Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The real Nobel scandal

Two stories on our desk today prompt an editorial thought about the Nobel Prize.

The latest Nobel Prize for Medicine is due to be announced on October 3. But some of its judges have had to resign over a fast-developing scandal in Sweden, the home of the Nobel Prize.

The scandal centres on Professor Paolo Macchiarini, pioneer of a throat transplants and the use of laboratory engineered tissue. No doubt, unsullied the professor might one day have been a candidate for the prize.

But another name cropped up on the newslist - that of British statistician Professor Richard Peto. Professor Peto was part of the team, quite a junior member, that proved, convincingly, the link between smoking and cancer and the extent of the health problems caused by tobacco.

Just as much as penicillin, this was one of the major medical discoveries of the 20th century. It is difficult to remember its impact - or controversial nature - at a time when smoking was taken for granted and cigarettes were as much a part of life as chocolate.

Yet not one of those involved in the discovery was ever awarded the Nobel Prize. The leading figure in the discovery Sir Richard Doll died in 2005 at the age of 92, unrecognised by the Nobel Prize Committee. His collaborator Sir Austin Bradford Hill died in 1991, also unrecognised.

Sir Richard Peto was not involved in the 1950s work that first established the link - but he was Sir Richard Doll's intellectual heir and as his lifetime achievement award this month, from the European Society for Medical Oncology shows, played a key role in the later work on the link.

Would it be too much to suggest honouring Sir Richard Peto might go some way to recognising the injustice done to his predecessors?