Lives of the fellows

Hermann Lehmann

b.8 July 1910 d.13 July 1985
CBE(1980) MD Basle(1934) PhD Cantab(1938) ScD(1958) MRCP(1958) FRCP(1964) FRCPath(1964) FRS(1972)

Hermann Lehmann was born in Halle, in what is now East Germany, where his father was a publisher. His mother died when he was only three and the family moved to Dresden, the then beautiful capital of the province of Saxony which he always remembered with affection and where he received his schooling. He studied medicine principally at the Universities of Freiburg and Heidelberg, but his studies were affected first by the hyperinflation and secondly by the coming to power of the Nazis, with its attendant antisemitism. This prevented his taking his MD at the University of Heidelberg; instead, he went to Switzerland and took his MD at the University of Basle in 1934.

Hermann Lehmann began his professional life as research assistant to Otto Meyerhof at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Heidelberg. In 1935 Meyerhof sent him to visit the department of biochemistry at Cambridge, then headed by Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins. It is recorded that, when Lehmann was about to return to Heidelberg, Gowland Hopkins told him to leave his white coat hanging in the laboratory to await him whenever he wished to return. In 1936 he took up this offer and left Germany permanently. In Cambridge he became a graduate student, joining Christ’s College, with which he remained associated for the rest of his life, and obtaining a PhD in biochemistry in 1938. He remained in Cambridge as a Beit memorial fellow for medical research until 1942.

From 1942-47 Lehmann served in the RAMC, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel and becoming assistant director of pathology to the North East India Command. His lifelong concern with the anaemias began in India, where he was concerned with iron deficiency found in the Indian troops. After the war he worked in Uganda as senior nutrition research officer at Makerere College, where he showed that the commonly prevalent form of anaemia was due to hook worm infection. In Uganda he also became interested in sickle cell anaemia and investigated the incidence of the sickle cell trait, both in Uganda and subsequently in various other parts of the world. For his studies in the Andaman Islands he was awarded the Rivers Memorial medal for field work in anthropology in 1962. His studies on the distribution of abnormal haemoglobins in many different human populations made him one of the founders of the new subject of ‘molecular anthropology’.

Lehmann returned to England in 1949, initially as consultant pathologist at the Pembury Hospital in Kent, and from 1951 as senior lecturer (later, reader) in chemical pathology at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, where he remained until 1963. While at Bart’s he described pseudocholinesterase deficiency as the cause of idiosyncratic hypersensitivity to suxamethonium, and he began on the studies of abnormal haemoglobins which were to occupy him for the rest of his professional life.

He returned to Cambridge in 1963, first as University biochemist to Addenbrooke’s Hospital and, from 1967, as the University’s first professor of clinical biochemistry. The Medical Research Council created the abnormal haemoglobin research unit for him in 1963. This unit was highly productive in describing abnormal haemoglobins and an account of some of their work was published in book form: Man's haemoglobins. .., Uermann Lehmann and R C Huntsman, Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1966. Lehmann was able to collaborate with Max Perutz in studying the relationship of structural variation in the haemoglobin molecule to its function as an oxygen carrier - work of high elegance and great importance. He was also the first to demonstrate that the genetic code, derived at that time from work on prokaryotes, applied also to eukaryotes. He combined his research work with the running of the chemical pathology laboratories in Cambridge, a task to which he brought both dedication and managerial skill. His outstanding quality was his concern for people, and his personal interest in his patients and all his staff. He possessed to a high degree the quality of humanity, which is lacking in so many institutions. He would visit a friend who was ill at any hour of the day or night, undeterred by medical convention that no one except the GP should do so. Nothing was too much trouble for him when others were in trouble. When he retired in 1977 he continued to run the WHO haemoglobin reference centre and continued research both on haemoglobins and on myoglobin, and other muscle proteins.

During his productive and fruitful career Hermann Lehmann acquired many honours. He was elected a Fellow of the College in 1964, just six years after having become a member by published work. He became an ScD of the University of Cambridge in 1957, and honorary professor in the University of Freiburg in 1964. In 1965 he was elected a fellow of Christ’s College, becoming an honorary fellow in 1982. In 1972 he was elected FRS, and he was appointed CBE in 1980.

Hermann Lehmann was always much devoted to Christ’s College and took an active part in its affairs being, at various times, Fellows’ Steward, editor of the College magazine, and president of the College medical society. He was highly esteemed by the undergraduates, and by his colleagues, for his breadth of interest, his warmth of character and his great charm. In 1942 he married Benigna Norman-Butler and they had four children: two sons and two daughters. Sadly, one son died in adolescence but he was survived by the other son, also a biological scientist, and his two daughters, as well as by his wife.

PJ Lachmann

[, 1985,291,288-89; Lancet, 1985,2,284,341; The Times, 16 July 1985; Biog.Mems.roy.Soc., 1988,34,405-449]

(Volume VIII, page 274)

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