Acceptance Speech – Rome, 13.11.2002


Walter Gehring

2002 Balzan Prize for Developmental Biology

For his seminal contribution to the discovery of a universal principle underlying the body plan and eye development in metazoans.

Mister President,
Officers of the Balzan Foundation,
Members of the General Prize Committee,
Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is a great honor and encouragement for me to receive the prestigious Balzan Prize 2002 for developmental biology. Having devoted a large fraction of my life to science, it is most rewarding to be selected by my peers for this distinguished award, and I want to thank the Prize Committee and the Eugenio Balzan Foundation most heartily for this generous Prize.

A scientist must constantly search for the truth and be self-critical at all times. This involves a lot of hard work and the rewards are rare. I was lucky to make two important scientific discoveries so far, the homeobox as an universal principle underlying animal and human development, and the serendipitous discovery of the master control gene for eye development. With his good sense of humor Ed Fischer has defined serendipity as follows: “Serendipity is, when you look for the needle in the haystack, and you find the farmer’s pretty daughter”. Serendipity is often involved in discoveries, but the mind of the scientist has to be prepared for the discovery as Louis Pasteur has pointed out, otherwise he misses the opportunity. Furthermore, scientists nowadays do not work in an ivory tower in splendid isolation, but with a team of collaborators. Therefore, the honor does not only go to the individual scientist, but also to the team as a whole. Numerous students, postdoctoral fellows and technicians have contributed to this work and they all deserve recognition. My sincere thanks go also to my former teachers and tutors who have educated me, and I owe much of the success to their guidance. Finally I want to thank my mother, my late father, my wife and my family for bearing with me over all these years, an absent minded professor hidden either in the laboratory or between immense piles of paper, or travelling from meeting to meeting. Nevertheless, I enjoy science tremendously, every successful experiment, every fulfilled prediction, and of course an award like the Balzan Prize is a highlight in the life of a scientist. I would like to use the funds of the Prize to carry out an ambitious project to apply our knowledge obtained in basic science to the prevention of retinal degeneration in elderly people.
Thank you for your encouragement and support.

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