Dr. Giuseppe Vita
Chairman of the Robert Koch Foundation

Welcome speech for the Robert Koch Prize award ceremony 2007 in Berlin

Your Excellency the Federal President,
Dear Federal Minister Schmidt,

Dear Professor Cossart,
Dear Professor Askonas,
Dear holders of the post-doctoral prizes,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to welcome you all to this year’s award ceremony for the Robert Koch Prize, a ceremony which we are holding in a very special place to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Robert Koch Foundation.

Your Excellency President Köhler,
I would like to express my warmest gratitude that you have received us in the beautiful Bellevue Palace today. But more than that, I would like to thank you that as the patron of our foundation, you support our goals with your name and your office. This patronage honours us and is invaluable for the success of our work.

Allow me to take this opportunity for a brief look at the hundred year history of the Robert Koch Foundation, which has always been supported by politicians throughout this long period.

In 1882, the year when Koch succeeded in describing the pathogen that causes tuberculosis, this illness was still the most common cause of death in many countries, including Germany. So Koch was certainly not the only scientist to devoted such intensive work to tuberculosis. The most promising “therapy” for tuberculosis – which was therefore also supported by the health insurance institutions of the time – was to send the patients to stay in health resorts or tuberculosis sanatoriums, an idea that had been introduced in the middle of the 19th century by a doctor called Hermann Brehmer. Around 1900 there was already a veritable “sanatorium frenzy” which cost an enormous amount of money, provided inspiration for literature such as Thomas Mann’s “Magic Mountain” and also led to the invention of strange new words such as “Hustenburg” (coughing castle), but which hardly had any effect in the fight against tuberculosis.
Robert Koch, as a country doctor at the start of his career, had scant resources for research – just a small room in his surgery which he used as a laboratory – but he had an unflinching determination to discover the nature of infectious diseases. The conviction, which was initially just an unvoiced private opinion but which he advocated with increasing boldness to a growing public after he had conducted constant research, was that illnesses such as tuberculosis do not originate from the body itself, but from an external pathogen. That was a very brave statement because many of his colleagues at the time, including the infinitely more influential Rudolf Virchow, did not (yet) believe in infection by by germs or viruses and were therefore critical of the claims made by Koch, and this was still true even after Koch had identified not only the pathogen that causes tuberculosis, but also the cholera pathogen.

When it became apparent that “Tuberculin” did not fulfil the therapeutic purpose as a cure for tuberculosis that Koch had predicted, Koch even came in for public criticism for a time. Happily for us, however, Koch continued his research even more intensively, and from 1891 he did this as the director of the “Prussian Institute for Infectious Diseases”, which is now the Robert Koch Institute.

Tuberculin was soon found to be an important diagnostic agent, and it is still used for this purpose today. In Koch’s research institute a number of scientific methods were developed which enabled even more pathogens to be identified and subsequently also made it possible to develop medicines and preventive measures against the illnesses caused by these pathogens. Many of the diseases which reached epidemic proportions at the time – e.g. cholera, syphilis, plague – and less widespread illnesses such as African sleeping sickness to which Koch devoted intensive research work, were stopped from spreading because the specific causes of these illnesses could be precisely described as a result of Koch’s work. In 1905, when Koch was collecting Tse Tse flies by Lake Victoria and conducting experiments on how to combat the widespread sleeping sickness in the area, he received the news that he was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on tuberculosis.

Two years later, Koch was again in remote East Africa when he received news of another commendation. An appeal published in the press to set up a foundation to promote tuberculosis research had far surpassed the wildest expectations at the time. Although well over a hundred famous people had signed the appeal – including ministers of state, major industrialists and Nobel prize winners – and the Prussian state minister acted as the chairman, at the beginning of the 20th century there were an enormous number of highly fragmented foundations, and individual foundations were only rarely able to rise above the crowd. But the appeal to set up this foundation was accepted by countless business companies and individuals, some of them highly affluent, and after just a short time Robert Koch was notified that the “Robert Koch Foundation to Combat Tuberculosis”, which was named after him, had been successfully founded. Two years later, in 1909, when Koch had already become a “real privy councillor”, he was also the first person to receive a grant from the new foundation to enable him to fund his further research – 20,000 marks which had been earned as interest on the capital of the foundation. It was the last great honour that he received. In May 1910 Robert Koch died of angina pectoris.

