Obituary: Professor Otto Lowenstein

L. H. Finlayson
Monday 22 February 1999 00:02

OTTO LOWENSTEIN was one of the scientists and intellectuals who were fortunate to leave Germany well before the outbreak of the Second World War.

He came to Birmingham University in 1933 through the influence of Professor Harold Munro Fox, who was then Head of the Department of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy. Lowenstein had already made a reputation in Munich, where he was a student of Karl von Frisch, the distinguished zoologist who caused a stir in scientific circles with his classic studies on the dance language of the honey-bee. Von Frisch's interests in sense organs and behaviour were wide and Lowenstein was set to work on a study of the labyrinth of the minnow, the organ that controls balance and which in structure is very like our own inner ear.

Although he already had a DPhil degree from the University of Munich for his work on the minnow, Lowenstein started an entirely different type of project at Birmingham. This study, on the respiration of the freshwater shrimp in water of different salinities, formed part of a submission that gained him the PhD degree of Birmingham University in 1937. Such a radical change of research field demonstrated the versatility and broad knowledge of zoology and comparative physiology which were hallmarks of Otto Lowenstein as a scientist.

His early education at the Neues Realgymnasium in Munich had laid a sound foundation of classical and modern languages. To supplement his income as an undergraduate he even tutored in Latin. At university he studied chemistry as his principal subject but he turned to zoology because of the influence of von Frisch. Lowenstein's facility in mathematics and the physical sciences were displayed in his teaching and research.

From Birmingham, Lowenstein went in 1937 to Exeter University College for one session before taking up a lectureship in Glasgow University, where he remained until 1952. During the war years the staff of the Zoology Department was reduced to a minimum and Lowenstein made a major contribution to the training of the few students of Zoology. Lowenstein's first wife, Elsa, who had been a student with him in Munich, was one of the part-time demonstrators who taught in the laboratory.

As a tribute to his early standing as a classical zoologist Lowenstein was asked to revise the standard textbook, A Textbook of Zoology by Parker and Haswell, for its sixth edition in 1940, when he was only 34 years old.

While on the staff at Glasgow, Lowenstein built his own electrophysiological equipment, for recording the minute changes in electrical current that pass along nerves during the transmission of information to the central nervous system. This work was a continuation of his studies of the labyrinth of fishes. During this period he collaborated with Dr Alec Sand at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Plymouth, where they showed how the sensory cells of the semi-circular canals in the labyrinth of the skate responded directionally to rotation.

It was largely for this ground-breaking study that Lowenstein was elected to the Royal Society in 1955, soon after he returned to Birmingham as Mason Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy.

One of his earliest acts on arrival in Birmingham was to change the name of the department to Zoology and Comparative Physiology, a logical change, not only because it reflected his own interests more accurately, but because the department from its inception had specialised in physiological research and teaching with emphasis on the comparative approach.

Apart from a brief excursion into research on stretch receptors in the abdomen of insects Lowenstein continued his work on the labyrinth using more sophisticated equipment including computers, which were then in their infancy. Even after he had officially retired this work went on, supported by a Leverhulme Foundation Fellowship. He became involved in research in collaboration with Nasa, because the Americans were having problems with their astronauts suffering from space sickness, which involves abnormal input to the labyrinth.

Otto Lowenstein was a private man who did not take part in group activities except when playing his viola with a few friends. He was a passionate music lover and, just as he enjoyed building his early neurophysiological apparatus, so he enjoyed building elaborate hi-fi equipment so that he could enjoy the best possible sound quality. He was an avid reader, particularly of philosophy and poetry. One of his earliest publications was an article in Biological Reviews on philosophy and biology. He was particularly interested in the philosophy of Lucretius and contributed a chapter on him to a book in the "Studies in Latin Literature" series, Lucretius (1965), edited by his colleague Professor Donald R. Dudley.

Another of Lowenstein's interests was oil painting, and, as one might expect, his work was modern in style. In all his interests he was keenly aware of the past but enthusiastic about the latest advances in techniques and ideas. Although he was not an outdoors or sporting enthusiast he was particularly fond of mountain walking and he often used to speak of the pleasure he took in walking among the flowers of the high Alpine meadows.

L. H. Finlayson

Otto Egon Lowenstein, zoologist: born Munich 24 October 1906; Research Scholar, Birmingham University 1933-37, Mason Professor of Zoology and Comparative Physiology 1952-74 (Professor Emeritus), Leverhulme Emeritus Research Fellow 1974-76, Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Pharmacology Department, Birmingham University Medical School 1976-99; Assistant Lecturer, University College, Exeter 1937-38; Senior Lecturer, Glasgow University 1938-52; FRS 1955; married first Elsa Ritter (one son, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved), second Gunilla Dohlman (died 1981; one stepson), third Maureen McKernan (died 1997); died Birmingham 31 January 1999.

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