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Otto Loewi

Published: 02 Jun 2016 in Pharmacology Hall of Fame

Elected in 2016

Born on 3 June 1873 in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany
Died on 25 December 1961 in New York, USA

Achievements

  • Regarded as the “father of neuroscience”, Loewi was jointly awarded the 1936 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for demonstrating the chemical transmission of nerve action. He is better known for how he came up with the idea that won the Nobel Prize than for the discovery itself – apparently, it came to him in a dream:

“The night before Easter Sunday of [1920] I awoke, turned on the light and jotted down a few notes on a tiny slip of thin paper. Then I fell asleep again. It occurred to me at 6.00 o’clock in the morning that during the night I had written down something important, but I was unable to decipher the scrawl. The next night, at 3.00 o’clock, the idea returned. It was the design of an experiment to determine whether or not the hypothesis of chemical transmission that I had uttered 17 years ago was correct. I got up immediately, went to the laboratory, and performed a simple experiment on a frog heart according to the nocturnal design.”

  • His first job was as an assistant in the city hospital at Frankfurt, but he was frustrated as he could not provide effective treatment for tuberculosis or pneumonia patients, so decided to leave clinical science for a basic research position.
  • In 1898, he started working at the laboratory of Hans Meyer at the University of Marburg-an-der-Lahn, where he researched glucose metabolism and nutrition, and demonstrated that animals are able to rebuild proteins from amino acids.
  • In 1908, he became professor of pharmacology at the University of Graz in Austria and of teaching said, “As, to my mind, a lecture should concern itself not only with results, but also with still open questions.”
  • In 1921, he demonstrated that neurons communicate with each other using chemicals known as neurotransmitters through a now famous frog heart experiment. Using the work of his friend Sir Henry Dale, he demonstrated that the substance released by the nerve fibres in his experiment was acetylcholine.
  • He published on a wide range of subjects from digitalis and the kidneys, calcium and strophanthus, adrenaline and cocaine, insulin and carbohydrate metabolism.
  • In 1954, he became a Foreign Member of the Royal Society and was an honorary member of the British Pharmacological Society. His Nobel medal was left to the Royal Society, while the Nobel diploma was bestowed to the University of Graz.

Personal life

  • When the German Army invaded Austria in 1938, Loewi was arrested by the Gestapo and was imprisoned and beaten. An international uproar of scientists led to his release. He was allowed to leave Austria only if he surrendered his Nobel Prize money.  
  • He had originally wanted to spend his life studying the history of art, but was sent to study medicine at the University of Strasbourg (although he barely passed his end-of-year examination, requiring a year of remediation before he was able to complete his training – reportedly because he would skip medical lectures to attend lectures in the humanities).