With the interest on the capital, the Robert Koch Foundation was able to support many other researchers who were involved in highly promising but expensive work on tuberculosis, but during inflation in the 1920s the capital of the foundation quickly lost its value, and the Robert Koch Foundation had to declare its own dissolution.
In 1935 the foundation was revived again, but the successful subsidy work soon had to be abandoned during the Second World War. It was only in 1960 that the foundation was actually founded again.

This newly founded organisation, and the design and structure of the Robert Koch Foundation today, are inseparably linked with the names of Karl Winnacker and Otto Westphal. Winnacker was the first chairman of the foundation after the war, Westphal was his deputy and later himself became the chairman. They defined the legal status of the foundation as a registered association which was to act exclusively for non-profit purposes, or as the foundation’s articles of association phrase it: to serve the advancement of “scientific studies and research to combat infectious diseases, especially tuberculosis, and endemic illnesses.”
In the first few years after the new foundation was created, the highest form of advancement was to award the “Robert Koch Gold Medal”, which is still awarded regularly today to commend a scientist for his or her life’s work. But since 1965, the “Robert Koch Prize” has also been awarded each year. It is a prize which recognises recent research results and subsidises further work in these areas of research, and its value currently stands at 100,000 Euros.

Since 1960 the Robert Koch Medal has been awarded to 45 scientists, and the Robert Koch Prize has been awarded to 65 scientists. Each of these prizewinners has made outstanding contributions to their specific area of research and thus played an important role in the advancement of medicine. I am delighted that five of our prizewinners later also received a Nobel Prize – not only for the sake of the prizewinners themselves, but also because it underlines the critical selections which we make and thus also recognises the work of the Robert Koch Foundation.
The most recent form of public recognition is the Post-Doctoral Prize, which the Robert Koch Foundation awards annually in cooperation with three scientific societies: the Society for Immunology, the Society for Hygiene and Microbiology and the Society for Virology. This prize aims to promote young scientists, without whom medical research would soon fall behind in its struggle against infectious diseases.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Without the support of our members and sponsors, amongst whom I would especially like to thank the member companies of the German Association of Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies, we would not be able to carry on the successful work of the Robert Koch Foundation. Thanks to your support we are able to award such generous prizes every year and to subsidise ongoing research and publications through the year. I would like to thank you for your commitment with all of my heart. But I would also like to take this opportunity to draw your attention to the brochure of our foundation, which you will find on your seats. It contains a membership form which you are welcome to fill in.

Dear Federal Minister Schmidt,
Your ministry has supported the Robert Koch Foundation from the outset – permanently by the fact that a representative of the ministry serves on our Board of Directors, and also by your personal involvement. I would like to thank you for this long-standing support. I am delighted that you can be with us here today to give your recognition to our prizewinners.
And finally, I would like to offer a warm welcome to this year’s prizewinners, Professor Pascale Cossart of from the Institut Pasteur of the University of Paris, Professor Brigitte Askonas of Imperial College London and our post-doctoral prizewinners Dr. Melanie Brinkmann, Dr. Ulrich Dobrindt and Dr. Florian Winau.

Dear Professor Cossart,
You have succeeded in describing very precisely how a bacterium with the deceptively beautiful name “Listeria monocytogenes”, which has caused a number of epidemics and hundreds of deaths over the last thirty years, can enter into a host cell and multiply there. Your research will not only help us to combat future epidemics of this type more effectively, it also gives us important knowledge about the behaviour of bacteria. For these achievements, you are being awarded the Robert Koch Prize today. I would like to offer you my congratulations on this prize and the results of your research.

Dear Professor Askonas,
Two years ago, at the award of the Robert Koch Medal to your colleague, Professor Unanue, you were rightly praised as the “Grand Old Lady of immunology”. With your many years of research and numerous publications, you have had a decisive influence on the field of cellular immunology, and your contributions have helped us today to understand issues such as how T lymphocytes detect antigens. I am therefore delighted that we can award you the Robert Koch Gold Medal today in recognition of your inestimably valuable work. So I would like to offer my congratulations to you, too, for the award of this medal.
You have won our attention and recognition with your very first scientific work. We not only wish to commend you by awarding you the Post-Doctoral Prize, we also encourage and appeal to you to continue along the path of research, even though it is not always easy, and to discover even more secrets in the future. Here, I wish you every success, and especially a generous portion of the great joy which is enjoyed by passionate researchers.