The Gay, Jewish Scientist Spared by the Nazis

Eighty years after the Nazis let Otto Warburg continue his research into cancer during the Holocaust, the Nobel Prize winner’s breakthroughs are receiving a renewed scientific focus

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Otto Warburg in his laboratory in 1960.
Otto Warburg in his laboratory in 1960.Credit: Jung/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images
Rich Tenorio
Rich Tenorio

Eighty years ago, on June 21, 1941, an unusual meeting took place at Nazi Party headquarters. Otto Warburg, a German scientist who directed a branch of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, was summoned to meet with SS leaders Heinrich Himmler and Viktor Brack. Despite being a Nobel laureate, Warburg had been evicted from the institute and his career jeopardized because he was Jewish and suspected of being gay. However, the SS allowed Warburg to keep working. That’s because his research focused on something that terrified the Nazis -- cancer. Now science is revisiting Warburg’s findings related to the dread disease, as detailed in a new book by Jewish-American author Sam Apple -- “Ravenous: Otto Warburg, the Nazis, and the Search for the Cancer-Diet Connection.”

“I came to describe Warburg as a complicated hero,” Apple said in a phone interview. “On the one hand, he was a brilliant scientist who made important discoveries. I also admired him because he hated the Nazis.” Yet, Apple added, “He was not a great human. He was a selfish, narcissistic man who always really acted in his own interest.”

During World War II, Warburg’s interests and the Nazis’ interests converged on the issue of cancer. The Nazis let him work on a cure even while murdering six milion Jews in the Holocaust. Reflecting how seriously the Third Reich viewed the disease, the SS leaders met with Warburg mere hours before the invasion of the USSR in Operation Barbarossa. Later that day, Adolf Hitler -- who had lost his mother to breast cancer -- discussed cancer with his propaganda henchman Joseph Goebbels, according to Goebbels’ diary.

After the SS leaders met with Warburg, it let him relocate to a new workplace -- a mansion where the kaiser had once discussed Zionism with Theodor Herzl. Warburg lived and worked alongside his rumored lover, Jacob Heiss. Yet with the postwar discovery of DNA, science abandoned Warburg’s belief that the cure for cancer lay in metabolism, embracing genetics instead. Now, the pendulum is swinging back in his favor, along with more recent findings that ostensibly link cancer, diabetes, obesity and sugar consumption -- all of which Apple explores in his narrative.

Apple first learned about Warburg while researching the subject of metabolism. He came across a mention of Warburg’s 1923 discovery of the metabolism of cancer cells and wrote an article about him for the New York Times magazine in 2016. The publisher Liveright invited him to write a book about the subject as well.

German scientist Otto Warburg in his laboratory.Credit: Photograph by Georg Pahl, The German Federal Archives

A faculty member in the science writing and writing MA programs at Johns Hopkins University, Apple has addressed Jewish history and the Holocaust in his work, including his previous book, “Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria’s Jewish Past with Its Last Wandering Shepherd.” In Warburg, he encountered a story combining his interests in Jewish themes and science. He credited two German historians, Petra Gentz-Werner and Karin Nickelsen, with invaluable assistance on the project.

Warburg was the son of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, and a relative of the famous Warburg financial dynasty. His demanding professor father was a contemporary of Einstein’s. The younger Warburg served with the famed Prussian cavalry during World War I and focused his research on a subject that preoccupied the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“Cancer was increasingly becoming a major disease in Germany,” Apple said. “Warburg had such a big ego. He really wanted to make world-changing discoveries. His hero was Louis Pasteur, who changed the entire world with a breakthrough discovery, a new understanding of a disease. He wanted to be next in line.”

In 1923, Warburg discovered the metabolism of cancer cells -- specifically, that they eat glucose at ravenous rates. The mechanism driving this has since become known as the Warburg effect. By the time he won the Nobel Prize in 1931, his resume had swelled further.

“He was considered the greatest biochemist of his generation,” Apple said, “not just in cancer. He made hugely important discoveries in cellular reproduction and the understanding of enzymes, how cells take up nutrients and break them down, and important discoveries in photosynthesis. He was truly a genius.”

The cover of “Ravenous: Otto Warburg, the Nazis, and the Search for the Cancer-Diet Connection,” by Sam Apple.Credit: Liveright Publishing Corporation

Yet in 1933, Hitler became chancellor of Germany, and two years later the Nazis passed the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws. Warburg’s status as a Mischling or half-Jew afforded some temporary protection but this began eroding. Controversially, Warburg attempted to have his status changed to “Aryanized” or fully German.

“It’s not clear whether [the Nazis] officially changed his status but they certainly considered it,” Apple said.

Ultimately, due in part to Warburg’s cancer-focused work and in part to his connections with high-level Nazis, he kept his position so long as his research remained pinpointed on cancer. All the while, Heiss stayed at his side.

“[Warburg] was as close to openly gay as anybody could be at that time in certain parts of German life,” Apple said. “He did not try to hide his relationship with Heiss … I think it was a truly loving relationship.”

Warburg and Heiss endured some dire moments. Not only did Warburg survive his meeting with the SS on the day of Barbarossa, but several years later, he was accused of being an enemy of the state.

Author Sam Apple.Credit: Mark Tassoni

“In both instances, he very easily could have been killed,” Apple said. “Particularly the second [instance], near the end of the war. It didn’t take much at that point for the Nazis to murder anyone, let alone someone who was half-Jewish and gay.”

Warburg survived only to have his findings overshadowed in the postwar years, beginning with the discovery of DNA by Rosalind Franklin, James Watson and Francis Crick.

“By the 1970s, all cancer scientists were just interested in mutations in DNA, molecular biology,” Apple reflects. “The kind of stuff Warburg studied, biochemistry, was considered ‘Old World science.’”

The book tracks the path back to prominence for Warburg, through more recent cancer research that incorporates not only his biochemistry but also some aspects that he had overlooked, including diabetes, obesity and sugar.

As the debate regenerates itself, Otto Warburg is having quite an afterlife.

“I think what happened after the war is that his reputation suffered,” Apple said. “People thought he was wrong about cancer. The story I tell in my book is how his cancer work is being rediscovered. He’s a bit of a hero again.”

“Ravenous: Otto Warburg, the Nazis, and the Search for the Cancer-Diet Connection,” by Sam Apple. Liveright Publishing, 2021. 416 pages, $28.95.

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