MU on an international stage: Smith accepts Nobel Prize in Sweden

After days of near-constant rain, clouds parted just in time Monday for MU’s George Smith and other winners of the Nobel Prize to accept their medals from the king of Sweden.

Despite the freezing winter in the nation’s capital, people flocked to the Stockholm Concert Hall, where the award ceremonies were held. Those in attendance hoped to catch a glimpse of King Carl Gustaf XVI of Sweden and his wife, Queen Silvia, who hold status but no political power.

For blocks all around the concert hall, streets were closed with police planted at every corner. In the heart of Stockholm’s modern shopping district, passersby stopped to take pictures of the nearly 100-year-old concert hall, an image of the Nobel’s prestige. It was decked in Christmas lights, much like the rest of the city.

Nationwide, Swedes turned on their TVs to watch the ceremonies and the banquet. Some enthusiasts even cooked the menu from last year.

Mimo KH, a local, once worked in the Grand Hotel, where the laureates stay and the ceremonies used to take place. According to him, the ceremonies have since dwindled in their grandeur.

Laureates were driven to the discreet side entrance of the intimate concert hall, which has only 460 seats, to meet a red carpet before being escorted inside. Women arrived in floor-length gowns and men in tuxedos with a white tie and tails, which Smith said made them look like penguins.

After the ceremony, Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden escorted Smith to the banquet.

Smith, MU Curators Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences, took home part of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work developing phage display. He attended the ceremony in 2001 as a guest. But on Monday, he had the honor of accepting the Nobel medal and received recognition for his groundbreaking research on an international stage as his family watched from the audience.

Smith said receiving the prize was a pleasure, but he was more excited about sharing the experience with his family and friends.

“My family here are really delighted, as well, and it’s good to see everyone happy like that. So I would say that’s kind of the main, like, emotional content of it,” he said.

Marjorie Sable, Smith’s wife, a professor emerita in social work and a researcher in public health, said the week was dream-like.

“I’ve just been drifting on a cloud,” Sable said. “It’s very gratifying for me to see the recognition that he’s receiving and seeing people come up to him and talk about, you know, how important his work was and how good his lecture was.”

Smith was allowed to bring 14 guests, which consisted of his close family and former students who did doctoral research with him.

Leslie Matthews, one of Smith’s former students, said he could be hard on his class members in the lab. But to her, it meant he regarded them as equals and valued their ideas.

“He is a little intimidating because he is so smart. He tells it like it is, you know, but he is super honest and super generous at heart,” Matthews said. “He was wonderful to take the time to discuss things with you and argue. He always treated me like a colleague, you know, and we could argue and fight about the science.”

Sable said her husband’s work ethic is just another dimension of his passion for getting things right.

“He would always go back into the lab and work until late at night or go to bed early and wake up at the crack of dawn and go in. And he’s just very precise,” she said.

Smith said he considers the postdoctoral fellows he invited to Sweden more than just previous students.

“All of the ones that are here were also kind of members of the family. And that wasn’t true of every student or postdoc that I had,” Smith said.

His dedication to research, health and science comes from his concern for helping others, Sable said.

“He also cares very deeply about the people he works with in all aspects of his life. And he’s very strongly committed to social justice both in the lab and the university. You know, he has high ethical standards at work and in his personal life,” she said.

Those ethical standards and a passion for human rights were passed on to their two sons as well — one is a doctor, the other a health care reporter.

“Bram, our younger son, is a journalist. I think that his concern is people, society, not primarily health care,” Smith said.

The week leading up to the ceremony was filled with receptions, parties and meetings with the most esteemed academics in the world. When it’s all over, Smith and Sable will return home to Columbia, where they will finally have a moment to stop, take a breath and process all that has happened.

“I think that, you know, George and I have a really good marriage, and I told somebody that the Nobel Prize is nice,” Sable said. “It’s kind of like the icing on the cake, but the cake was pretty good before, without the icing.”

One thing will be different, though. Smith will go home with one of the world’s most prestigious awards, recognizing that his findings have helped make a difference — though he may have a hard time admitting it.

“At least you know for the latter part of our careers that we would like to do something that is useful for the world, in general, and make whatever pitiful contribution we can to that,” Smith said.


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