Lives of the fellows

Albert Neuberger

b.15 April 1908 d.14 August 1996
CBE(1964) MD Würzburg(1933) PhD(1936) FRS(1951) FRCPath(1964) FRCP(1966) Hon LLD Aberd(1967) Hon DSc Hull(1981)

Albert Neuberger was a distinguished British biochemist. He was born of Jewish parents in Hassfurt, Germany, and initially received private tutorial education at home, but then went to school in Wurzburg. He had a very liberal education in the classics, arts and sciences, but biology and chemistry were missing. He then entered Wurzburg University and, with characteristic independence of mind, changed from legal and historical studies to medicine. He gained his doctorate and then in 1928 took an elective period in Peter Rona’s biochemistry laboratory in Berlin. This was to determine his future career and interests. In 1933, when Hitler came to power, he joined that illustrious band of scientists who emigrated to Britain and contributed so much to major developments in physiology, pharmacology and biochemistry, Hitler’s greatest gift. First he joined Charles Harington [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.222] at University College Hospital, famous for identifying the structure of thyroxine. Like many budding scientists who later achieved fame, his career owed much to the award of a Beit fellowship.

Soon after the outbreak of war he was invited by Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV, p.535] to join his department at Cambridge and in 1940 he was joined by Fred Sanger, his most outstanding pupil. Sanger describes the breadth of biochemical knowledge he acquired from his teacher, even on the humble potato - rather important in wartime.

After the war it was not surprising that he again joined Harington, now Sir Charles and director of the National Institute for Medical Research. The Institute then had an extremely talented staff and Harington recruited more stars, such as J W Cornforth in chemistry, A J P Martin in physical chemistry and Rodney Porter [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.388] in immunology. Neuberger was their intellectual equal. His research included the elucidation of the major pathways in porphyrin metabolism in bacteria and man which have formed a foundation for the abnormal pathways in human porphyria. These studies continued through most of his career, but perhaps the most important fundamental contribution was his demonstration in 1938 that glucose was an integral part of crystalline egg albumin. Glycoproteins have since assumed even greater importance in biological chemistry and medicine. He was among the first to study the metabolism in man of proteins containing isotopically labelled amino acids revealing the pathways of digestion and absorption.

One of his greatest strengths lay in his encouragement of others to develop their own lines of research. His ability to listen quietly to proposals was helped by his patriarchal aura and appearance which hardly seemed to change in his long life. He was small in build but large in intellect and those who might think he was ideally cast as the absent minded professor, forever fumbling with this pipe, which rarely stayed alight, were soon aware of his real power by the nature of his penetrating questions. He led by producing ideas, but in the laboratory his advent led to the removal of any glassware that might inadvertently be displaced. His staff had an undying affection for him, but this did not extend to the acceptance of a lift in his car since his driving skills tended to frighten passengers.

When he left Mill Hill to become professor of chemical pathology at St Mary’s in 1955 he rapidly became a universal adviser, especially to many deans. The hardest task he was given at St Mary’s was the reorganization of the Wright-Fleming Institute from its position of decline. The cutting out of dead wood was accomplished with speed and enormous tact and relatively little rancour, but he did derive amusement from the accusation of anti-Semitism by one incensed redundant worker. As he soon became chairman of the academic committee of the board of governors of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem his mirth can be well understood. He made the Wright-Fleming Institute into a real research establishment by recruiting Rodney Porter in immunology, Pat Mollison in haematology and creating new chairs of bacteriology and virology. In the wider fields of science he was recognized by his FRS in 1951. He served as chairman of the Biochemical Society and the British Nutrition Foundation.

But, soon after he was appointed to the post at St Mary’s, he developed ominous neurological signs pointing to the presence of a cerebral tumour. He displayed his characteristic gentle stoicism to full advantage. He deserved to be fortunate and he was, since a benign meningoma was successfully removed. Much later in life he experienced a series of strokes, but his indomitable spirit carried him through the speech and co-ordination problems which affected him. His wife, Lilian, played an essential part in all these trials and sustained him always. Neither would allow any display of what they regarded as the luxury of self-pity.

His private life meant much to him and he rejoiced in the company of this family. He was modestly proud of their considerable achievements and especially when one of his sons was elected FRS to make the rare father and son pairing.

Sir Stanley Peart

[The Times, 22 Aug 1996; The Daily Telegraph, 24 Aug 1996; The Independent, 19 Aug 1996]

(Volume X, page 362)

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