Otto Heinrich Warburg Biography (1883-1970)


Otto Warburg, an outstanding biochemist, was born in Freiburg, Germany. His Jewish father was a physics professor from an old family of bankers, philanthropists, scholars, and businessmen. The family of his Christian mother was filled with public officials, lawyers, and soldiers. When Warburg was twelve, the family moved to Berlin; Germany's leading scientists, musicians, and artists were frequent visitors to their home. Warburg studied chemistry under EmilFischer at the University of Berlin, earning his Ph.D. in 1906, and then received a medical degree from the University of Heidelberg in 1911.

In 1913 Warburg became head of his own laboratory at the Kaiser Wilhelm (later Max Planck) Institute for Biology in Berlin. Here he devoted himself entirely to research topics of his own choosing. A tireless and innovative experimenter, Warburg made a number of important biochemical discoveries during his long career at the Institute; the Dictionary of Scientific Biography lists anextraordinary fifty-nine "major discoveries and fields of interest " for thisman.

Warburg left the Institute during World War I to serve as a cavalry officer on the Russian front, where he was wounded. In 1918, he resumed his work in Berlin at the urging of Albert Einstein. During World War II, Warburg was allowed to remain at the Institute in spite of being part Jewish, probably becauseof his important research on cancer, a disease that Hitler greatly feared. Remaining remarkably fit, Warburg was an avid horseback rider until he broke his leg at age 85. He died two years later in Berlin.

Warburg's three major fields of interest during his more than fifty years oflaboratory research were intracellular respiration, photosynthesis, and cancer. Studying respiration in the early 1920s, he devised a way to use thin slices of living tissue to test oxygen consumption and invented a manometer to measure this oxygen uptake. He discovered the respiratory enzyme iron oxygenaseand identified its active group (iron); this work earned Warburg the 1931 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

Warburg went on to further enzyme and coenzyme study, isolating a number of enzymes important in respiration and metabolism, clarifying the functioning ofvitamins and developing important spectrophotometric techniques for metabolic research. Working on photosynthesis, Warburg showed that it could occur with almost perfect thermodynamic efficiency. He discovered the electron carrierferredoxin in green plants, and how light energy is converted to chemical energy during photosynthesis.

Warburg also spent many years researching cancer. During his studies of respiration, he discovered that cancerous cells extract energy by metabolizing glucose rather than by absorbing molecular oxygen from the blood. In Warburg's opinion, it was this faulty respiration that caused cells to become cancerous.Because certain substances can inhibit oxygen uptake in cells, Warburg advocated eating untreated foods grown without pesticides or artificial fertilizers. To prevent and treat cancer, Warburg recommended a diet of iron and B vitamins that are rich sources of active respiratory enzymes. Warburg was considered for the 1926 Nobel Prize for his findings on tumor metabolism.

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