Professor Niels Jerne

Born 23rd December, 1911 (London, United Kingdom) - Died 7th October, 1994 (Castillon-du-Gard, France)

First director of the Basel Institute of Immunology, Jerne's research and theories to explain antibody diversity and formation helped ignite work that laid the foundation for the production of monoclonal antibodies.

Niels Jerne writing in a church somewhere in Europe (Photo credit: Thomas Soderqvist)


The fourth of five children of Danish parents, Niels Jerne spent most of his youth based in Rotterdam. His father was an inventor and industrialist who made money from celluloid signposts and then bacon. During his youth he developed a strong interest in chess, mathematics, literature and languages. Jerne married three times, the first to Ilse Wahl in 1935, a Czech painter who committed suicide in 1945 with whom he had two sons, the second to Adda Sundsig-Hansen in 1948, and finally to Ursula Kohl in 1964.


In 1931 Jerne enrolled at Leiden University pursuing different science courses and classical studies, but then departed in 1934 for the University of Copenhagen to begin a medical degree. He only finished this degree in 1947, after a break of three years working for his father experimenting on bacteriological methods for bacon curing. Between 1947 and 1951 he undertook a doctorate investigating quantitative measures for the binding strength of antibodies.


From 1928 and 1931 Jerne worked for a banana exporting company but left when he realised he had no desire for a business career. Between 1943 and 1962 Jerne was immersed in resolving problems of the biological standardisation of antigens and antisera when employed part-time at the Danish State Serum Institute and then full time for WHO. Following this he took university positions for six years, firstly in Pittsburgh and then Frankfurt. In 1968 he accepted the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche's invitation to found and direct the Basel Institute of Immunology, a position he held until retirement in 1980.


On a practical level Jerne helped construct guidelines for the standardisation of vaccines and sera, including vaccines against smallpox, poliomyelitis, yellow fever, and cholera. He was also at the forefront of fostering international cooperation and training in immunology. On a theoretical level Jerne established an important framework for understanding antibody formation and diversity. He put forward the idea that mammals possess a small repertoire of antibodies in their blood initially and that more copies of antibodies are produced in response to an antibody encountering a foreign substance known as an antigen. Together with Albert Nordin, Jerne also developed the plaque assay test. This gave scientists the ability to visualise and determine the number of antibody-producing cells with the naked eye for the first time. Overall his work helped ignite an explosion of research, helping pave the way to monoclonal antibodies and the granting of his Nobel Prize in 1984.

Niels Jerne: timeline of key events

Jerne shared the 1984 Nobel Prize for Medicine for 'theories concerning the specificity in development and control of the immune system' and laying the foundation for the production of monoclonal antibodies.1911-12-23T00:00:00+0000Niels Jerne, a Danish immunologist, David Talmage, and Ameican immunologist, and Macfarlane Burnet, an Austrialian immunologist, independently develop the clonal selection theory. This proposes that the cell is repsonsible for making antibodies and that a small number of antibodies can distinguish between a larger number of antigen determinants. 1955-01-01T00:00:00+0000Niels Jerne, Danish immunologist, and Albert Nordin develop a plaque test which allows for the first time scientists to visualise and determine the number of antibody-producing cells with the naked eye. 1963-01-01T00:00:00+0000Funded by the multinational pharmaceutical company F. Hoffman La Roche, the Basel Institute of Immunology was designed to keep the pharmaceutical company keep ahead of developments in biology, cell biology and biochemistry. It rapidly became the world's largest centres for immunological research and antibody investigation.1969-01-01T00:00:00+0000Niels Jerne, Danish immunologist, electrifies research into antibodies with his proposition that within the body there are a vast number of immune responses going on all the time and that antibodies form not only to external antigens but also in response to internal antigens within the body. 1973-01-01T00:00:00+0000Jerne shared the 1984 Nobel Prize for Medicine for 'theories concerning the specificity in development and control of the immune system' and laying the foundation for the production of monoclonal antibodies.1994-10-07T00:00:00+0000
Date Event People Places
23 Dec 1911Niels K Jerne was born in London, United KingdomJerneBasel Institute for Immunology
1955 - 1955Clonal selection theoryJerne, Talmage, BurnetDanish National Serum Institute, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute
1963Plaque test allows visualisation of antibodiesJerne, NordinUniversity of Pittsburgh
1969Basel Institute of Immunology foundedJerneBasel Institute of Immunology
1973Antibody network theoryJerneBasel Institute of Immunology
7 Oct 1994Niels Kaj Jerne diedJerneBasel Institute for Immunology

23 Dec 1911

Niels K Jerne was born in London, United Kingdom

1955 - 1959

Clonal selection theory


Plaque test allows visualisation of antibodies


Basel Institute of Immunology founded


Antibody network theory

7 Oct 1994

Niels Kaj Jerne died