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Harald zur Hausen, virologist, 1936-2023


When Professor Harald zur Hausen, who passed away at the age of 87, discovered a link between the human papillomavirus and cervical cancer nearly half a century ago, few of his fellow scientists took the breakthrough seriously. Orthodox thinking claimed that the disease was caused by the herpes virus. Few were eager to review it on the word of a young virologist not known for his work on cervical cancer.

But his discovery, doggedly pursued for decades, is now considered one of the most remarkable medical advances of modern times. It paved the way for a preventative vaccine that is expected to save millions of lives. In 2008, it earned him the ultimate award: the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Of his determination to carry on despite his parents’ skepticism, he once told an interviewer, “I come from a part of Germany where the people are known to be relatively stubborn.”

Born in 1936 in the city of Gelsenkirchen in North Rhine-Westphalia, his childhood was disrupted by World War II. In 1943, local schools were closed due to heavy Allied bombing. “My education in elementary school was full of gaps,” he recalls.

After graduating as a Doctor of Medicine from the University of Düsseldorf in 1960, he moved into research and was captivated by the relationship between infections and cancer, an area in which he would leave an indelible legacy. Working in a laboratory at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia run by Werner and Gertrude Henle, a husband and wife team, he studied how the Epstein-Barr virus was involved in the development of nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a cancer mainly found in southern China. .

Paul Farrell, a professor of tumor virology at Imperial College London who first collaborated with zur Hausen in the 1980s, said: “Harald was able to detect the presence of Epstein-Barr virus DNA in the actual cancer cells. to show.” It reinforced his belief that viruses are likely also involved in other cancers.

But when he tried to determine which of the many different human papillomaviruses might cause cervical cancer, he was met with a wall of hostility from the scientific establishment. Margaret Stanley, emeritus professor of pathology at Cambridge, said that by questioning “groupthink” about the causes of the disease, he undermined the validity of the herpes theory, in which other researchers had invested heavily.

Zur Hausen with his wife and research partner Ethel-Michele de Villiers in Stockholm shortly before receiving the Nobel Prize © dpa/Picture Alliance/Alamy Photo

“Harald was very brave. He stood up at medical meetings and said ‘we can find no evidence to support this’. For a while he was the victim of a lot of abuse because the (research) community just wouldn’t accept that his science was very rigorous and fair,” said Stanley.

He eventually succeeded in isolating a number of different human papillomaviruses, finding that two – HPV 16 and HPV 18 – were involved in about 70 percent of all cervical cancers. Stanley remembers this as “a eureka moment”, but one about which Hausen himself was typically modest. “He just said, ‘I think this (theory) is probably right’ . . . the people who worked for him were very excited (but) he was cool.

Colleagues recall a cultured man who loved classical music, was unfailingly courteous, and always impeccably dressed. A powerful speaker on the broader causes of cancer, who effortlessly crammed lecture halls, what he lacked most of all was arrogance, even after his Nobel Prize, Stanley says.

Professor Otmar Wiestler, who succeeded zur Hausen as head of the German Center for Cancer Research, which he led for 20 years, remembers him as a generous mentor, adept at identifying and nurturing young scientific talent. Even in the last weeks of his life, he continued to work in his laboratory, still pushing the boundaries of scientific discovery.

In his late sixties, he had begun to explore a new theory as challenging to established wisdom as his HPV hypothesis. He believed that colorectal cancer could not be caused by the consumption of red meat, as was long suspected, but by the presence of a virus in cattle that did not make the animals sick themselves, but could be carcinogenic in humans.

Eventually, he and his wife, Professor Ethel-Michele de Villiers, his research partner for years and a major contributor to his success, colleagues say, identified a piece of viral DNA that the couple “felt very strongly could be the agent responsible.” Wiestler said.

It was “very unfortunate and tragic in a way that he didn’t have time to complete this work,” which can still have profound implications for the treatment of the disease, Wiestler added. “He was really up to date, very familiar with the literature, full of ideas. He was sharp to the end.”


Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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