Otto Heinrich Warburg

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Freiburg, Baden
Birth Sign
Freiburg, Baden

Otto Heinrich Warburg was a physician and physiologist from Germany. He was born into a prominent Jewish family, but his father converted to Christianity prior to his birth, and his mother was a naturalized Christian. As a result, he was declared a Mischling during the Nazi regime and permitted to continue his research despite the state machinery’s systematic murder of Jews. However, many believed he was allowed to live due to his involvement in cancer research. Simultaneously, he was so devoted to his work that he refused to leave Germany even when offered the opportunity. This was primarily due to the fact that relocating would have resulted in the loss of significant research potential. He hypothesized that a tumor cell becomes cancerous when it begins generating energy via non-oxidative glucose breakdown; healthy cells, on the other hand, generate energy via oxidative pyruvate breakdown. He did not, however, reveal how cancer cells grow unchecked. He was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize for his work on cancer cells but received it only once.

Childhood & Adolescence

Otto Heinrich Warburg was born in a renowned Jewish family in Freiburg, Germany, on October 8, 1883. Emil Gabriel Warburg, his father, was a well-known physicist. He conducted research in the areas of gas kinetic theory, electrical conductivity, gas discharges, heat radiation, ferromagnetism, and photochemistry.
Emil converted to Christianity prior to Heinrich’s birth and married Elizabeth Gaertner, a Protestant banker and civil servant from a Protestant family. Heinrich was their sole offspring.

In 1901, he enrolled at the University of Freiburg, majoring in chemistry. He transferred to the University of Berlin two years later and earned a PhD in Chemistry in 1906. His doctoral advisor was Hermann Emil Fischer, a Nobel Laureate in chemistry.

He developed an interest in medicine at some point and enrolled at the University of Heidelberg. He earned his MD in 1911 while working as an internist and physiologist under the renowned Albrecht Ludolf von Krehl.

Career of Otto Heinrich Warburg

Heinrich Warburg joined Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn, a marine biological research institute in Naples, as a research scholar in 1908, three years before earning his MD from the University of Heidelberg. He remained a member of the institute until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

While at the research institute, Warburg began studying the sea urchin’s oxygen consumption. He established that once fertilized, the rate of respiration increases sixfold and that iron is required for proper larval growth.

He also discovered during this time period that trace amounts of cyanide can inhibit cell oxidation. Warburg deduced from this experiment that at least one catalyst required for oxidation must contain a heavy metal.

However, with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Warburg departed Naples. He later became an officer in the Prussian Guard Regiment (Uhlans) and was decorated with the Iron Cross (1st Class) for bravery.

In 1918, shortly before the war’s end, he left the army on the advice of Albert Einstein and accepted a position as a professor at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biology in Berlin-Dahlem. He was, however, exempt from teaching duties, which allowed him to devote his entire time to research.

Warburg’s focus shifted to photosynthesis and energy transfer within cells. Although he did not focus exclusively on cancer cells until the 1920s, his current work laid the groundwork for his subsequent research.

He began investigating the mechanism by which cells in living organisms consume oxygen in the early 1920s. He also developed manometers capable of measuring gas pressure and monitoring cell respiration at some point in time.

He then began looking for constituents of cells that were directly involved in oxygen consumption. He also discovered the function of cytochromes, an enzyme in which a heme group containing iron binds to molecular oxygen.

He then conducted experiments with carbon monoxide and discovered that it, like cyanide, slowed respiration. Additionally, he discovered that light with a specific frequency could overcome the inhibitory effects of carbon monoxide.

He also demonstrated that the oxygen-transfer enzymes were distinct from other iron-containing enzymes and then demonstrated how iron affected the cell’s oxygen use. In 1931, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his research on cellular catalysts and their role in respiration.

Warburg now delved deeper and discovered the flavoproteins in 1932, which participate in cellular dehydrogenation reactions. Additionally, he discovered that flavoproteins act in concert with a non-protein component called flavin adenine dinucleotide. These are now referred to as coenzymes.

Warburg discovered Vitamin A in the retina between 1932 and 1933. He then discovered nicotinamide in 1935, which is a component of another coenzyme now known as nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide.

He concluded later that these newly discovered co-enzymes, along with previously discovered iron-oxygena, are responsible for the oxidations and reductions in the living world.

By this point, the Nazis had taken control of Germany. Although Warburg’s father was born Jewish, he was left alone for the majority of his life while conducting cancer research.

Hitler reportedly began to suspect he had cancer following the removal of a polyp from his vocal cord. This fear enabled Warburg to not only survive, but also to continue his research. He was not, however, permitted to teach.

Warburg was so absorbed in his research that he paid little attention to the fate of his co-religionist or even his family. He also refused to relocate, despite the Rockefellers’ offer, because doing so would have necessitated starting from scratch, negating much of the research potential.

Albert Szent-Györgyi nominated Warburg for a second Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1944 for his work on nicotinamide and the discovery of flavin. He did not, however, win it, possibly due to his association with Nazi Germany.

In 1950, Warburg relocated the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Cell Physiology to a larger facility, where he remained until his death in 1970. He published 178 scientific papers over the course of these two decades. He was exempt from the retirement rule and allowed to work almost until his death as a result of his dedication and productivity.

Significant Works of Otto Heinrich Warburg

Otto Heinrich Warburg is best remembered for his research on cell oxidation and the cancer-causing effect of oxygen. He had established that cancerous cells can survive and grow without oxygen. His discovery paved the way for new research in the fields of cellular metabolism and respiration.

Additionally, he discovered the iron-enzyme complex, which serves as a catalyst for cell oxidation. Additionally, he invented the manometer, a device capable of measuring the respiration rate of healthy cells.

Honors and Commendations

Warburg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1931 for “discovering the nature and mechanism of action of the respiratory enzyme.”

He was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society in 1934.

In 1952, he was awarded Pour le Mérite (Civil Class), a German Order of Merit founded in 1740 by Prussian King Frederick II.

Personal History and Legacies

Warburg’s commitment to his work was so intense that he never married. Family life and scientific research, he believed, were incompatible. Indeed, according to one of his colleagues, Karlfried Gawehn, Warburg had no reasonable excuse for not working except death.

He worked almost continuously until he died. He was, however, a lifelong horseman who took pleasure in the sport. On August 1, 1970, he died in the Berlin apartment he shared with Jakob Heiss.

The German Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (Gesellschaftfür Biochemie und Molekularbiologie) established the Otto Warburg Medal in 1963, while he was still alive. It is Germany’s highest honor for biochemists and molecular biologists and recognizes pioneering work in the fields of biochemistry and molecular biology.

Estimated Net Worth

The Estimated net worth of Otto Heinrich Warburg is unknown.