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Record Article

Celebrating Viktor Hamburger; Event marks famed biologist's centennial

By Tony Fitzpatrick

Scientists from around the country will gather Oct. 20 in Brown Hall Auditorium to celebrate a notable centennial --the birthday of Viktor Hamburger, Ph.D., famed biologist and the Edward Mallinckrodt Distin-guished Professor Emeritus in Arts & Sciences.

Hamburger was born July 9, 1900, in Landeshut, Germany, now part of Poland. He came to the University in 1935 as assistant professor of zoology and remains on the faculty today.

As many as 350 participants are expected to attend the symposium to hear seven leading scientists discuss recent developments in areas of biological research that Hamburger has touched in key ways during his long scientific career. A reception and dinner will follow.

Hamburger is considered a giant in neurobiology, embryology and the study of programmed cell death. Indeed, he has often been referred to as "the father of neuroembryology."

Hamburger's career has had both its pinnacles and its deep valleys. In 1933, while he was in the United States on what was intended to be a one-year fellowship, Adolf Hitler "cleansed" him from the University of Freiburg faculty because of his Jewish ancestry. Hamburger was informed in a letter from his mentor, Nobel Laureate Hans Spemann, that he was not welcome to return to Germany, and he should seek a position in the United States. This he did, to the great benefit of U.S. science.

In 1985 he was passed over by the Nobel Committee when it awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to two of his former junior colleagues, Rita Levi-Montalcini, Ph.D., professor emerita of biology here, and Stanley Cohen, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry at Vanderbilt University, for research that they had begun in Hamburger's laboratory under his mentorship.

Hamburger arranged to bring Levi-Montalcini from Italy to the University as a post-doctoral fellow in 1947 for a collaboration that soon led to identifying what they called nerve growth factor, or NGF. Peripheral organs, such as muscles, produce NGF, required to sustain the life of nerve cells innervating that organ.

In 1953, Hamburger arranged for Cohen to join them, also as a post-doctoral fellow, in the effort to characterize NGF biochemically. By 1985, NGF had been joined by dozens of other growth factors, and it was becoming clear that there is scarcely an aspect of embryonic development that does not involve the action of one or more such growth factors. Hence the Nobel Prize.

Though passed over by the Nobel Committee, Hamburger has received many honors and accolades in his research career, including the National Medal of Science, the Horwitz Prize, the Harrison Award, the Gerard Prize and, most recently, the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Developmental Biology, conferred June 7. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Society for Developmental Biology and the International Society for Developmental Biology.

"When you're in his presence, you feel an almost magical greatness," said David Kirk, Ph.D., professor of biology and long-time friend of Hamburger's. "Despite being expelled from his university by Hitler and being passed over by the Nobel Committee, there's not a bitter or cynical bone in his body."

Kirk has been the principal organizer of the symposium and worked with Garland E. Allen, Ph.D., professor of biology, and Ruth Lewis, biology librarian, to put together a Viktor Hamburger Exhibit, on display in the biology library throughout October.

Allen, a historian of science, will provide an overview of Hamburger's life and scholarly work at the symposium. Eugene M. Johnson, M.D., Ph.D., the Norman J. Stupp Professor of Neurology and professor of molecular biology and pharmacology at the School of Medicine, will discuss other molecules that are now known to have functions in the nervous system somewhat similar to that of NGF.

Other speakers will include:

Clifford Tabin, Ph.D., professor of genetics at Harvard University Medical School, addressing the symposium on "Signals Patterning the Skeleton and Tendons of the Chick Limb." Hamburger considers his development of the chick embryo as a model experimental organism --early in his career, when he was a research associate at the University of Chicago --to be his most important contribution to science.

Richard Harland, Ph.D., professor of biology in the Department of Molecular Biology at the University of California-Berkeley, discussing "The Spemann Organizer."

Martin Raff, Ph.D., of the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology and University College of London, lecturing on "Growth Control in Neural Development."

Friends and colleagues consider Hamburger very much a Renaissance man. While he's made many landmark contributions to biology, he has numerous interests and friends in the arts and humanities. He reads much of the day and evening --two newspapers each morning, biographies and other nonfiction in the afternoon, and novels, especially German 19th-century works, in the evening.

"While his intellectual and research contributions were made to the biological sciences, his education and his interests inclined him toward philosophy, literature and the arts," said Gerhild Williams, Ph.D., the Barbara Schaps Thomas and David M. Thomas Professor in the Humanities in Arts & Sciences and associate vice chancellor for academic affairs.

Added Kirk: "Viktor is a remarkable man and a University treasure. In the late '30s there were six people in the world doing neuroembryology, and Viktor was friends with all of them. Today, about 20,000 neurobiologists attend the annual flagship meeting, and about one quarter of that number consider themselves developmental neurobiologists every one of them owes a lot to Viktor."