Image of a cell

Francis P. Rous

  • National Medal of Science
  • Biological Sciences

For the original discovery and continued elaboration of the relationship between viruses and tumors, which has come to form the biologic base for so much of our present research effort on cancer.

Francis P. Rous started his career with a chicken.

In the early 1900s, the medical school grad – head of Rockefeller Institute’s cancer lab – received a Plymouth Rock hen with a large tumor.

Curious, Rous injected pieces of the mass into other hens. Soon, the healthy birds grew tumors, indicating the first known presence of a cancer-causing microbe.

Despite the discovery’s significance, it barely caused a stir.

Scientists spent the next 75 years proving that human cancer, too, could be prompted by viruses. The human papillomavirus, or HPV, emerged as an early definitive link to cervical cancer. Soon, Rous’ discovery became the basis for modern cancer research.

Despite the delayed recognition, Rous remained humble after winning the 1966 Nobel Prize, quoting philosopher William James in his acceptance speech:

“Many of the old are young to life – and that is my state this evening,” Rous said. “I greet you as a fellow student.”