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Professor Jacob B Natvig 1934 – 2021

Jonsson, R, Ljunggren, H-G, Wigzell, H, et al. Jacob B. Natvig (1934-2021), one of the founders of Scandinavian Journal of Immunology. Scand J Immunol. 2021; 94:e13053. https://doi.org/10.1111/sji.13053

The BSI was saddened to learn about the recent death of Professor Jacob B Natvig. He was President of the International Union of Immunological Societies (IUIS) from 1989 to 1992 and one of the founders of Scandinavian Journal of Immunology, making significant contributions to the field over decades. 

Jacob B Natvig, leading Scandinavian immunologist and major figure in the International Union of Immunological Societies, died peacefully in 2021. In 1971 he published, in Nature New Biology, the first paper showing that surface-bound immunoglobulin was a marker for B lymphocytes in humans. He went on to publish over 400 publications and influenced many Norwegian medical students through his textbook Medisinsk immunologi which he wrote with Morton Harboe, who coincidentally died the day before Natvig. An enthusiastic and popular teacher, Natvig was also welcoming and encouraging to young scientists. I still remember with pleasure, as a new postdoc in the 1970s, meeting Jacob at a remote conference hotel in the snowy wilds of Norway and being warmly welcomed to the scientific community and introduced to the strenuous exercise of cross-country skiing by Jacob and his wife Harriet.

Jacob had lived through interesting times; he later recalled his wartime experience, as a five-year-old child, of walking in a column of refugees, fleeing the German soldiers. He trained in medicine at the Oslo University Hospital – the Rikshospitalet – where he also worked as a porter while pursuing his studies. He was later to muse on what a useful experience this had been when he became the director of the hospital. Qualifying in 1959 he did his national service as a doctor in the Norwegian Navy reflecting his strong maritime family background.

Research for his doctorate was at the Broegelmann Research Laboratory at the University of Bergen. This was pivotal in setting him on the pathway for his lifetime of research. Eric Waaler, the discoverer of rheumatoid factor – anti-IgG autoantibodies, was the first dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Bergen and later the rector of the university. He was instrumental in setting up the research laboratory following a generous legacy from a merchant, Johan Broegelmann, and setting the research focus on immunology and particularly anti-γ-globulins. Natvig was the second person to gain his doctorate at the laboratory, in 1966, on ‘Studies on the specificities of γ-globulin and anti-globulin factors in human sera'.

Henry Kunkel, at the Rockefeller University in New York, was carrying out detailed ultracentrifugal studies on the interaction of rheumatoid factors with IgG, finding high sedimentation immune complexes in patient sera. Following completion of his thesis Natvig set off for a year’s postdoc in Kunkel’s laboratory. This widened his horizons and on his return to Norway in 1967, at the age of 32, he became the first head of the Institute of Immunology and Rheumatology at the Rikshospitalet. This was to become a major international centre for basic and clinical immunology. For much of the time Natvig was the most cited Norwegian author in biomedicine. In 1972 he founded, with Morten Harboe, the Scandinavian Journal of Immunology and he remained principal editor until 2001. The inaugural paper in the first issue being Froland and Natvig’s ‘Surface-bound immunoglobulin from normal and immunodeficient humans’, their seminal follow up to their Nature paper.

In 1978 he moved on to become the director of the Rikshospitalet. He had clear objectives: to improve financial controls, to rebuild the hospital on a new site, and a more secret objective – to introduce heart transplantation to the hospital. He succeeded in all his targets but not without some descension leading to the board asking him to consider resigning his post. Administration’s loss was immunology’s gain and he returned to active research in 1986, continuing until 2005, and going back to his first love of anti-globulins and rheumatoid factors, but now exploiting the advances of patient-derived monoclonal autoantibodies.

Natvig was a passionate internationalist for immunology. He was involved in the setting up of the International Union of Immunological Societies – Councillor 1971–77, Secretary General 1977–83, Treasurer 1983–86, Vice-President 1986–89, President 1989-92 and President of the 8th International Congress of Immunology in Budapest. He played a key role in the establishment of the Federation of Immunological Societies of Asia-Oceania and was very concerned to help develop immunological societies in Africa – editing the Proceedings of the First IUIS African Immunology Meeting. He was unhappy with the unequal access to science careers in developing countries compared with more wealthy countries.

Upon his retirement he took up another career in the history of medicine, becoming chairman of the Board for the National Medical Museum Foundation from 2002 to 2014 and actively organising workshops, exhibitions and successfully saving the old maternity clinic from redevelopment.

Natvig will be remembered as an extremely hard working and intensely active collaborator. He seemed to be everywhere at scientific meetings, and he somehow knew just when to telephone to ask how our experiments were performing – usually when we were behind or having a problem. But overwhelmingly a terrific enthusiast for immunology. Always keen to discuss research and full of more questions to answer. A giant of the subject but someone who it was a great pleasure to have known and with whom to work.

Frank C Hay
Emeritus Professor of Immunology St George’s, University of London