The case of Niels Jerne (excerpts from a book)

Narcissism personality traits in science: learning on Niels Jerne

The book entitled ‘Science as autobiography: The troubled life of Niels Jerne’ of Thomas Söderqvist allows us to penetrate from the interior the development of a narcissist immunologist with all his facets: grandiose dreams, shallow relationships, haughtiness, lack of empathy, a desire to impress, a strategy of self-enhancement, the art of conversation, the chameleon phenotype, entitlement, but also sometimes fragility… All is there! Sadly, his first wife, Tjek, an artist, committed suicide largely caused by Jerne’s infidelity, the second suffered from his sado-masochism, …and  some of his claims in immunology appear to be erroneous (the idiotypic network)! His life and this biography can help us to understand a strong case of narcissism in science. It is important to underline that there is nothing wrong to have dreams of grandeur and successes, if we can sometimes come down from our pedestal. This is the constant need of validation by the others that turns narcissism unhealthy. This book is amazing not for the scientific accomplishments of Jerne (not so clear, actually) but for penetrating the mind of a narcissistic scientist.


Below are extracts from the book of Thomas Söderqvist in the order they appear in the biography reflection the life of Niels Jerne; direct quotes from Niels Jerne are in presented in italics. I mention personality traits linked with narcissism with the statement in [bracket].

‘Niels soon qualified for the company’s annual international [tennis] tournament in London, which had the potential to fulfill his dream of being admired: in one of his nightly images he stood as a tennis champion before an ‘applauding crowd’. In fact, the real tournaments did not go so well ”I usually lost in the very first round” p19 [dream of splendour]

‘Values such as consideration and sympathy were apparently not in young Niels’s repertoire’ p20 [lack of empathy]

‘More and more, Niels regarded himself as unique, although he was sometimes overcome by ‘a feeling of being ordinary’, for example, when he thought about working in a office ‘just like millions of other people’ and realized that he ‘had not yet accomplished anything’ p21 [feeling special]

‘It can also be read as a manifesto for his lifelong problem of balancing the banalities of daily living and striving for the unique, abstract, transcendent, and sublime’ p 24 [feeling special]

‘Did he remember the other lectures? ‘No, because I did not go to them’. …may be his declaring that he did not go to the lecture, a statement that recurs in his account of his studies in Copenhagen ten years later, is part of his self-image as the intelligent young man who developed a certain superior and detached relationship with the academic world’ p31 [feeling special]

‘He remembers that “Tjek [his first wife] was the first woman I made love to”. A month later he wrote a detailed account in his diary of how he had spent his first weeks together with Tjek. Of the 864 hours that had passed, they had been together 294 hours and had had ‘coitus’ 18 times; on the other hand, he had spent only 16 hours in the company of other men. He had slept 190 hours and used 40 hours in getting dressed, washing and shaving; his studies had suffered, at only 98 hours. For several months to come, Niels kept similar minutes of their relationship; later he referred to ‘one hour-per-day together statistics’ p43 [this quantitative view of love evokes a lack of emotional intimacy]

‘When reminded of it in one of our conversations, he did not remember that he had been fired, but stressed that he himself had decided to leave the job……And when reading the draft of this chapter, he protested; he thought the tone was too negative. Why? Well he answered, “it disturbs me that the public will see that I dropped this and I dropped that”’.p46 [vulnerability to critics]

‘A few years earlier he had written that the fear of “criticism from my fellow men” was a pervasive feature of his personality’ p48. [vulnerability to critics]

‘He described his tendency to take part in conversation without really taking any fixed standpoint as the expression of “an unusual (intellectual) flexibility”. He also possessed, he said, “a fine sense of other individuals’ attitudes towards life, at least once I had known them for a while”. P57 [intellectual flexibility, oratory skills but also cognitive empathy]

‘In a letter to Tjek , he expressed his contempt for “that clot of sluggish, weeping, struggling people, each desperately clutching the other, who live in a delusionary outer world which they populate with their stupid narrow-mindedness and with the shadows of their day-dreams, pale with undernourishment and gross spiritual poverty, while they move, as if blind, towards eternal annihilation”’ p72  [feeling special and superior]

‘Several of his colleagues would regard him as “haughty”. p72 [feeling special and superior]

‘He always maintained that science is an elite activity that can be popularized only with difficulty. He consistently followed the principle of fewer but better. “A single good [scientist]” he proclaimed “is worth more than any number whatsoever of middling ones”’ p72 [feeling special and superior, elitism]

