Obituary: Wilhelm Feldberg

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The Independent Online
Wilhelm Siegmund Feldberg, physiologist and pharmacologist: born Hamburg 19 November 1900; Reader in Physiology, Cambridge University 1938-49; FRS 1947; Head of Physiology and Pharmacology, National Institute of Medical Research 1949-65; Grand Cross, Order of Merit of German Federal Republic 1961; CBE 1963; Head, Laboratory of Neuropharmacology, NIMR 1966-74; FRCP 1978; Royal Medal, Royal Society 1983; married 1925 Katherine Scheffler (died 1976; one daughter, and one son deceased), 1977 Kim O'Rourke (died 1981); died London 25 October 1993.

WILHELM FELDBERG was a distinguished medical scientist who made a significant contribution to our knowledge of certain chemical processes in the working of the brain and peripheral parts of the nervous system.

Born in Hamburg, Feldberg qualified in medicine in Germany in 1925. He started research in the Physiological Institute in Berlin, but fortunately had the chance to come to England to work with Professor John Langley and Sir Joseph Barcroft in Cambridge and Sir Henry Dale at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) at Hampstead. This was fortunate both because these were three of the great physiologists of the day and also because it provided him with a link with the Institute which was to become so important later.

In 1933 he was summarily dismissed from his job in Germany because he was a Jew and Dale invited him to work for the next three years at NIMR. Subsequently he had two years in Melbourne before being appointed Reader in the Department of Physiology in Cambridge. In 1949 he became head of the division of physiology and pharmacology at NIMR, which was soon to move to Mill Hill. On retiring from this post in 1966, he continued working at NIMR for a further 23 years supported by the Medical Research Council. He lists more than 350 scientific papers and in 1963 published Histamine: a pharmacological approach to the brain from its inner and outer surface, written jointly with E. Schilf.

Animals use chemical substances to send messages from one part of the body to another and this is particularly so in the nervous fibre and another nerve cell or an effector such as a muscle. These chemicals have to be made, released and destroyed after they have conveyed the message. Dale was one of the pioneers in studying these substances and he, with Feldberg and a group showed that acetylcholine was a transmitter at a number of sites.

Feldberg, throughout his career, was concerned with these natural chemical messengers, of which a number are now known. He showed for example that acetylcholine was released from certain tissues when excited and that the same or other tissues were excited when exposed to the substance; he also studied its synthesis. He did a lot on the release of histamine, the substance involved in many allergic reactions and worked on several other important natural substances, often using as a tool drugs known to block synthesis, action or destruction.

For much of his career Feldberg used techniques, which he developed, to apply either the natural substances or drugs to specific parts of the brain. There is a barrier between the blood and the nervous tissues of the brain which prevents many substances in the blood reaching active sites on nerve cells. This can be avoided if the drugs can be put into the fluid that bathes the nerve cells. To achieve this he developed methods of applying the drugs to restricted areas of the inner surface of the brain.

The research that Feldberg did is of great importance not only because of its extension of knowledge about the workings of the nervous system but as a background to much work on drugs. This kind of work has provided the background to the synthesis of drugs that mimic or block natural substances which have very profound physiological effects - such drugs are important in the control of bodily function.

Feldberg was a very cultured and humane person. He had a great interest in furniture and had some splendid pictures. He was very kind and long-suffering with his students and collaborators. He also had a tremendous sense of humour and much enjoyed an event that took place in 1939. In the autumn of that year he, A. Fessard from France and D. Nachmansohn from the United States had worked on the electric ray, the Torpedo. The apparently sinister correspondence about torpedoes between three people with foreign-sounding names during the first year of the Second World War aroused the interest of the Secret Service.

Feldberg was very keen to promote relations between British and German scientists and, using the money that he received from the German government after the war as restitution, and the pension accompanying the emeritus professorship conferred by that government, founded the Feldberg Foundation for the exchange of lecturers between the countries.

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