Obituary: A researcher with all his heart

Nobel Laureate, medical doctor and physiologist Jens Christian Skou, was an ardent advocate for the need to carry out research in Denmark without having a strategic eye for external funding. Under the conditions that today’s researchers are subject to, he would probably not have earned the most coveted and prestigious honorary award in the world. Emeritus Professor Jens Christian Skou has now passed away, 99 years old.

2018.05.29 | Nanna Jespersgaard

Nobel Laureate Jens Christian Skou

Nobel Laureate Jens Christian Skou in the laboratory. Photo: Lars Kruse, Aarhus University

“People forget that research is similar to drilling for oil: Obviously, the platform producing oil must have the necessary resources, but we all know that one day the well will run dry. So we must constantly drill new wells, even though we run the risk of not finding any oil.”

These were the words of then ninety-year-old Nobel Laureate, medical doctor and physiologist Jens Christian Skou in an interview with the former university newspaper Campus, on one of the key issues for which he will be remembered: That having researchers spend so much time applying for external funding for their work is detrimental for modern research. Forced by circumstances and politicians who do not understand what research is all about. 

Skou himself received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1997 for his discovery of the sodium-potassium pump, a membrane pump that is necessary for the functioning of nerve cells, among other things. Since then, researchers in Aarhus and around the world have studied how the pump may be involved in a number of different diseases; but there was never a strategic or targeted path leading to the ground-breaking discovery. Skou was therefore fond of remarking that he would have ended up in the pile of projects that were ‘not eligible for funding' according to today’s criteria:

“When I claimed that an enzyme could transport ions, people said I was talking nonsense. I would never have been given the funding to investigate this under the current system," said Jens Christian Skou in 2008 to the Campus magazine.

Fascinated by spinal anaesthesia

Emeritus professor Jens Christian Skou began at the Department of Physiology in 1954. His importance for health science research at Aarhus University as a whole, and the Department of Biomedicine in particular, has been immeasurable.

Jens Christian Skou took his first step into the world of research and teaching already in the 1940s. Working as a resident doctor in the town of Hjørring, he developed an ambition to become a surgeon and later a consultant in the field. At that time, this meant writing a higher doctoral dissertation. Skou was therefore employed at the Department of Physiology in Aarhus, where his dissertation was based on an interest in anaesthesia, which in the 1940s was limited to chloroform and ether. Both meant bad experiences for the patients, and while still a hospital doctor in Hjørring, Jens Christian Skou became interested in the mechanisms behind spinal and local anaesthesia.

The breakthrough came in 1957 – the rest is history

The dissertation was completed in 1951 and dealt with the correlation between the anaesthetic ability of the substances and their solubility in fats. Following this, the plan was for Jens Christian Skou to return to the hospital environment. But that was not how things worked out. A researcher was born who wanted to obtain in-depth insight into the effect of local anaesthetics on the nerve cell membrane.

The scientific breakthrough came in 1957, but the test results were first taken seriously some years later when the prestigious scientific journal Physiology Review asked Skou to write a summary article on enzymes as transport systems. And, as an American would say, the rest is history. The Danish researcher Skou had discovered the pump which triggers the transport of ions through the cell membrane, and which is responsible for the voltage difference forming the entire basis of nerve impulses and muscle contractions.

Even though Jens Christian Skou stated on several occasions that the Nobel Prize in 1997 marked both the high-point and the conclusion of his research career, he still managed to get a scientific article published in 2015 in the Journal of Psychiatric Research at the age of 96.

Research lives on

During his final years, Skou prioritised enjoying daily life together with his wife, nurse Ellen-Margrethe Skou. During the period 1986-97 she was a skilled and committed vice-chair of The Central Scientific Ethical Committee, which is appointed by the The Danish Medical Research Council, and Jens Christian Skou often highlighted the credit she also deserved for the results of his work. The couple lived together in their own house in Risskov almost to the last, made possible by an outstanding physical condition as Jens Christian Skou always played sports and looked after his body.

At Aarhus University, Jens Christian Skou’s memory lives on. In the hearts of those who knew him, those who continued his research into ion pumps, and in an even more tangible form. This October, the Department of Biomedicine will inaugurate a new building complex, which has been named "The Skou Building".

The hope is that new generations will remember Skou’s achievements and perhaps also his approach to research as an analogy to drilling for oil. As Skou himself put it in 2008; in many cases, striking oil outweighs the costs of the unsuccessful drilling.

Jens Christian Skou is an honorary citizen of his native town of Lemvig in Western Jutland, where he was born and grew up as the son of a timber merchant. He leaves behind his wife Ellen Margrethe Skou, two daughters and sons-in-law together with his grandchildren.


Life

  • Born 8 October 1918 in Lemvig, Denmark
  • Graduated as a medical doctor from the University of Copenhagen in 1944
  • Medical doctor at Hjørring Hospital 1944 and at Orthopaedic Hospital, Aarhus, 1947
  • Associate professor, Department of Physiology, Aarhus University, 1963
  • Professor and head of department, Department of Physiology, 1963
  • Higher doctoral degree, 1965
  • Professor and head of department, Department of Physiology, 1978
  • Emeritus professor, 1988

Awards and titles

  • Leo award, 1959
  • Novo Prize, 1965
  • Anders Retzius's gold medal, 1978
  • Eric K. Fernström Foundation's Grand Nordic Prize, 1985
  • Honorary doctor at the University of Copenhagen, 1986 • The Prakash Datta medal, 1988
  • The Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1997
  • Member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters
  • Member of the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher, Leopoldina
  • The European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO)
  • Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences, USA
  • Honorary member of the Japanese Biochemical Society
  • Honorary member of the American Physiological Society
  • Academia Europaea 

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