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Famous scholars from Kiel:

Otto Fritz Meyerhof

The work of the 1922 winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine laid the foundations for modern biochemistry. He worked at the Kiel Institute for Physiology from 1912 to 1924.

Otto Meyerhof was born in Hanover on 12 April 1884 and grew up in Berlin. He studied medicine and philosophy in Freiburg, Berlin, Strasbourg and Heidelberg. His interest in the research for which he later became famous was aroused by German biochemist Otto Warburg (1883-1970), whom he met in the Department of General Medicine at Heidelberg University Hospital. Warburg, who won the Nobel prize himself in 1931, was already analysing intracellular molecular processes in order to gain an insight into the complex metabolic chemistry and biochemical energetics of living cells. In 1912, Meyerhof replaced his former teacher Rudolf Höber (1873-1953), who had been called to the Chair of Physiology in Kiel in 1910. One year later, he was awarded his postdoctoral lecturing qualification. His inaugural lecture "Zur Energetik der Zellvorgänge" (The Energetics of Cell Processes) later became one of the most successful scientific monographs of the last century as "Chemical Dynamics of Life Phenomena".

His marriage to mathematics student and painter Hedwig Schallenberg in 1914 produced a daughter and two sons. In memory of the life of Otto Meyerhof, his son Gottfried writes: "He liked to walk and therefore lived as close as possible to his place of work. In Kiel, it only took him a few minutes to walk from his apartment in Niemannsweg to the Institute for Physiology (which was also situated in Düsternbrook and destroyed in the war)." (1)

He continued his research on the physiological chemistry of muscle using living frog muscle, a tissue that was easy to acquire. In 1922, he was promoted from associate professor to professor at Kiel University and shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine with English physiologist Archibald Vivian Hill (1886-1977) for his discovery of the fixed relationship between the consumption of oxygen and the metabolism of lactic acid in muscles.

The two scientists worked independently of one another, mostly using different methods. Hill analysed muscle heat production, whereas Meyerhof used chemical methods to study the oxygen consumption of muscles and conversion of carbohydrate to lactic acid. Meyerhof discovered that glycogen, the storage form of glucose, is converted to lactic acid in the absence of oxygen. However, in the presence of oxygen, lactic acid production decreases sharply and the body activates other biochemical response pathways. "He was also the first to calculate thermodynamics, i.e. the energy obtained from glucose", reports Kiel biochemist Professor (emeritus) Roland Schauer. He measured the amount of energy (calories) produced by burning glucose and then demonstrated that the same amount of energy is obtained from glucose and released gradually during metabolism. According to Schauer, "this precise quantitative analysis of the chemical reaction that occurs during metabolism really is fundamental".

Incidentally, the earlier theory that muscles ache because lactic acid builds up in them during anaerobic activity is no longer valid. This is understandable, as the lactic acid is completely broken down not long after the exercise stops, whereas the aching in the muscles often does not start until hours later and lasts much longer. The aching is caused by microscopic tears in the structure of the muscle cells, which are themselves caused by overextension of the muscles during unusually high levels of physical stress.

In spite of his early fame, Meyerhof was not given a chair in Kiel. This was probably because both Höber and Meyerhof were of Jewish descent. Just before the winner of the Nobel prize was announced, the Faculty of Medicine nominated August Pütter (1879-1929), rather than Meyerhof, for Director of the Institute of Physiological Chemistry (known as the Institute for Biochemistry today).

In 1924, Meyerhof left Kiel for Berlin, where he became Director of the Institute of Physiology at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Cell Physiology. In 1929, he was appointed Director of the Institute of Physiology at the newly founded Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (known as the Max Planck Institute today) of Medical Research in Heidelberg and Honorary Professor of the Faculty of Medicine. A tribute paid by the University of Heidelberg in 2001 to mark the 50th anniversary of his death stated: "For the first time, Meyerhof had excellent working conditions. The laboratories had been built to his specifications and everything had been organised to make his work with many very sensitive methods and devices easier." (2)

The Heidelberg research team led by Meyerhof was very successful at explaining the individual reactions that take place in glycolysis. In total, it described 30 per cent of the enzymes in this main metabolic pathway for energy production. During these studies in Meyerhof's laboratory, Karl Lohmann discovered another biochemically important substance in adenosine triphosphate, which is abbreviated to ATP. This substance is synonymous with biochemical energy.

Over time, however, working conditions deteriorated for the Jewish scientist. Pressure from the National Socialists led to revocation of his teaching licence in 1935 and he decided to leave Germany in 1938. He went to Paris, where he became Research Director of the Institut de Biologie Physico-Chimique, but was forced to flee to the USA via Spain and Portugal in 1940. He was offered the Chair of Physiological Chemistry at Pennsylvania University in Philadelphia, which enabled him to carry on working. He also pursued his interest in music, literature and particularly art, encouraged by his wife who was working as a painter. He died from the consequences of a heart attack on 6 October 1951.

Kerstin Nees

(1) Gottfried Meyerhof: Erinnerungen an das Leben von Otto Meyerhof in Deutschland.
In: Naturwissenschaftliche Rundschau. 44. Jahrg. Heft 19. 1991. 384 – 386.



Glycolysis is the first stage in the breakdown of glucose and the basis of energy metabolism in all forms of life, from micro-organisms to man. It is the only metabolic pathway that is common to almost all organisms, which indicates that it has very early origins; glycolysis may have developed in the first prokaryotes (cells with no nucleus) 3,500 million years ago. In this biochemical process, one molecule of glucose is converted into two molecules of pyruvic acid (pyruvate) via a sequence of ten enzyme-controlled reactions. In prokaryotes and in predominantly anaerobic (without oxygen) cells or tissues such as skeletal muscle, pyruvate is metabolised to lactic acid (lactate) or, as with many yeasts, alcohol (ethanol) and carbon dioxide. "Clarification of this important metabolic pathway was the beginning of traditional biochemistry and the key to modern molecular biology", stresses Roland Schauer.

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