Otto Loewi was the son of the Jewish wine merchant Jakob Loewi and his wife Anna, née Willstädter. From 1879 he attended the Woehlerschule (elementary school) in Frankfurt am Main and in 1882 transferred to the humanistic Goethe Gymnasium, from which he graduated on September 4, 1891.1
Loewi began studying medicine at the Kaiser Wilhelm University in Strasbourg that same year at the request of his parents, where he initially attended lectures primarily in art history, architecture, and theoretical philosophy. After completing his physics examination, he moved to Munich for the winter semester of 1893/94. A year later he returned to Strasbourg and, under the positive impression of the lectures and courses given by Bernhard Naunyn (1839-1925), decided to pursue a career in clinical medicine. In 1896 he passed the state examination and in the same year was awarded a doctorate in medicine under Oswald Schmiedeberg (1838-1921) with an experimental pharmacological thesis on the effects of hydrocyanic acid, arsenic and phosphorus on the isolated frog heart. 2 In the course of his doctoral work, he came into contact with scientists such as Oskar Minkowski (1858-1931), Walter Straub (1874-1944), Arthur Cushny (1866-1926), Karl Spiro (1896-1932), and Franz Hofmeister (1850-1922), through whom his interest in pharmacological and biochemical questions was encouraged and pioneered. In 1896, Loewi began studying chemistry under Martin Freund (1863-1920) at the Biochemical Institute of the University of Frankfurt, which he continued under Hofmeister in Strasbourg.
Stations in university career
In 1897, Loewi took a position as a resident in internal medicine under Carl von Noorden (1858-1944), a specialist in metabolic diseases and nutritional therapy, at the Städtisches Krankenhaus in Frankfurt am Main. His experience there led him to devote himself to basic medical research or clinical pharmacology and metabolic research instead of clinical work. After only one year, he moved to the Philipps University in Marburg, where he became a research assistant to Hans Horst Meyer (1853-1939), the director of the Pharmacological Institute. Here he habilitated on November 19, 1900.3
In 1902, Loewi went to the renowned institute of physiologist Ernest Starling (1866-1927) in London for several months to further his education in scientific methodology and laboratory techniques and to establish contacts in British science. There he also met Henry Hallet Dale (1875-1968), with whom he was later to receive the Nobel Prize and, beyond that, to be in close scientific and friendly contact.
In 1904, Loewi was appointed associate professor in Marburg and became acting director of the Pharmacological Institute on November 1. A year later, after Meyer had been appointed to Vienna, he also moved there. During this time, he worked primarily with Alfred Froehlich (1871-1953) and began research on the nervous system. In 1909, Loewi finally accepted an appointment as full professor of pharmacology at the Karl Franzens University in Graz. He remained in this chair until 1938; he turned down numerous offers from other universities.
In the meantime, Loewi had taken Austrian citizenship in addition to German. In 1908 he married Guida Henrietta Goldschmiedt (1889-1958), daughter of Guido Goldschmiedt (1850-1915), a full professor of chemistry working in Prague and Vienna, whom he had met the year before during his annual vacation in Pontresina, Switzerland. The couple had three sons and a daughter, Hans (*1909), Anna (*1911), Viktor (*1913) and Guido (*1915). The family professed their Jewish identity, but were not religious and were considered assimilated.4
In 1932, the DGIM, chaired by Paul Morawitz (1879-1936), and the German Pharmacological Society, chaired by Otto Loewi, decided to hold their annual congresses jointly in Wiesbaden. The joint congress coincided with the 50th founding year of the internal medicine society. Circulatory effects of endogenous substances were selected as the first main topic; the speaker, in addition to Franz Volhard (1872-1950), was Sir Henry Dale from London.5
Scientific Discoveries and Nobel Prize 1936
Loewis's research interests were broad. He first gained international recognition with a study published in 1902 in which he demonstrated the body's ability to build proteins from amino acids.6 He thus laid important foundations for the nutritional work of Frederick G. Hopkins (1861-1947), the discoverer of vitamins and winner of the 1929 Nobel Prize.
Loewis's research interests were broad.
In the spring of 1921, Loewi was able to demonstrate, with the help of experiments conducted on frog hearts, that the transmission of nerve impulses to (heart) muscle occurs chemically.7 To do this, he stimulated the vagus nerve of a frog heart soaked in saline and transferred the saline to a denervated frog heart, which then slowed down, corresponding to a vagus response. This confirmed the theoretically established but hitherto controversial research hypothesis of chemical transmission of nerve impulses to muscle.
According to his own statements, the idea for the experiment had come to Loewi in a dream on Easter 1921 and had tempted him, still half asleep, to implement it directly from the early hours of the morning.8 The chemical transmitter substance he initially called "vagus substance" was identified by Henry Dale as acetylcholine. Thus the first neurotransmitter was found and determined. For their discoveries on the chemical transmission of nerve impulses, both researchers were honored with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1936.
