Who is Rolf Zinkernagel?

Last Editorial Review: 4/1/2002

Not that you should know, Rolf Zinkernagel is a celebrated Swiss physician and scientist who with Peter Doherty received the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for, as the award put it, discoveries concerning the specificity of the cell mediated immune defence.

Rolf M. Zinkernagel was born on January 6, 1944 in Basel, Switzerland. He entered medical school at the University there in 1962 and graduated as a physician in 1968. (in Europe a student generally goes straight from high school around age 18 and spends 6 years in medical school).

After medical school, Zinkernagel did not become a practicing physician but trained in biomedical research in Switzerland and Australia: in the Laboratory for Electron Microscopy in Basel (1969- 1970), the Institute of Biochemistry at Lausanne (1971-1973), and the Department of Microbiology of the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National University in Canberra from 1973- 1975. Along the way he was awarded an MD (for a doctoral thesis) in Basel in 1970 and a PhD from the Australian National University in Canberra in 1975.

Zinkernagel and Doherty in 1995 had won the Lasker Award which commonly heralds the Nobel Prize. (Since 1946, 56 winners of the Lasker Awards have later gotten Nobel Prize. And for 10 consecutive years (1979-1989) the Nobel Prize went to a scientist who had won a Lasker).

The 1996 Nobel Prize bestowed upon Zinkernagel and Doherty was for research they had done in Canberra in 1973-75, over 20 years before, on how the immune system recognizes virus-infected cells. During studies of the response of mice to viruses, they found that lymphocytes (white blood cells) must recognize both the virus and certain "self" molecules in order to kill the virus-infected cells.

The "self" molecules in the research done by Zinkernagel and Doherty were the major histocompatibility antigens, now recognized as key determinants to the success or failure of transplants.

Not to slight Dr. Doherty entirely, he was born in 1940 in Australia and received a BVSc (Bachelor of Veterinary Science) degree in 1962 and a master's (MVSc) degree in 1966 from the University of Queensland. In 1970 he received a PhD from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. He had become a Research Fellow in the Department of Microbiology at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, in Canberra in1972 when Zinkernagel arrived a year later.

Returning to Zinkernagel and Doherty as a team, the scientific principle they discovered was the principle of simultaneous immune recognition of both foreign and "self" molecules.

Today Dr. Zinkernagel is back in Switzerland as the Head of the Institute of Experimental Immunology at the University of Zurich. His co-Nobelist, Dr. Doherty, is now Chairman of the Department of Immunology at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee, USA.

Their Nobel Prize research is a key part of the basic science foundation upon which medicine is built.


  • Zinkernagel RM, Doherty PC. Restriction of in vitro T cell- mediated cytotoxicity in lymphocytic choriomeningitis within a syngenic and semiallogeneic system. Nature 248, 701- 702, 1974.
  • Zinkernagel RM, Doherty PC. Immunological surveillance against altered self components by sensitised T lymphocytes in lymphocytic choriomeningitis. Nature 251, 547-548, 1974.
  • Doherty PC, Zinkernagel RM. A biological role for the major histocompatibility antigens. Lancet, 1406-1409, 1975.
  • Zinkernagel RM, Doherty PC. MHC restricted cytotoxic T cells: Studies on the biological role of polymorphic major transplantation antigens determining T cell restriction specificity. Advances in Immunology 27,51-177, 1979.

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