Childhood & Early Life
Otto Fritz Meyerhof was born on April 12, 1884 to Jewish parents, Felix Meyerhof and Bettina May, in Hildesheim. His father was a merchant by occupation.
The family moved to Berlin after the birth of young Meyerhof. At Berlin, he completed his primary education from Wilhelms Gymnasium, a classical secondary school.
At the age of 16, Meyerhof suffered from a kidney problem that restricted his movement. He was bed-ridden for a couple of months. During this time, his mother had an important influence on his budding mind. She encouraged him to read literary works and write poetry. Much of Meyerhof’s artistic and intellectual development took place during this time.
Following his matriculation, Meyerhof studied medicine at Freiburg, Berlin, Strasbourg, and Heidelberg. In 1909, he graduated in medicine with a thesis on a psychiatric subject and devoted himself to psychology and philosophy.
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Completing his studies, he published a book, ‘Beiträge zur psychologischen Theorie der Geistesstörungen’ or ‘Contributions to the psychological theory of mental disturbances’ and an essay on ‘Goethes Methoden der Naturforschung’ or ‘Goethe's methods of scientific research’.
At Heidelberg, Meyerhof came under the influence of Otto Warburg. The latter inculcated in Meyerhof the interest for cell physiology. He juggled his time between the laboratory of the Heildelberg Clinic and the Zoological station at Naples.
In 1912, Meyerhof moved to Kiel. A year later, he qualified for the post of the university lecturer in physiology after getting trained from Professor Bethe. The lectures delivered by him at Kiel were later compiled and published under the name, ‘The Chemical Dynamics of Living Matter’
In 1915, when Professor Hober took up Directorship at the Institute of Physiology, Meyerhof was appointed as his Assistant. Three years later, in 1918, he was promoted as the Assistant Professor.
All through his early academic career, Meyerhof was interested in the energy released by foodstuffs and consumed by living cells. He studied the methods of gas analysis through the calorimetric measurement of heat production.
Meyerhof’s most important scientific achievement came when he discovered the fixed relationship between the consumption of oxygen and the metabolism of lactic acid in the muscle.
He devised a new method under which he proved that the lactic acid was derived from glycogen in the muscle in anaerobic condition and that the amount of lactic acid formed was proportional to the tension produced in the muscle. He stated that during the recovery stage, about a quarter of the lactic acid was oxidized, and the energy of this reaction was used to reconvert the remainder of the lactic acid to glycogen. This discovery won him the Nobel Prize.
Meyerhof’s scientific career had more credits than just a Nobel Prize winning discovery. He intensively studied the effects of narcotics and methylene blue on oxidation processes and respiration of killed cells. The physico-chemical analogy between oxygen respiration and alcoholic fermentation caused him to study both these processes in yeast extract. Resultantly, he discovered a co-enzyme of respiration, which could be found in all cells and tissues.
In 1923, Meyerhof was offered a Professorship of Biochemistry in the United States. However, he declined the same and instead accepted the offer by the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft to join the group, including C. Neuberg, F. Haber, M. Polyani, and H. Freundlic working at Berlin-Dahlem.
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In 1925, Meyerhof together with Kurt Lohmann published first of the many joint papers. Through the paper, he thrashed the belief that the ability of muscle to convert glycogen to lactic acid depended on the integrity of the muscle structure and that bacterial action and glycolytic activity as responsible for the same. Instead, through his report he showed that a muscle extract contained the glycolytic enzyme systems and that it was active shortly after its preparation. He thus proved that the glycolysis was not due to bacterial activity. He published the report in 1926-27 which became the basis of the Emden-Meyerhof theory of glycolysis.
In 1929, he took charge of the then newly-founded Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Medical Research at Heidelberg.
In 1938, he moved to Paris in an effort to flee away from the Nazi regime. For two years, from 1938 until 1940 he took up the post of the Director of Research at the Institut de Biologie physico-chimique at Paris. His financial well-being was taken care of by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation.
In 1940 when the Nazi’s invaded France, it became quintessential for Meyerhof to move from Paris. As such, with a little assistance, he finally managed to reach United States in October 1940. There, he took up the post of a Research Professor of Physiology Chemistry that had been especially created for him by the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. In the last decade of his life in United States, Meyerhof published more than 50 papers.
In 1946, he partially separated the calcium-activated enzyme adenosine-triphosphatase (ATPase), found in muscle, from myosin. Two years later, in 1948 he established in muscle a new ATPase which was magnesium-activated, and associated the same with the microsomal fraction of the cell.
Personal Life & Legacy
During his time in Heidelberg, Meyerhof befriended Hedwig Schallenberg, a painter by profession. The two tied the knot in 1914. The couple was blessed with three children, a daughter, Bettina Meyerhof and two sons, Gottfried and Walter.
In 1944, Meyerhof suffered a heart attack. However, he survived the same but faced yet another one in 1951 which finally led to his death. He died on October 6, 1951.