Otto Myerhof received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1922 for describing the “relationship between consumption of oxygen and metabolism of lactic acid in muscle.” After fleeing Nazi Germany, he was offered a position at the University of Pennsylvania and began spending summers at the MBL as a researcher (1941) and Library Researcher (1942-1949, 1951).
By Michael F. Shaughnessy (interview with Manuel and Ann Varela)
1) Otto Meyerhof—Nobel Prize winner—came to us from Germany—when was he born, and how did he spend his youth?
Dr. Otto Meyerhof is best known for elucidating the glycolytic pathway, also named the Embden-Meyerhof-Parnas pathway in honor of him and his co-discoverers, Gustav Embden and Jacob Parnas. Otto Fritz Meyerhof was born to Jewish parents Felix (an affluent merchant) and Bettina May Meyerhof on the 12th of April in 1884 in Hannover, Germany.
Meyerhof suffered from kidney troubles in his mid-teen years and was unable to attend school. His mother was his constant companion during his recovery, and she provided him with various reading materials dealing with biology, chemistry, and medicine. He was known to write poetry and made strides with artistic endeavors as well. Thus, his mother had a significant influence on his forthcoming profession. In 1900, his physician recommended that he spend time in Egypt to build up his strength.
Meyerhof was enrolled at Wilhelms Gymnasium (classical secondary school). After high school graduation, Meyerhof attended the University of Freiburg at Breisgau, then at the University of Berlin. He also attended the University of Strasbourg. During Meyerhof’s time, it was a common practice to acquire medical training and experience at many different universities. In 1909 Meyerhof took his M.D. degree from the University of Heidelberg.
2) Early on, he seemed to show an interest in psychiatry, psychology, philosophy, and mental illness. I wonder what dissuaded him.
Before taking his medical doctorate in 1909, Meyerhof’s dissertation was focused on the psychological theory of mental disturbances and revealed his early interest in psychology and psychiatry. Meyerhof’s interests in these topics began in high school and extended into his university studies and medical school. One significant influence in these areas was imparted upon Meyerhof by Leonard Nelson. He had led a group devoted to the study of German philosophers Jacob Friedrich Fries and Immanuel Kant and their religious philosophy. The main emphasis of the Fries and Kant philosophy was that of rational thought as applied to a religious inquiry. Meyerhof’s early writings and lectures indicate these philosophical approaches in his scientific thinking.
Immediately after graduating from medical school, Dr. Meyerhof started work at Heidelberg in a medical clinic headed by Dr. Ludwig Krehl, whose expertise was in cell physiology. However, the main driving force for dissuading Meyerhof from psychiatry and psychology was Dr. Otto Warburg, whom Meyerhof had met for the first time in Krehl’s clinic in 1909. You will recall from our first book that Warburg would be famous for his discoveries about the mode and nature of respiration and who would garner a Nobel Prize in 1931 for his breakthroughs in this field. Warburg and Meyerhof worked at the prestigious Marine Zoological Laboratory at Naples, Italy, where they studied metabolism in the eggs of sea urchins.
Warburg is widely credited with converting Meyerhof’s interests in psychiatry, psychology, and philosophy into those of cellular biochemistry and physiology. Meyerhof’s new way of thinking was now centered on the problem of body heat and its liberation from the body by the consumption of food and its subsequent breakdown. Read more …