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J.M.G. Le Clézio

Medicine and literature: two Nobel prizes for France

By Berlioz Deborah

France can be proud of its intellectuals and scientists this year. They brought two Nobel prizes back from Stockholm. And to win two Swedish awards the same year does not happen that often. In fact, the last time was in back 1952, when Albert Schweitzer won it for peace and François Mauriac for literature.

The first 2008 French Nobel prize was for medicine. This year, the Nobel committee decided to honour major medical advances concerning the most important illnesses of modern times:

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi
Françoise Barré-Sinoussi

AIDS and cervical cancer.

The French Luc Montagnier, director of the World Foundation for AIDS Research and Prevention, and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi of the Institut Pasteur, who identifyed HIV, and Zur Hausen, who discovered the papillomavirus, were awarded the 2008 Nobel prize for medicine or physiology on 6th October. The German researcher won half the prize of 10 million kronor (800 000£), while the two French scientists shared the other half of the prize.

Since HIV was discoverd in the 80s, one could think it a little bit late for a Nobel prize, and yet:"The importance of Montagnier and Barré-Sinoussi's discovery must be considered in the light of the current omipresence of AIDS, which affects 1% of the world population" said the Nobel committee.

At the beginning of the 80s, a lightning epidemic left scientists dumbfounded. Where did this unknown illsness come from? Many laboratories tried to answer. In 1983, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier  isolated lymph node cells from AIDS patients as well as a novel retrovirus which they named the lymphadenopathy-associated virus. It was later renamed HIV. The French team published its results in the magazine "Science" on the 20th May 1983.

Luc Montagnier
Luc Montagnier

But in 1984, "coup de théâtre"! The American Robert Gallo, who had confirmed the isolation of the virus, claimed to be its real discoverer. A bitter fight ensued over who was rightfully entitled to the patent. A compromise that shared the credit was brokered in 1987 by President Reagan and Jacques Chirac, the then French Prime Minister.

However, even if Gallo's earlier work on the virus family, to which HIV belongs, was a key element for the French team's discovery, the American scientist was not mentioned in this year's Nobel prize citation. "We wanted to honour the discovery of the HIV virus, and that's clear it was first isolated in the French laboratory" the Nobel committee was told. According to the scientific magazine "Nature", the committee's decision is finally a clear statement on "who discoverd what and when". End of discussion.

Le Clézio awarded Nobel prize for literature 

And Cocorico again! On the 10th October a French novelist, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, 68, won the 2008 Nobel prize for Literature. According to the Swedish Academy, he is an "author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, an explorer of humanity beyond and below the the reigning civilisation". A Nomad in a word, never where we expect him, attached to the non-occidental cultures and always ready to defend the most fragile.

J.M.G. Le Clézio was born in Nice on 13th April 1940, from a British father and a French mother. He spent his childhood between Mauritius and Nigeria, was a teenager in Nice. As an adult he never stopped travelling:  Panama, Mexico, Marocco, Paris...  A true citizen of the world, and that he has fully expressed in his books.

J.M.G. Le Clézio
J.M.G. Le Clézio


As an author, he achieved fame a very early age. He was only 23 when he won the prestigious Renaudot Prize with "Le Procès Verbal", a novel in the avant-garde "nouveau roman" style of the time. His novel was published in English in 1964 as "The Interrogation". But it's in 1980, with "Desert", that Le Clézio made a real international breakthrough. His last book "Ritournelles de la Faim" (Same Old Story about Hunger), published this year, depictes the daily life of a Parisian family just before the Second World War.

Le Clézio is the 14th French novelist to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. In fact, the first Nobel for literature honoured the French poet Sully Prudhomme. But the truly good period for French literature was undeniably the post-war era and the reconstruction. From 1947 to 1964, five French authors were rewarded: André Gide in 1947, François Mauriac in 1952, Albert Camus in 1957 and Alexis Léger in 1960. This lucky time will end with the declined Nobel of Jean-Paul Sartre in 1964. The famous philosopher declared that "a writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution". Since then, only two French authors have won the literature prize, Claude Simon in 1985 and the Chinese-born Gao Xingjiang in 2000.
Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio said that he was touched by the honour. He also declared that a Nobel "was something that makes you rebound, that gives you the desire to keep writing.

The Nobel prizes for achievement in science, litterature and peace were first awarded in 1901 in accordance with the will of dynamite inventor and businnessman Alfred Nobel. 



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