Otto Warburg (1883-1970)

Otto Heinrich Warburg was a German physiologist and biochemist, particularly known for his study of cancer. He was born in Freiburg, Germany; his father was the physicist Emil Warburg. He completed his chemistry doctorate in 1906 in Berlin under Emil Fischer, and then gained a further doctorate in medicine at Heidelberg in 1911. From 1908 to 1914 he undertook research at the Naples Marine Biological Station, where he proved that respiration in sea urchin eggs increases by up to six times after fertilisation, and that iron is vital for development.

During the First World War he served as an officer with the Prussian Horse Guards, but towards the end of the war Albert Einstein, who had been a friend of his father’s, wrote to him asking him to return to academic work, lest he be killed and the world be deprived of his talent.

In 1918, Warburg began working at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biology, and by 1931 was named director in charge of cell physiology there. He investigated the metabolism and respiration of tumours and cancer cells, and in 1924 suggested that cancer should be viewed as a mitochondrial dysfunction, and that the primary cause of cancer was the replacement of normal respiration of oxygen by the fermentation of sugar, or glycolysis. This change has been widely accepted, although it is not seen as the actual cause of cancer. Warburg advocated eating organic, untreated foods to limit this faulty respiration, since some substances can hinder oxygen uptake; this became something of an obsession towards the end of his life.

Warburg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1931 for his discoveries concerning the respiratory enzyme. The Otto Warburg Medal was established by the German Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in 1963 to honour his achievements, and is today regarded as the highest award available for German biochemists.