Persecution, expropriation and forced into exile
With the "Anschluss" of Austria to the German Nazi state, Loewi and his two younger sons were taken into "protective custody" in Graz for nearly two months on March 12, 1938, along with numerous other Jewish citizens. His release was conditional on his undertaking to leave the country voluntarily within two months.9 Loewi's disenfranchisement and imprisonment quickly became known in his professional circle. From abroad, especially from Great Britain and Sweden, numerous letters from colleagues went to Graz to obtain Loewi's release.10 The Berlin pharmacologist Wolfgang Heubner (1877-1857) spoke publicly on April 24, 1938, as host of the 14th meeting of the German Pharmacological Society. Meeting of the German Pharmacological Society at the Langenbeck-Virchow House in a well-received speech with the words, "Thus many souls are touched by it when misfortune befalls an outstanding discoverer of far-reaching correlations."11
The University of Graz put Loewi into provisional retirement at the end of May 1938. Innsbruck full professor Adolf Jarisch (1891-1965) was to be appointed to his chair as his successor, but he declined.12 Loewi asked for permission to emigrate and was allowed to leave a few months later on the condition that he not engage in any scientific activity abroad. Furthermore, the Gestapo forced him to transfer his prize money from the award of the Nobel Prize to a Nazi-controlled bank. All of his real estate was expropriated.13
On September 28, 1938, Loewi fled to England and lodged with Henry Dale for a few weeks until, at the invitation of the Belgian Fondation Francqui, he was offered a visiting professorship at the Institute of Pharmacology under Leo Zunz at the Université Libre in Brussels. He stayed for only one semester, however, as he was unable to return to Belgium after a vacation in England the following year because of the now-ignited World War II. Instead, he accepted a research position with James Andrew Gunn (1882-1958) at the Nuffield Institute for Medical Research in Oxford.
In 1940, Loewi was offered a tenured research professorship at the Pharmacology Department of New York University College of Medicine under George B. Wallace (1874-1948) was offered. He accepted and arrived in New York on June 1, 1940, two days before his 67th birthday. At the beginning of 1941, his wife Guida joined him. She had not been allowed to leave Austria until then. Only after the completion of the compulsory expropriation proceedings was she granted permission to leave as a "penniless Jewess." The children of the Loewi couple had already emigrated at earlier times, for example daughter Anna with her husband, the chemist Ulrich Weiss (1908-1989), via detours to the USA, son Viktor to Argentina, son Guido to Canada and son Hans first to Peru and then also to the USA.14
"New home" America
On April 1, 1946, Loewi received American citizenship and was a resident of New York (at least temporarily 155 East 93 Street) until his death in 1961. Numerous guest lectures took him to various parts of the USA. Woods Hole in Massachusetts became a special home for him. Here he spent the annual summer vacation with his wife and enjoyed an intensive exchange with colleagues and students at the Marine Biological Research Station. After his death in New York in 1961, Loewi was buried in Woods Hole in August 1962, in accordance with his wishes.
Not only was Loewi very active scientifically into old age, he also remained avidly interested in art (history), music, and theater throughout his life. Artists, musicians and literary figures were also regular guests at the societies to which the Loewi couple were very fond of inviting.
Memberships, honors, obituaries
Loewi was an (honorary) member of numerous scientific societies and academies, including the Physiological Society London, the German Society for Pharmacology and Physiology, the Harvey Society New York, and the Società Italiana di Biologia Sperimentale, as well as the German Academy of Natural Scientists Leopoldina, the Royal Societies London and Edinburgh, and the American Academy for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.
Membership of the Leopoldina, the Royal Societies London and Edinburgh, and the American Academy for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.
Many universities awarded him honorary doctorates, including New York, Yale, Graz, and Frankfurt am Main. Since 1923 he was allowed to use the title "Hofrat". Loewi received - among other awards - the Austrian Grand Decoration of Honor for Science and Art twice (1936, 1959), the Ignaz-Lieben Prize (1924), the Cameron Prize of the University of Edinburgh (1944), the Schmiedeberg Plaque of the German Society for Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology (1957), and the Ring of Honor of the City of Graz (1959).
Obituaries appeared in large numbers. At the 1962 annual congress of the DGIM, of which Loewi was a member until 1933, conference president Ferdinand Hoff (1896-1988) paid tribute to him, saying, "An inhuman system had also forced this great scholar to emigrate. Not long ago, I was able to spend unforgettable hours with him in New York and to enjoy his detached wisdom, in which he confessed to German science without bitterness. Er war ein Großer der medizinischen Wissenschaft.“15
Otto Loewi acts as namesake for, among others, the Research Center for Vascular Biology, Immunology and Inflammation in Graz and the Otto Loewi Society for the Study of Autonomic Nervous System Diseases, founded in 2017 and based in Innsbruck. Since 2018, the Neuroscience Society has awarded the Otto Loewi Medal every four years to outstanding scientists in the field of neuroscience.