have gotten it, with powerful arguments on both sides. We'll take a quick look at the world's most disputed Nobel Prize.

Nobel Prizes for cancer research are hard to come by. They were especially hard to come by around the middle part of the 1900s. Part of this is, everyone agrees, the simple fact that it takes time and a great deal of skill for such research to roll forward. Some say, though, that the delay in handing out awards for this particular type of research is due to the controversy over Johannes Fibiger.

Fibiger was, by all accounts, a dedicated and intelligent researcher. He was studying tuberculosis in rats in the 1910s, when he noticed that the rats who had a certain internal parasite developed tumors. This caught his interest, and he fed cockroaches infected with the parasite to the lab rats. (The parasites would only mature inside a cockroach, and so couldn't be fed to the rats directly.) The infected rats developed tumors. Fibiger dubbed the parasite Spiroptera carcinoma, and published his findings. Cancer being even more feared in the early 1900s than it is today, the idea that certain parasites could cause cancer, and so cancer-prevention was possible, was celebrated. In 1926, he was awarded a Nobel Prize.


The problem was, the parasite did not cause cancer. Other researchers tried to re-create his experiments and failed. The rats actually developed cancer, it was found, due to a vitamin A deficiency. The parasite only caused more tumors to develop in the already-cancerous cells.


Since then, Fibiger's prize has been ever in dispute. Those who are in favor of the prize say that Fibiger was not as firm about his conclusions about the parasite directly causing cancer as his critics say he was. Furthermore, he was working in a field, cancer research, that was nearly completely untouched at the time. And he was the first person to prove that cancer could be caused by outside factors, instead of springing up spontaneously. As a result, many more scientists started investigating what else caused cancer. He set cancer research on the right path.

His critics maintain that the prize was given on the understanding that the parasite caused cancer, and that, no matter what, Fibiger's conclusions were wrong. They also point out that, two years after Fibiger's experiment, and well before the prize was awarded, scientist Katsusaburo Yamagiwa actually did induce cancer in rabbits by painting them with coal tar, and correctly identified what was causing the cancer.


Science is a process of discovery, and everyone makes mistakes. Fibiger did, to a certain extent. The Nobel Prize Panel certainly has before - families of lobotomy victims want the Panel to rescind the prize given to its inventor. But this isn't just a discredited procedure. It's one which is still debated. Did Fibiger deserve a prize?

Via NCBI and American Society for Microbiology.