Sunday, June 2, 2013

Otto Loewi

Otto Loewi was born in Frankfurt, Germany on June 3, 1873. His father Jacob was a Jewish wine merchant. He attended gymnasium school in Frankfrurt and then the Universities of Munich and Strasbourg as a medical student. Not really interested in clinical medicine, Loewi applied himself to physiology and pharmacology. He completed his thesis on the effects of arsenic, phosphorus, and other substances on an isolated frog heart. After completing his medical education in 1896, Loewi spent a year as an assistant doctor in a hospital in Frankfurt. There he was frustrated by the lack of effective treatment for tuberculosis and pneumonia patients. This convinced him that he did not want to practice clinical medicine and opted instead for a research career. He was able to get a position as an assistant to Hans Meyer starting work in Meyer's laboratory in Marburg in 1898. Working in Meyer's lab he researched metabolism. While working there he proved that animals were able to synthesize proteins from protein degradation products (amino acids). Before that it was believed that animals could only make proteins from other intact proteins.

In 1903 he was appointed professor of pharmacology at the University of Graz in Austria. While working at Graz he conducted an experiment that proved that the transmission of nerve impulses to the heart was conducted by a soluble factor, the idea for which came to him in a dream. First he isolated two frog hearts, one with the vagus nerve still attached. The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system and causes the heart muscle to slow its beating. First he stimulated the attached vagus nerve, which caused the attached heart to slow its beating. Taking a sample of the fluid surrounding the heart with the attached nerve he applied it to the second heart. The second heart slowed its beating in response to the added fluid. Loewi named the unknown soluble factor that caused the second heart to slow its beating "vagustoff". It was later identified as acetylcholine. The transmission of nerve impulses between different neurons and at the nerve interfaces with muscles are conducted by soluble chemicals called neurotransmitters. For his pioneering work establishing the importance of neurotransmitters Loewi shared the 1936 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology with Henry Dale. He would remain in Austria until 1938 when he was forced to leave due to the German occupation. After a brief stays in Belgium and the United Kingdom, Loewi emigrated to the United States in 1940

Other honors won by Loewi include honorary doctorates from the University of Graz, Yale University, University of New York (where he worked after he emigrated to the United States) and the University of Frankfurt. He was made an honorary member of the Physiological Society of London and a member of the Royal Society.

Loewi died on December 25, 1961.


Valenstein, Elliot S.; The War of Soups and the Sparks: The Discovery of Neurotransmitters and the Dispute Over How Nerves Communicate; Columbia University Press; 2005

Otto Loewi Nobel Biography

Ottto Loewi Wikipedia Entry

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