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Harald zur Hausen (here in 2008)


Ronald Wittek / dpa

He was used to being the scientific outsider at times. "I already know this role, it doesn't bother me," Harald zur Hausen said in an interview with SPIEGEL a few years ago. The cancer researcher had been working since the seventies to prove that certain sexually transmitted skin wart viruses – so-called human papillomaviruses (HPV) – can cause cervical cancer.

The pathogens are extremely widespread and can be transmitted during sexual intercourse. In most cases, it fights the immune system with success. But sometimes the body does not succeed in eliminating the viruses quickly – and the fatal development of a tumor threatens.

Initially, there was a great deal of skepticism among colleagues. But zur Hausen was able to conclusively substantiate his claims. What followed was a success story: Zur Hausen's findings created the conditions for the development of a broadly used vaccine against cervical cancer and other tumors, which has been approved on the European market since 2006. In 2008, zur Hausen received half of the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work. The other went to Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier for the discovery of the HIV virus that causes AIDS.

Cervical cancer, in turn, is one of the most common cancers in women. In more than 20 states, the disease even tops the list of cancers. The vaccine has radically changed the situation, in Germany the vaccination is recommended for girls and boys between the ages of 9 and 14.

"It is no exaggeration to say that Harald zur Hausen has opened up a whole new dimension in cancer prevention," said Michael Baumann, Chairman of the Executive Board and Scientific Director of the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg. "With him, we have lost an outstanding scientist who has made groundbreaking achievements in the field of tumor virology."

Zur Hausen was born on 11 March 1936 in Gelsenkirchen. He studied medicine in Bonn, Hamburg and Düsseldorf. After his appointment in 1983, he headed the renowned DKFZ for 20 years.

Yet another new theory about the end of the research career

Even after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2008, the primary interest of the "persistent doubter" (SPIEGEL) zur Hausen was the role of viral infections in the development of cancer. Until old age, he came to the DKFZ and researched pathogens that could be associated with the development of breast and colon cancer.

Because that was his last theory, which was also highly controversial at the presentation – at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm: There may be a connection between milk and beef consumption and the development of breast and colon cancer.

"My thesis is not exactly popular," zur Hausen admitted self-critically. The question has not yet been conclusively clarified. But in the end, zur Hausen was right about his first steep thesis, the matter of human papillomaviruses. Perhaps the same will be said about his ideas about milk and beef – but unfortunately he won't be able to live to see it.

In the course of his life as a researcher, Harald zur Hausen has been honoured with an impressive number of academic awards. He was the recipient of almost 40 honorary doctorates and numerous honorary professorships. In 2009, zur Hausen was awarded the Grand Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany with Star of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. In 2017, the city of Heidelberg made him an honorary citizen.

Harald zur Hausen died on Sunday at the age of 87.