Lives of the fellows

Wilhelm Siegmund Feldberg

b.19 November 1900 d.22 October 1993
CBE(1963) MD Berlin(1925) FRS(1947) *FRCP(1978)

Wilhelm Feldberg was born in Hamburg, Germany, where his family had a large shop and property business. Perhaps as a result of this early influence he remained interested in property values and in women’s clothes and fashions all his life. In his 20s, he borrowed money from his father-in-law to buy Toulouse-Lautrec prints which later rose in value to some hundreds of thousands of pounds. Although assumed to be destined for the family business, Feldberg preferred medicine and later physiological research. ‘He was not even clever enough to be a general practitioner’ - according to his brother, for whom any career other than business was inferior.

Soon after qualifying in 1925, Feldberg came to Cambridge to work with J N Langley on nerve physiology and, when Langley died, with Sir Henry Dale [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.130] at the MRC at Hampstead. These two years were important in the shaping of his career, professionally and personally. When he returned to Germany he worked in the Institute of Physiology in Berlin. While there he developed the eserinised-leech preparation which played such a crucial role in the great studies of neuro-transmission, with Henry Dale.

Within a very short time of Hitler coming to power in Germany, Feldberg was summarily bidden to the director’s office to be told that as he was a Jew he must leave the Institute by midday. Feldberg pointed out that he was in middle of an experiment; ‘By midnight then.’ replied the director. Fortunately Dale, in England, had anticipated such an eventuality and with the help of the Rockefeller Foundation he got Feldberg to London. In this way, their extremely fruitful collaboration was resumed. Dale, however, had no permanent post for Feldberg and in 1936 he took up an appointment with Ernest Kellaway in Melbourne. He enjoyed his time in Australia and would happily have stayed there but again there was no permanent appointment available. Then E D Adrian, later Lord Adrian, [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.3] invited Feldberg to Cambridge, as a reader in physiology (Feldberg did not know what ‘a reader’ was and assumed it must be a very lowly grade). At Cambridge, he was happy and productive and was remembered with affection by many generations of medical students whom he had taught. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1947 and was awarded the Royal Medal in 1983.

In 1949, Feldberg was invited to return to Hampstead, or rather to Mill Hill where the National Institute for Medical Research had moved, as head of its physiology and pharmacology divison. He worked with several famous physiologists and pharmacologists, including J H Gaddum, G L Brown and Marthe Vogt, who was one of the few non-Jewish scientific refugees from Germany, as well as with Dale. Their work showed conclusively that neuro-transmission occurred by means of chemical release not electric current, acetyl choline being the most widespread neuro-transmitter. He investigated its synthesis and distribution and also the role of histamine in allergy. In this he made important contributions to the understanding of asthma, and of bee stings and snake bites.

In 1953 he turned to the study of neuro-transmission in the brain, using a technique of direct injection of substances via an intra-cerebral cannula. In this way he was able to localize several areas of drug action causing different physiological effects such as on states of consciousness, body temperature and blood glucose. On retiring from his post in 1966, he continued working at the NIMR for a further 23 years supported by the Medical Research Council, during which time home and overseas visitors worked with him. He was a superb teacher and speaker. Perhaps he went on too long, when he had lost some of his capacity for animal experimentation. Animal Rights activists filmed his experiments and criticized the work in his laboratory. After that he finally retired.

After the war, the Federal German government in Bonn made handsome restitution to him, as to others, for his loss of career in Germany. With this money he created the Feldberg Foundation, which enabled distinguished British scientists to visit Germany one year and vice versa the next. Many leading scientists in Britain and Germany became Feldberg lecturers. He received honorary degrees from several universities, including five in Germany. He was appointed CBE in 1963. In 1978 he was elected a Fellow of the College.

Wilhelm Feldberg had a most engaging personality, he always seemed to be enjoying life, having a delightful and irrepressible sense of humour as obvious while giving a scientific paper as it was at home. He was indeed a warm and brilliant man, even at times which would have crushed most other people: loss of his job and expulsion from Germany, lack of a permanent appointment until he was nearly 40 years old, loss of a son and two wives - none of these trials repressed his generous spirit.

His first wife, Katherine died in 1976, after 51 years of marriage. In 1977 he married his secretary, Kathleen Marguerite O’Rourke (Kim), who died in 1981. One son died in 1960; his daughter is a paediatric cardiologist in Seattle, USA.

D A Pyke

* Elected under the special bye-law which provides for the election to the fellowship of "Persons holding a medical qualification, but not Members of the College, who have distinguished themselves in the practice of medicine, or in the pursuit of Medical or General Science or Literature.."

[The Independent, 25 Nov 1993; The Times, 8 & 13 Nov 1993;The Daily Telegraph, 18 Nov 1993; MRC News, Winter 1994,p.34]

(Volume IX, page 169)

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