‘…he  hardly considered taking an active part in the Resistance [during world war II], in contrast to his friend Torp, who dropped his studies because of his engagement in underground activities. “It was a thing like going up to Elsinore and laying bomb on the rails; it gave you a short popularity” p81 [feeling special, depreciating other accomplishment]

‘In our conversations, Jerne returned again and again to the rankit calculation episode [his first discovery], describing how he found ‘a method that only took two hours for each calculation…and when Ipsen came back he said, ‘you are a genius’ and then we published my method, that is my first paper”. He says that for the first time he realized that he was smarter than Ipsen, “and that made me a little watsonistic’… The story about the rankits thus entered Jerne’s repertoire of stories about how he gradually discovered that he was brilliant and thereby overcame his feeling of being a failure’. p85 [Oversizing his discovery, feeling superior]

Niels’ view of the scientist: ‘Such a scientist does not allow himself to be blocked by inconvenient facts or by the confusing life of the laboratory. Such a scientist can attain the sublime through science by abstracting from concrete details, thereby reaching out to universal connections, and by putting his personal imprint on the world’ p87 [elitism and specialness, capacity to distort the reality]

‘Niels swore that his relationship with Erna [one of his mistress] meant nothing in the long run. He told Tjek [his wife] that he thought about their marriage with “eternity thoughts”; he wanted to “to do his best” and “never leave it”. Nevertheless, he later confided to his diary that from time-to-time he enticed Erna with “marriage plans” and several times tried to leave Tjek, but each time, “after a few days, I found it unbearable”. Seen from outside, the whole thing was quite banal – he wanted to have wife and mistress – but Niels did not have such a banal self–image. p89 [feeling of specialness, need of excitation, short-term mating strategy]

‘In fact, Jerne’s discovery of the dilution effect made so great an impression on him that he long chose to overlook the fact that it was already known in the serological literature… Objectively, he may only have repeated what others had already found out.  But subjectively, he experienced it as his own discovery….’p94 [self-serving bias, oversizing]

‘This is in contrast to Jerne who saw himself as the one who carried out the mental work while others handled the methodological and technical details’ p113 [self-serving bias, oversizing, feeling special]

‘During our conversations Jerne referred to ”the happiness of feeling superior to a lot of people” and declared that he felt himself to be “superior or more intelligent that the other scientists”. He asserted that many researchers he met, both at the Serum Institute and later in life, were “so stupid that the lady in the bread-shop is more intelligent than them, she has an awareness and an ability to observe and articulate her observations”. p121 [feeling superior, contempt]

‘Other anecdotes reinforce the picture of Jerne’s urge to take an opposing position: He could sit and listen quite a while, seemingly interested in this or that, whether it was something scientific or some perfectly ordinary common knowledge of one kind or another, and sit there with his cigarette, and then interrupt, and say at last, ‘No I really don’t believe that, I think so-and-so’ and that would be something to the contrary p122. [the art of discussion, the ability to stay visible par opposition]

 I get my best idea standing on the back of a streetcar” he related, for “there you can meditate so wonderfully, undisturbed and free.  So I no longer bicycle at all” p141 [feeling different, mythologize his life]

‘And sometimes at parties – fantastic parties with “lots of wine and lots of laughing and talking about everything”- Jerne could suddenly become very depressed and disappear”. He wanted to be alone when he was feeling low’  p159 [alcool (another to distort the reality), period of vulnerability upon aging]

‘in our discussion, Jerne admitted that he consciously antedated the event in the Festschrift article [His ‘major’ discovery on selection theory] so that no one would suspect that he has been inspired by Delbrück or anybody else at CalTech and hence he might not have been the sole and independent constructor of the selection theory’ p171… ‘After Jerne’s theory was published, in November 1955, assertions came from several quarters that he had only resurrected Ehrlich’s theory, an allegation against which Jerne reacted stiffly.’ p178….’ ‘The episode suggests that he was a strong scientist who expressed anxiety over being under the influence of another thinker, that he wanted to be unique, that he opted for originality rather than displaying his connectedness with tradition’ p179 [distortion of reality bt reating a mythic moment, self-serving bias in the discovery]

‘He believed, however, that there are a fourth type, namely those who “by no means occupy any point of view” but who are “so clever that they always have a set of viewpoints in stock, which can be put to use on different occasions.” Such a person he characterized as a “useless nihilist”. Because he had labelled himself as both useless and a nihilist on several occasions, he apparently felt most akin to this category’ p187 [the art of discussion]

