Obituary: Professor Hugh Blaschko
Tuesday 27 April 1993
HUGH BLASCHKO was a biochemical pharmacologist of great distinction. He was esteemed throughout the scientific community not only for his work but also for his whole-hearted devotion to generations of co-workers from all over the world.
Blaschko's passing breaks one of the last links with the origins of one of the great scientific stories, that of chemical transmission in the nervous system. This story began in effect in 1921 with Otto Loewi's experiments showing that a substance, later identified as acetyl choline, is released from the stimulated vagus nerve to the heart, causing it to slow. In the following years, evidence accumulated massively in support of chemical transmission in many other nervous pathways. By 1934, when Blaschko began to work in this field, there had been suggestions that sympathetic nerves involved in stress reactions produced various effects through the release of a substance related to the 'fight and flight' hormone adrenalin; in due course the sympathetic transmitter substance was identified as noradrenalin. In work extending over three decades Blaschko became one of the leaders in the elucidation of the biosynthesis, storage and inactivation of these important agents. His work contributed information essential for the development of some valuable drugs, notably the sympathomimetic agents and the monoamine oxidase inhibitors.
Blaschko established the role of two crucial enzymes in the biosynthesis of adrenalin in nervous and adrenal medullary cells, and was able to propose the complete biosynthetic pathway in 1939. An important consequence is the therapeutic utilisation of certain amino acids which, themselves without pharmacological actions, are transformed in the body into beneficial derivatives.
Blaschko also demonstrated the storage of highly active substances, such as adrenalin, in inactive form in intracellular particles, from which they can be rapidly released when required. These are just two examples of the originality with which Blaschko enriched important fields of work. His achievements were recognised by honours at home and abroad including the Fellowship of the Royal Society, in 1962.
Hugh, originally Hermann, Blaschko came from an old-established German-Jewish family. His father, Professor Alfred Blaschko, was a distinguished dermatologist who became internationally known as an early advocate of social medicine.
After medical studies in Berlin and Freiburg, Blaschko began his research career with Otto Meyerhof in Berlin. Meyerhof and Otto Warburg created a centre of excellence which attracted the best young biochemists from Germany and abroad, and here Blaschko met and made lifelong friendships with Hans Krebs and many other brilliant young men who later became leaders in their science. Meyerhof's laboratory moved to Heidelberg in 1929, at a time when political intolerance was beginning to disrupt academic work. It was fortunate, therefore, that contacts between Meyerhof and AV Hill in London enabled Blaschko to come to England in 1933. At the invitation of Sir Joseph Barcroft he joined the Physiological Laboratory in Cambridge and began the research on biochemical aspects of neurohumoral transmission.
In 1944 Blaschko moved to the immensely active Pharmacology Department in Oxford where he remained until retirement. In the same year he married Mary Black. It was a very happy marriage. For almost half a century Hugh and Mary gave support, wisdom and warmth to co-workers of all seniorities and to innumerable other visitors to Oxford. For most of these people the Blaschkos were more truly in loco parentis than any of them could have hoped for. To the very end of his life he remained alert to everything that was going on in their vast circle of friends and in the wider world. Although he denied it, even his memory remained as astounding as ever. All of us who worked with him recall his trick - only it wasn't a trick - of saying: 'Now let me see, that paper is in the Biochemical Journal of . . .' whereupon he would haul down a 12-year-old volume and open it at the right page. This same memory was essential for keeping tabs on the enormous clan of relations; so great, in fact, that we were not in the least surprised to find a genuine cousin living just a few doors down our particular London street.
In spite of life's inevitable setbacks which, in his case, included serious illnesses, Hugh Blaschko appeared a completely contented man. His face conveyed a wonderful blend of intelligence, kindliness, sensibility and humour. In his relationships he was open-minded, thoughtful and low key. Together with an impish sense of humour and total lack of conceit, Hugh was most delightful to be with.
He was, as he liked to point out, almost exactly as old as the century. That he is now no longer here is quite unbelievable; someone singularly precious has gone out of our lives.
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