The Czech biochemist who should have won a Nobel Prize

Peter Medawar (left) with Milan Hašek (second from right)

There has only been one Czech Nobel Prize winner in a scientific field to date – Jaroslav Heyrovský, who won it in chemistry in 1959 for his invention of the polarographic method. But another one could have followed just a year later, if not for the Soviet scientific terminology that Czechoslovak scientists were made to use in the 1950s.

Peter Medawar  (in the middle) with his wife and Milan Hašek  | Photo: Magda Arnoštová,  Czech Radio

Peter Medawar, described by popular science writer Bill Bryson as the “patron saint” of the immune system, was one of the greatest twentieth-century British scientists, winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1960 for his discovery of acquired immunological tolerance. In short, he figured out why the body rejects skin grafts from one person to another, revolutionising organ transplantation.

Medawar’s key insight was that the immune system learns early in life not to attack its own healthy cells – essentially, it figures out early on what is self and what is other. By experimenting on mice, he discovered that a mouse exposed to skin from another mouse when it is very young is able to accept a skin transplant from that other mouse later in life – the immune system has in a sense been trained at a young age to recognise it as self.

Milan Hašek | Photo: Magda Arnoštová,  Czech Radio

What is less well-known, however, is that there was a Czech biochemist, Milan Hašek, working on the very same problem at around the same time who independently made the same discovery – and the two both published papers about it in the same year, 1953. However, while Medawar published in the world-renowned scientific journal Nature, Hašek, working behind the Iron Curtain, could only publish in the national Czechoslovak Biology. As a result, the two didn’t find out about each other’s work until a year later – but when they did, it became the start of a long and beautiful friendship.

“Professor Medawar met our father in person a relatively short time after his discovery. And they became life-long friends,” describes Milan Hašek’s daughter, Zora Havlíková.

A black-and-white photograph from the 1950s reveals a scene from a trip to the forest.

“The person sitting in the middle is Professor Medawar, the person lying down is his wife, and the person looking at them is our father, who went with them several times on trips not only in Czechoslovakia, but also where they lived in Great Britain,” explains Hašek’s son, Jiří.

Zora Havlíková and Jiří Hašek | Photo: Magda Arnoštová,  Czech Radio

Medawar even acknowledged Hašek by name in his 1960 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

“In his Nobel speech, Peter Medawar said that Hašek was missing from the list of winners – because he discovered the same phenomenon, but he just called it something else.”

That “something else” was the not-so-catchy name of “vegetative hybridisation”, and the reason why his discovery wasn’t recognised by the Nobel Prize committee is a sad tale of science behind the Iron Curtain.

During the 1950s, Czechoslovakia, like the rest of the Eastern bloc, followed the doctrine of Lysenkoism – an idea propagated by Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko which rejected genetics and natural selection in favour of a neo-Lamarckian idea claiming that acquired characteristics could be inherited via the cells of the organism. Essentially it said that traits acquired by environmental factors could be passed on through the generations. Lysenko was mainly interested in crop plants, such as wheat, and his ideas were applied to agriculture during the Stalin era, with disastrous consequences.

It was within this framework that Hašek had to do his research.

Milan Hašek | Photo: Magda Arnoštová,  Czech Radio

"Hašek's results were experimentally perfectly in order, they were described in terms of the formation of antibodies. But unfortunately he also included a discussion using the – for the Western world – completely incomprehensible terminology of Lysenkoism, which was a Soviet-invented ideology. It claimed, for example, that if wheat is grown in mountainous conditions, it will evolve into rye or some other more resistant variety," explains Jiří Plachý from the Institute of Molecular Genetics.

Unlike Medawar, Hašek was experimenting on chickens rather than mice, but both independently discovered that if an antigen is introduced into the embryo of a newly-formed organism, the organism won’t create antibodies against it later in life. So if it hadn’t been for the unfortunate influence of Soviet scientific doctrine, Hašek's name may well have been read out in conjunction with his friend Medawar’s at the awards ceremony in Stockholm.