‘The virus group [Delbrück ‘s group where Jerne did a training] socialized a lot, sometimes at parties but especially on the famous excursions to the nearby California deserts, which were ‘the favorite means of entertaining visitors’. For Jerne – who loved to see himself as an urban intellectual strolling on the rue de Rivoli, drinking a Pernod at Le Dôme or rooting through secondhand book stalls on Fiolstraede in Copenhagen – this was a barbaric activity. And directly injurious’ p195 [Difficulty to participate in the communal life, feeling different]

‘He later came to be considered very theoretical and “extremely economical” in his experimental planning; it is said that he thought intensively before going into the laboratory, after which he carried out “ one or two critical experiments” pp196 [detachment from lower rank lab work, feeling superior]

Jerne declares that he “did absolutely nothing” during his year at Kerckhoff [in the Delbrück lab where Jerne had a short stay]….He explains “you have to make everything yourself, you had to find your rabbits somewhere, you have to sterilize your plates in a sterilizer and all that. I wasn’t used to that. In Copenhagen, I just pick up the phone in the Serum Institute and said, “I want twenty sterilized plates with agar…..Did Delbruck know? “Oh yes, “ I said to him I can’t work here, because there’s nobody who provides what I need” p197. [difficulty to lab work by himself, need to get thing by others]

‘Accordingly, Jerne notified Lourie that he was now seriously considering accepting his offer but let him also know that he would prefer to avoid submitting a formal application’ p213 [feeling special, impossibility to appear using the normal way]

‘And they had deep discussions on many nights, leaving Bussard [another immunologist] with the conclusion that Jerne was a person who primarily “plays with ideas….he plays in his own mind”’ p224 [self-absorbed]

Jerne also proposed a number of innovative terms for the immune system: ‘epitope’ instead of ‘antigen determinant’, ‘paratope’ for the portion of the antibody molecule that determines the specificity, ‘idiotope’….’xenotope’, ‘pantachotope’ and other more or less exotic words [ex quoted later ‘trans-Immunology’, ‘cis-immunology’]…..’ p225 [the use of catchy keywords is  a strategy for scientists to capture attention]

“Prigge backed Jerne wholeheartedly as his successor, but the salary that Jerne expected proved a stumbling block. His requirement of keeping the WHO [World Health Organization] salary level would have made him one of the most highly paid officials in the state of Hessen’ p227 [feeling superior, entitled]

‘For the first time in his life he faced the task of teaching students; during that first fall, however, he gave only a lecture or two” p235 [cannot contribute to communal task, entitled]

‘During a lecture in the fall of 1963, for example, he claimed that immunology has nothing whatever to do with defense mechanisms’ p241 [need of differentiation from others, immunology as a special science, extreme statement]

‘His duties as professor were confined to a couple of lectures per term to the medical students; furthermore, he declared that he did not want to teach microbiology, since it has nothing to do with immunology (“bacteriophages don’t make antibodies”)’ p250 [need of differentiation from others, immunology as a special science]

As a director of the Basel Institute of Immunology: During his ten years at the institute, he is said to have gone to the laboratories only twice, once with a visiting scientist, once to pick up his wife, who had gone astray’ p269 [far from the laboratory reality]

‘A theme reminiscent of his testament of 9 August 1954, namely that it was “nice” that the antigen did not participate in the production of antibodies’ p271 [polemic statement, opposition to common view]

‘ One personal trait that comes up again and again, both in the archive and in talks with Jerne, his friends, and his colleagues, is his lifelong passion for conversation. It was one of his great talents, at the center of his social existence’ p277….. [the art of conversation, speaking but not doing so much]

And at the last page of the book when choosing the title of his biography

A dialog between the biographer and Jerne :

‘I  [the biographer] asked to speak with Jerne, and few minutes later he came to the telephone. What do you mean? I [the biographer] asked. Why don’t you like the title of the book?’

There was silence. ‘you want to call it ‘what struggle to escape’, right?

He replied a last. ‘isn’t that from a poem by Keats?’

‘Yes’ I answered

And the line before it is ‘what mad pursuit’?’

‘Yes’ I answered

Which is also the title of Francis Crick’s autobiography

‘That’s right’ I answered still not sure just what his drift was.

Then out it came loud and clear, without any uncertainty in his voice: ‘I don’t want to be second to Francis Crick’.

That was our last conversation….


And to conclude, Thomas Söderqvist, the biographer writes: ‘All his life was a “struggle to escape”. He wanted to be unique. To be number two would signal failure. I am convinced that this kind of tragedy is more widespread in today’s scientific culture that we ordinarily wish to acknowledge (pxxvi)