1961: The Scientist Who Won a Nobel Based on a Dream Dies

Two years after being honored in Stockholm, Otto Loewi was held hostage in Austria by the Nazis until he signed over his Nobel winnings to them.

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Otto Loewi, the scientist who imagined an experiment in a dream, performed it when he awoke - and won a Nobel for the idea.
Otto Loewi, the scientist who imagined an experiment in a dream, performed it when he awoke - and won a Nobel for the idea. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On December 25, 1961, Otto Loewi, the Jewish, German-born medical scientist who imagined an experiment in a dream, performed it when he awoke - and won a Nobel Prize for his findings, died, at the age of 88.

Loewi’s 1921 dream-inspired study, which overturned conventional wisdom about how nerves communicate information to other types of tissue, was just one of the many physiological issues he studied during a long and fruitful career – a career that was interrupted by his expulsion from Austria by the Nazis.

Otto Loewi was born in Frankfurt-am-Main on June 3, 1873. His father, Jakob Loewi, was a prosperous wine merchant, whose second wife, the former Anna Willstaedter, was Otto’s mother.

Otto grew up in a sophisticated, secular environment. As a student at the Frankfurt, he excelled in both Greek and Latin, but was a poor student in both math and physics. When it came time to attend university, Otto’s inclination was to pursue art history, but his parents convinced him of the need to enter a more practical field. He decided on medicine and matriculated at the University of Strasbourg, which was then part of Germany. Throughout his life, however, he remained a passionate consumer of art, music and fine food.

No heart to be a doctor

Loewi received his medical degree in 1896, writing a dissertation on the effects of drugs on the frog heart. Over the next few years, he did a clinical residency at the City Hospital of Frankfurt, but was dispirited by the high mortality rates he witnessed from infectious diseases, and decided to devote himself to medical research, in particular in the field of pharmacology.

His research began in the laboratory of pharmacologist Hans Horst Meyer, at the University of Marburg (1898-1904), before he moved onto the University of Vienna and finally to the University of Graz in 1909, where he remained until 1938. His work revolved around basic physiological processes, such as the metabolism of proteins and carbohydrates.

According to Loewi's recounting, he had his fateful dream on the night before Easter Sunday of 1921. Waking in the night, and realizing he had dreamt something significant, he scribbled down what he had seen on a piece of paper before returning to his slumber. The next morning, however, he despaired when he discovered his notes were illegible. Fortunately, the dream -- of a laboratory experiment -- returned the following evening, and he rushed to his lab to carry out the test.

Using frog hearts, Otto Loewi elucidated the mechanism of nerve communication.Credit: Moshe Gilad

What stops the heart

The experiment called for isolating two frog hearts, still beating, one with nerves attached, the other without. To the one with vagus nerve intact, he applied electrical current, which caused the heart to slow down. He then took some of the saline in which it was soaking and added it to the tray with the second heart. The second heart slowed down as well, even without application of any current.

The result indicated that the stimulated nerve emitted a chemical – later identified as acetylcholine – and it was this that transmitted the slow-down instruction to the heart.

His conclusion defied the then-conventional wisdom that nerve messages are conveyed by electrical impulses. It is this result that won Loewi and his colleague Henry Hallett Dale, the 1936 Nobel Prize in Physiology for Medicine. 

That honor did not preclude the arrest of Loewi and two of his sons on March 11, 1938, the night before the German annexation of Austria. He was released after two months, after he had instructed the Swedish bank where his Nobel Prize cash was being held to transfer it to the Nazi regime.

Loewi left Austria in September 1938, and eventually settled in New York. He was joined there in 1941 by his wife, the former Guida Goldschmidt, who too was held hostage by the regime until she had title to family property in Italy transferred into its hands.

Otto took up a position at the medical college of New York University. He continued working up until his death, on this date in 1961, three years after Guida’s death. He died on Christmas Day, peacefully, while in mid-sentence with a visiting friend at his New York home.