ObituaryBMJ 1994; 309 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.309.6966.1434 (Published 26 November 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:1434
Niels Jerne, Nobel laureate, was a scientist distinguished for his pioneering theories, which shaped the progress of modern immunology over the past 40 years. An international figure, he had been born in London of Danish parents and had been educated in the Netherlands and studied physics there before studying medicine in Copenhagen. His PhD thesis on serum antibodies aroused his interest in the enormous diversity of antibodies that a person could make—an interest that occupied his mind throughout his life.
In 1955 Jerne published his seminal paper, “The natural selection theory of antibody formation.” He stipulated that the antibodies pre-existed in the body and then were selected for by the entry of foreign molecules that they specifically reacted with. This proposal was developed further by Sir McFarlane Burnet to bring it to the cellular level. Jerne's paper made a radical break with the then prevailing dogma that antibodies were flexible protein molecules that folded around molecules foreign to the individual. His introduction of Darwinian principles to immunology was important in leading to rapid progress in our understanding of the subject.
Jerne joined the World Health Organisation as head of biological standards in Geneva but retained his interest in basic immunology. In 1962 he returned to academic life, in Pittsburg and then Frankfurt. Then, at the age of nearly 60, he accepted the new challenge of founding and building up the Basle Institute for Immunology, funded by Hoffman-La Roche.
Jerne published two further ideas. In one paper he addressed the development of the diverse antibody repertoire involving the interaction of cells with histocompatibility molecules expressed on cell surfaces, with subsequent mutation and cell replication. In the second paper he proposed that the immune network is regulated by cellular interactions directed against variable regions of antibodies (the idiotype network). This view is …