NEW YORK — Jens Christian Skou, whose discovery of a vital mechanism in the body’s cells earned him the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1997, died May 28 in Aarhus, Denmark. He was 99.
His death was confirmed by Lars Bo Nielsen, the dean of the faculty of health at Aarhus University, where Dr. Skou spent nearly all of his career.
Dr. Skou was best known for a discovery he made in 1957 while studying the leg nerves of shore crabs. The discovery led him to conclude that an enzyme in the body serves as a kind of pump that regulates the amount of potassium and sodium ions inside cells.
That movement of ions is the basis for many of the body’s functions, like nerve impulses, muscle contractions and digestion.
His findings formed a cornerstone of the present-day understanding of how the body works, and scientists have since studied the pump for the role it plays in a variety of diseases.
But the practical application for his research was never the point, Nielsen said. Instead, Dr. Skou was a passionate proponent of basic science, driven by a desire to learn more about how the body worked, untethered to questions about how his research would eventually be used.
“What he did was curiosity-based research,” Nielsen said. “When he started out his research, nobody would even know that there would be so many diseases associated with it.”
Dr. Skou was born on Oct. 8, 1918, in Lemvig, a town in western Denmark, to a wealthy family of timber and coal merchants. The eldest of four children, he recalled growing up in a timber yard, which he said made an “excellent playground.” School, he wrote in an autobiographical sketch for the Nobel committee, “was a minor part of life.”
When Jens was 12, his father died of pneumonia, and at 15 he left home for boarding school, finishing his studies in 1937. He decided to become a doctor after playing tennis with a medical student, he said, and he began his course that fall at the University of Copenhagen.
He earned his medical degree in 1944, while the Germans were occupying Denmark during World War II. He took a residency at a hospital in northern Denmark and, in 1947, found a position at the Institute for Medical Physiology at Aarhus University. There, he planned to write his doctoral dissertation on anesthetics, with the goal of eventually becoming a surgeon.
The doctoral thesis was completed in 1951, but by then Dr. Skou had become engrossed by the researcher’s life. “I got so interested in doing scientific work that I decided to continue and give up surgery,” he said in his Nobel autobiography.
From studying anesthetics, Dr. Skou turned his attention to the biological cell and specifically the “pump,” the enzyme that moves sodium and potassium ions across the cell membrane.
“When I claimed that an enzyme could transport ions, people said I was talking nonsense,” Dr. Skou told a reporter in 2008. In today’s academic climate, when many research projects must be tied to a practical use, “I would never have been given the funding to investigate,” he said.
Nielsen said Dr. Skou maintained that spirit late into his career, serving as a mentor to colleagues and keeping an office at the university until a few years ago.
Dr. Skou leaves his wife, Ellen Margrethe Skou; two daughters, Hanne and Karen; and grandchildren.