Dare to Be 100: 10 Nobel Prizes

07/02/2014 05:16 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2014

The Nobel Prize is the highest honor that a person can receive. In my view, it ranks way ahead of sainthood.

In my last year of postdoctoral training, 1961-1962, I worked at the Max Planck Institute for Cellular Chemistry in Munich. It was a great year. My professor was Feodor Lynen, who was world-renowned for having discovered the fundamental metabolic molecule, acetyl CoA. We were not surprised when the phone call from Stockholm came about his award. Fitzi, as we affectionately called our boss, said "I've been expecting this." Nonetheless, the entire lab swelled with pride when the call came.

At the time I was a good friend of Linus Pauling, who had two Nobel Medals in his resume. It was so special just to be with him. I felt a sense of grandeur being in his company. I have had the opportunity to meet with several other Nobel recipients, Mother Teresa in Calcutta among them.

Every year the Nobel Committee recognizes some exemplary activity or productivity. There are awards for peace, literature, and economics, but the scientific ones are those of most importance to me. Of these scientific prizes the one given for physiology and medicine is of most interest. Those in physics and chemistry are not so relevant. My personal interest focuses on the field of medicine, where the recipients immediately go to the head of the class.

All the winners draw high praise, but in my view the research committee has not yet recognized the most important accomplishment, which is how do we get people to act on the astonishing new discoveries about health. We now know, with much detail, how disease happens. But to me the single most central question in science is NOT further details about being sick, but how to stay healthy. How not to be sick is worth at least 10 Nobel prizes.

In 1993 McGinnis and Foege wrote the most important, I believe, paper of all the tens of thousands of studies that I have read. It's title was "The Actual Causes of Death in the U.S." They stated:

It is not heart disease or cancer or diabetes that actually kills us. It is the antecedent behavior that comes before that leads to the final pathology.

Knowing how to prevent these killers is the critical issue. We know how the fire started, how it burns its anatomy and physiology. We know much about how to try to put it out. But MOST importantly we don't know how to prevent it in the first place. Unfortunately almost all the intellectual and financial effort and Nobel prizes go to the proximate causes of death, not to the ultimate cause, which is the underlying behavior.

The Nobel committee should put out widely, on the Internet, a "heads up" that they will award 10 Nobel prizes to that person or organization that discovers HOW to get people to take care of themselves, how to read and act on the extensive new literature on health and well-being; not a drug or gene or technology, just how do you take care of your most important asset.

Nobel Prize Committee, Stockholm, please read this and act.