Obituary : Professor Albert Neuberger

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The Independent Online
Albert Neuberger was one of the most distinguished leaders of British biochemistry and an inspiring teacher, who made many seminal contributions to his field.

Perhaps the most important are in the area of glycoproteins, proteins that contain sugars in their molecule, and the porphyrins, vital constituents of haemoglobin in blood and of chlorophyll in green plants. A landmark paper he published in 1938, showing that in ovalbumin, a protein from chicken egg white, the sugar is an integral part of the molecule, marks the starting-point of modern glycoprotein research.

Subsequent work by Neuberger and his colleagues, especially Robin Marshall, led in 1961 to the discovery of the nature of the chemical bond that holds the protein and sugar together. The importance of this class of compound is highlighted by the fact that the major product of the biotechnological industry is the glycoprotein erythropoietin, used for treatment of dialysis patients, with world-wide sales in 1995 reaching $2.6bn.

Work done by Neuberger from the late 1940s to the middle 1950s, and in parallel by Professor David Shemin at Columbia University, New York, led to the elucidation of the metabolic pathway of the synthesis of the porphyins. This work helped explain the biochemical defect of acute porphyria, a disease believed to be the cause of insanity in King George III.

Neuberger had numerous students and co-workers, many of whom made illustrious careers for themselves. Most prominent of them is undoubtedly Fred Sanger from the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge, twice Nobel Laureate.

Albert Neuberger was a warm and kind person, a family man, modest and unassuming, with a clear penetrating mind and balanced views, who was liked and admired and whose advice was very often sought. He was widely read, not only in scientific subjects but also in English literature, history and Judaism, and was keenly interested in many aspects of human life.

He was born in 1908 in Hassfurt, a small town in northern Bavaria, to middle-class parents who were religious Jews, and received his early education first at home, mainly by private teachers or clergymen, with much emphasis on Classics, and then at high school in Wurzburg, where he was well taught in mathematics and physics, but not in biology or chemistry. He received, besides, a remarkably good Jewish education, which had a permanent impact on his life.

After taking a medical degree at the University of Wurzburg, Neuberger worked for a short time as a clinician, and - having enjoyed a visit to England in 1932 - left Germany in 1933 on Hitler's coming to power and came to London. He adapted fast to the British way of life, and achieved a remarkable mastery of the English language. In 1936 he took a PhD degree from London University and then did post-doctoral research there. Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, he was invited by Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, the father of British biochemistry, to join his department in Cambridge, which was at the time one of the world centres of biochemical research.

From 1950 to 1955 Neuberger was Head of the Department of Biochemistry at the National Institute for Medical Research, which listed on its staff the Nobel Laureates J.W. Cornforth and A.J.P. Martin. He then moved to St Mary's Hospital Medical School, where he succeeded Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin, as Principal of the Wright Fleming Institute. This did not mean, however, an end to active research, because he took up an appointment at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School, where he continued his studies and to publish scientific articles till he was in his early eighties.

Since the 1960s, Albert Neuberger and his wife Lilian had developed a keen interest in and became closely attached to Israel, which they visited several times a year, making their home in an apartment they bought in the heart of Jerusalem. Neuberger even went back to his Hebrew, which he studied in childhood.

He devoted much time and energy to the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, serving for almost two decades as Chairman of the Academic Committee of the university's Board of Governors. The committee made a marked impact on the organisation of the curricula and research in life sciences, including agriculture. These activities for the Hebrew University were part of the debt he felt he had for the people of Israel. "Since an academic scientist is in a privileged position," he said, "being paid for doing exactly what he wants to do, he has the duty and responsibility to give of his time to work which might be beneficial to society as a whole, or to other scientist colleagues."

He served as chief editor of several leading scientific journals, amng them the Biochemical Journal (1947-55), published by the British Biochemical Society of which he was Chairman (1965-69). He was also Chairman of the Governing Body of the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine from 1970 until its closure in 1980 because of financial difficulties.

Albert Neuberger was elected to the Royal Society in 1951, and derived enormous pride from the election to the society in 1993 of the youngest of his four sons, Michael, a noted biochemist at the MRC Molecular Biology Laboratory, Cambridge. It was one of the rare cases of father and son being both FRS.

My best memories of Albert Neuberger are of a brilliant teacher and a very good friend, writes Fred Sanger.

When I arrived in the biochemical laboratory in Cambridge around 1940 with the intention of working for a PhD, I was assigned to Albert largely by a series of coincidences rather than from any free choice. However, I consider this was an important turning-point in my career and I certainly could not have chosen a better supervisor.

Not only did he teach me a great deal of biochemistry, but he taught me how to do research, particularly how not to be afraid to venture into untrodden ground, and how not to worry too much when experiments didn't work, but to get on and try something else.

Albert Neuberger already had considerable experience in biochemistry, having worked with Sir Charles Harington at University College London. The work had been more chemical than biological, as was the work we did together. I was always impressed with his wide knowledge of different aspects of biochemistry and his ability to work on them and produce fruitful results.

The work we did together was largely concerned with protein metabolism and we also did some studies of the nutritive value of potatoes, which we considered to be our war work. I was his only research student for most of the time, so we worked closely together at the same bench and I was able to benefit from his experience, ability and his great kindness. I feel eternally grateful for all he did for me.

Albert Neuberger, biochemist: born Hassfurt, Bavaria 15 April 1908; FRS 1951; Head of Biochemistry Department, National Institute for Medical Research 1950-55; Professor of Chemical Pathology, St Mary's Hospital, London University 1955-73 (Emeritus); Principal, Wright Fleming Institute of Microbiology 1958-62; CBE 1964; married 1943 Lilian Dreyfus (four sons, and one daughter deceased); died London 14 August 1996.