AKA Otto Heinrich Warburg
Birthplace: Freiburg, Germany
Location of death: Berlin, West Germany
Cause of death: Illness
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Asexual
Occupation: Scientist, Doctor
Executive summary: Effect of oxygen on cancer
Military service: Prussian Guards Brigade (1916-18)
German biochemist Otto Warburg earned double doctorates in chemistry and medicine, and won the Nobel Prize in 1931, for his research into cellular respiration, showing that cancer thrives in anaerobic (without oxygen) or acidic conditions. His father was a highly respected physicist, and in Warburg's childhood such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Emil Fischer, and Walther Nernst were frequent dinner guests.
In his research into cancer, Warburg showed the carcinogenic nature of food additives and smoking cigarettes, and demonstrated that cancer cells can be destroyed by radiation. He argued that anaerobiosis was a primary cause of cancer, and his own research into carcinogens made him fearful of processed foods. Toward the end of his life he would only eat bread and butter if he could ascertain that both were fully organic. His mid-1960s announcement that cancer prevention and treatment should be built around respiratory enzymes, iron and the B vitamins, is often cited by advocates of alternative treatment. His "Warburg effect" asserts that even when oxygen is plentiful, cancer cells continue to use glycolysis (a secondary system of producing energy, employed by normal cells only when oxygen is in short supply). This theory has long been dismissed by mainstream medicine, but it was brought back to the forefront by 2007 research into a simple, small molecule called dichloroacetate (DCA), now believed to hold great promise in the war on cancer.
Among his other broad-ranging research projects, Warburg isolated the first flavoproteins, studied the process of biological dehydrogenations and the metabolism of sea urchin eggs, and showed that niacin is required for respiration. He investigated photosynthesis, discovered ferredoxin (the electron carrier in green plants), and demonstrated how the energy of light becomes chemical energy. According to the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 59 "major discoveries and fields of interest" are credited to Warburg. He taught at least three Nobel Prize-winners: Otto Meyerhof, Hans Krebs, and Axel Theorell.
Of Jewish ancestry in Nazi Germany, Warburg has been accused of being too cooperative with Nazi authorities. Biographers have suggested that Warburg was either oblivious or simply disinterested in his nation's programs on "the Jewish problem". He was half-Jewish himself, on his father's side, but Warburg is believed to have sidestepped persecution by the Nazis because he was researching cancer, and German Chancellor Adolf Hitler had a deathly fear of the disease. He was once ordered to stop his research because of his heritage, but Hitler's office intervened, and Warburg was promptly reclassified as "less than one-quarter Jewish", and allowed to continue his work. He employed a Hungarian-Jewish lab technician, but when the young man was taken away in 1938, Warburg said that he had misunderstood, and thought that anti-Jewish regulations only applied to German Jews. At the height of World War II, Warburg relocated his laboratory to the suburbs of Berlin to avoid ongoing air attacks. In 1944 he was offered a second Nobel Prize, but the Nazi government ordered that the honor be refused.
Warburg never married, never dated, and by most accounts never showed any interest in an ordinary social life. He instead preferred working long hours, allowing only his love of riding horses to occasionally interrupt his research.
The biochemist Warburg should not be confused with his distant cousin of the same name, the botanist and industrial agriculture expert Otto Warburg (1859-1938), who spent the first half of his life studying and teaching, and in his latter years became an active member of the World Zionist Organization, which worked toward the re-establishment of Israel. The botanist Warburg served as the WZO's President from 1911-21.
Father: Emil Warburg (Professor of physics, University of Berlin, b. 1846, d. 1931)
Mother: Elizabeth Gaertner
University: PhD Chemistry, University of Berlin (1906)
Medical School: MD, University of Heidelberg (1911)
Scholar: Naples Marine Biological Station, Naples, Italy (1908-14)
Professor: Biology, Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, Berlin (1918-38)
Administrator: Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (1931-70)
Royal Society 1934
Nobel Prize for Medicine 1931
Jewish Ancestry Paternal
Author of books:
Stoffwechsel der Tumoren (1926, research)
Katalytische Wirkungen der lebendigen Substanz (1928, research)
The Metabolism of Tumours (1931, research)
Schwermetalle als Wirkungsgruppen von Fermenten (1946, research)
Wasserstoffübertragende Fermente (1948, research)
Mechanism of Photosynthesis (1951, research)
Entstehung der Krebszellen (1955, research)
Weiterentwicklung der zellphysiologischen Methoden (1962, research)
The Prime Cause and Prevention of Cancer (1966, research)
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