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By Tony Fitzpatrick
June 15, 2001
Viktor Hamburger, Ph.D., famed biologist and the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in Arts & Sciences, died Tuesday, June 12, 2001, in St. Louis after a short illness. He was 100.
Hamburger was considered a giant in neurobiology, embryology and the study of programmed cell death. He often has been referred to as "the father of neuroembryology."
"Viktor Hamburger was a pioneer in biology and a person who encouraged the careers of others," Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton said. "His impact on science is immeasurably large, and Washington University has flourished as a consequence of his work. We will miss him, but his great contributions will be long-remembered."
Hamburger was born July 9, 1900, in Landeshut, Germany, now part of Poland. He earned a doctorate from the University of Freiburg in 1925 for research performed under Hans Spemann during the period of the famous "Organizer" experiments. After brief postdoctoral studies in Gottingen and Berlin, he returned to Freiburg in 1927 as Privatdozent, the post he held at the time he received a Rockefeller Fellowship to study for a year with Frank Lillie at the University of Chicago in 1932.
His intended one-year stay in the United States became extended indefinitely, however, when he received word that he was not welcome to return to Freiburg due to Hitler's "cleansing" of German universities.
Hamburger joined the WU faculty in 1935 as assistant professor of zoology. Within six years he had advanced to full professor and department chair.
He continued to serve as chair until 1966 and was appointed the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor of biology in 1968. He assumed emeritus status in 1969 but maintained an active, well-funded research program until he was well into his 80s.
"Viktor Hamburger was one of Washington University's great scientists and contributed greatly not only to the field of neurobiology but to the visibility of biology at Washington University," said Ralph S. Quatrano, Ph.D., chair and Spencer T. Olin Professor in biology. "His contributions to this field were monumental. He will be missed."
Hamburger was honored often during his long life, but he also was known for not achieving a distinction many thought he should have. In 1986 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 postdoctoral fellow in 1947 for a collaboration that soon led to identifying what they called nerve growth factor (NGF). Peripheral organs, such as muscles, produce NGF, required to sustain the life of nerve cells innervating those organs.
In 1953, Hamburger arranged for Cohen to join them, also as a postdoctoral fellow, in their effort to characterize NGF biochemically. By 1986, NGF and epidermal growth factor 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 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, 2000. He was 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.
In October 2000, the biology department honored Hamburger with a symposium, where researchers nationwide gathered to celebrate the man and his career. David L. Kirk, Ph.D., professor of biology and longtime friend of Hamburger's, noted then, "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 their annual flagship meeting, and about one quarter of that number consider themselves developmental neurobiologists. Every one of them owes a lot to Viktor."
Hamburger's wife, Martha Fricke Hamburger, died in 1965.
He is survived by his daughters, Carola Marte, M.D., a physician in New Haven, Conn., and Doris Sloan, Ph.D., professor emerita of geology at the University of California, Berkeley. He also is survived by four grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and a great-great grandson.
A memorial celebration will be at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Lupton Chapel, 7233 Delmar Blvd., University City, with a performance by Quartet Seraphim. The body will be cremated. Interment will be at Woods Hole, Mass.