Ulf von Euler Biography (1905-1983)


Ulf von Euler devoted his life to searching for the chemical signals that control physiological processes. In a career spanning six decades and during which he published four hundred and sixty-five scientific papers, von Euler achieved remarkable success. While still in his twenties, he discovered both substance P and prostaglandin, two important compounds that have since been studied extensively. Prostaglandins have become valuable to doctors for the treatment of many disorders, and may be used to treat blood pressure problems, infertility, peptic ulcers, and asthma. Martin A. Wasserman, in American Pharmacy, wrote on the significance of prostaglandins to modern medicine, stating that "Prostaglandin' signifies more to scientists today than any medical term since cortisone. For millions of people around the world, prostaglandins hold the promise of relief from an extraordinary range of physical discomforts and life-threatening illnesses." In addition, von Euler became the firstperson to isolate and identify noradrenaline, a key transmitter of nerve impulses which control such involuntary functions as the heartbeat. For the later accomplishment, he was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

Ulf Svante von Euler was born on February 7, 1905, in Stockholm, Sweden. Fromthe beginning, he seemed destined for scientific greatness. His father, HansEuler-Chelpin, was a chemist who received the 1929 Nobel Prize for researchinto the role of enzymes in sugar fermentation. Von Euler's mother, Astrid Cleve von Euler , was a professor of botany, and his grandfather, Per Teodor Cleve , was a chemist who discovered the elements holmium and thulium. Moreover, von Euler was also a distant relative of the famous eighteenth-century mathematician, Leonhard Euler .

With the help of his father, von Euler coauthored his first scientific paperwhen he was just seventeen years old. He went on to receive a medical degreefrom the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm in 1930. That same year, with theaid of a Rockefeller Fellowship, von Euler traveled to London to work in thelaboratory of Henry Hallett Dale, who would himself win a Nobel Prizein 1936 for discoveries relating to the chemical transmission of nerve impulses. At the time von Euler arrived, one particular compound--acetylcholine--was the focus of most of the study in Dale's laboratory.

It was while von Euler was conducting an experiment involving acetylcholine that he made his first significant observation. He noticed that a section of rabbit intestine would contract whenever it was exposed to an intestinal extract. Surprisingly, though, the addition of atropine to the extract fluid did not suppress the contraction, as was expected. Young von Euler exuberantly declared that he had discovered a new biologically active substance--a bold claim that was soon borne out.

Along with John H. Gaddum , a senior assistant at the lab, von Euler spent the next few months systematically studying the effects of this newly identified compound. The two men demonstrated that extracts of brain would also contract the rabbit gut, and that the extracts that accomplished this result also had the effect of lowering the blood pressure as well. In order to carry out their investigations, the men used a purified preparation , abbreviated "P." Thus, quite unintentionally, the chemical agent causing these effects became known as Substance P. Back in Sweden, von Euler established that this substance had the properties of a polypeptide, a molecular chain of amino acids (thebuilding blocks of proteins).

Von Euler returned to the Karolinska Institute, where he was made an assistant professor of pharmacology and physiology. In 1939, he was named professor and chairman of the physiology department there, a position in which he remained until his retirement in 1971.

In 1934, von Euler made the second most important discovery of his career. While continuing his tests on different kinds of tissue extracts, he found thatextracts of sheep vesicular gland dramatically lowered blood pressure when injected into animals. He realized that some unknown factor in the extracts was exerting a powerful physiological effect. Human seminal fluid also seemed to contain this unidentified substance. Soon it became clear that the factor was a fatty acid. Von Euler dubbed it prostaglandin , in the mistaken belief that it originated in the prostate gland.

During the 1930s, von Euler followed up this finding, describing methods forextracting the compound, as well as defining its basic properties. However, it was not until the late 1950s that von Euler's protegé at the Karolinska Institute, Sune Karl Bergström, used newly developed technology to achieve the first purification of a prostaglandin . Von Euler later wrote in the scientific journal Progress in Lipid Research, that "a discovery is in principle like an invention, or even a piece of art, in the sensethat the result is greater than the sum of its parts.... It is sometimes said that the prostaglandins lay dormant for some 20 years after their discovery. This is not exactly true, since Sune Bergström took over in 1945 whereI left it, and with consummate skill and perseverance conducted the chemicalwork to isolation and identification, thus starting the second stage of theprostaglandin history." Subsequent research revealed that prostaglandins arenot a single substance, but a group of chemical compounds that perform a variety of jobs throughout the body, including playing a major role in reproduction. For his contributions to the field, Bergström was one of the recipients of the 1982 Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology.

Meanwhile, von Euler continued the search for chemical transmitters that allow nerve cells to communicate. The idea that such neurotransmitters might exist had been proposed as early as 1905, but it was not until forty-one years later that von Euler succeeded in detecting a critical one in the sympathetic nervous system, which controls such automatic actions as the body's response to stress. He had already observed that certain biological extracts seemed tocontain a substance that was similar to adrenaline, yet different in some ofits actions. Von Euler set about pinpointing this substance, which he soon established to be noradrenaline (also called norepinephrine).

Later, von Euler investigated the way certain nerve endings store and releasenoradrenaline. Other of his studies dealt with the role of chemical agents in regulating respiration, circulation, and blood pressure. It was for his ground-breaking experiments involving noradrenaline that von Euler shared the 1970 Nobel Prize with Julius Axelrod of the United States and BernardKatz of Great Britain, two other prominent figures in the study of chemical transmitters.

Von Euler was not only an eminent researcher, however; he was also known as afine teacher who nurtured the curiosity of his pupils. An editorial which hewrote for the American journal Circulation sums up his approach toteaching and to science: "There are few things as rewarding for a scientist as having young students starting their research work and finding that they have ... made an original observation.... the pleasure of witnessing the progress of the young starting fresh is one, which [the scientist] has every reasonto feel happy about and where he can assist by means of his experience.... We must always guard the liberties of the mind and remember that some degree of heresy is often a sign of health in spiritual life."

Von Euler was a member of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, as well as chief editor of the journal Acta Physiologica Scandinavica for many years.His international reputation was solidified by numerous awards, including theOrder of the North Star in Sweden, the Cruzeiro do Sul in Brazil, the PahnesAcademiques in France, and the Grand Cross Al Merito Civil in Spain, as wellas the Nobel Prize. Few scientists have been as closely identified with theNobel Prize as von Euler; not only did he win one himself but so did his father, his mentor, and his protegé. Von Euler served as president of theNobel Foundation from 1966 until 1975.

Von Euler married his first wife, the former Jane Sodenstierna, on April 12,1930. They were divorced in 1957, and he subsequently married Dagmar Cronstedt on August 20, 1958. He was the father of four children: two sons, Leo and Christopher, and two daughters, Ursula and Marie. Von Euler died of complications following open heart surgery on March 10, 1983, in Stockholm.

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