Otto Heinrich Warburg
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1931
Otto Warburg was awarded the Nobel Prize for his research into cellular respiration. His
discoveries are best summarized in the yellow highlighted
areas below. He could cause or cure cancer by changing the respiration (oxygen carrying ability of the
fluid). The method achieving that: using acid or alkaline solutions to force out / force in oxygen in
Presentation Speech for the 1930 Nobel Prize by Professor E. Hammarsten, member of the
Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine of the Royal Caroline
Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen.
The discovery for which the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine is to be awarded today concerns intracellular
combustion: that fundamental vital process by which substances directly supplied to cells or stored in them are
broken down into simpler components while using up oxygen. It is by this process that the energy required for other
vital processes is made available to the cells in a form capable of immediate utilization.
Many famous names and many discoveries have been associated with research on this vital process, while, before
natural philosophical thought was limited by the demands of accurate measurement, it was a fertile field for
speculation. The life work of many savants finds a place in the volume of which Otto Warburg has written - for the
time being - the last pages. The first were written by John Mayow in 1670, then less than 30 years of age, whose
observations on the power of saltpetre to set fire to organic substances led him to the view that certain igneo-aer
al particles existed in saltpetre, in the air, and also in organic substances. He inferred that the significance
and function of respiration was to bring these particles into the body, and so make combustion therein possible. It
is clear that Mayow's igneo-aerial particles correspond with oxygen, which had not yet been discovered. Some thirty
years later the ill-famed phlogiston theory of combustion was born, and spread like an epidemic throughout the
scientific world, causing the seeking for truth to be diverted from its proper course that had been opened by
Mayow's discovery, which had, if one may use a somewhat dubious expression, been made before its time and had
received little attention. Comprehension of the mechanism of combustion was thus, quite foolishly as it might seem,
delayed for more than a century. Return to the proper path had to await the discovery by Lavoisier of the real
nature of the process in connection with the final discovery and isolation of oxygen in the hands of Priestley and
Scheele. Otto Warburg's work has met with a kinder fate.
As combustion of foodstuffs outside the body in the presence of atmospheric oxygen occurs only at high
temperatures, it must be assumed that during combustion in living cells, something happens that alters the rather
inert air-oxygen, or the foodstuff, or perhaps both so that they can react with each other. Fully conscious of the
insuperable difficulties of explaining at present the innermost mechanism by which this inertness was overcome,
Warburg decided to investigate the nature of the mysterious substance that acts as the primus motor in
intracellular combustion. Nature often seems to use methods that appear to be indirect and less «natural» than
those we should have devised, and such was the case here. It was not possible to isolate the active substance, the
catalyst, or respiratory ferment as Warburg called it, by ordinary chemical methods, because it forms less than
about a millionth of the weight of the cells to which it is firmly bound, while it is easily destroyed by
procedures which might be used for liberating it. So, just as in modern atomic research, indirect methods had to be
It had been known, since the days of Davy and Berzelius, that many metals possess the power of initiating or
accelerating various reactions, including combustion. Starting from the possibility that had indeed been envisaged
earlier, Warburg assumed that intracellular combustion might also be regarded as being due to catalysis by metals,
i.e. that it might be initiated by some metallic compound. Definite proof that he was on the track of this
well-hidden secret of Nature was obtained by the use of exact measurements of combustion in living cells or, as
Warburg calls it, cell respiration. The quantitatively measured variations in the process of combustion under
different conditions threw light on the nature of the respiratory ferment. Its tendency to enter into compounds
with substances which combine with iron showed that it is itself an iron compound, and that its effects are due to
iron. The correspondence between the effects of light on cellular combustion inhibited by carbon monoxide and on
carbon-monoxide compounds of certain pigments closely related to blood pigments led, with the aid of a detailed
mathematical analysis to the conclusion that the respiratory ferment is a red pigment containing iron, and that it
is closely related to our own blood pigment. This was the first demonstration of an effective catalyst, a ferment,
in the living organism, and this identification is the more important because it throws light on a process of
general significance in the maintenance of life.
Professor Warburg. From the start, your research has been focused on problems of central importance. Your bold
ideas, but above all, your keen intelligence and rare perfection in the art of exact measurement have won for you
exceptional successes, and for the science of biology some of its most valuable material.
I take the liberty of mentioning those two of your discoveries, which seem to be of the greatest value.
The medical world expects great things from your experiments on cancer and
other tumours, experiments which seem already to be sufficiently far advanced to be able to furnish an explanation
for at least one cause of the destructive and unlimited growth of these tumours.
Your discovery about the nature and effect of the ferment of respiration, which the Caroline Institute is
rewarding this year with Alfred Nobel's Prize for Physiology or Medicine, has added a link of brilliant achievement
to the chain that binds for all time, John Mayow (England), Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (France), and Otto Warburg
(Germany). On behalf of the Caroline Institute I invite you to accept the prize from the hands of our
From Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine 1922-1941.
Link to Warburg's Lecture
Biography of Otto Heinrich Warburg
Otto Heinrich Warburg was born on October 8, 1883, in Freiburg, Baden . His father, the physicist
Emil Warburg, was President of the Physikalische Reichsanstalt, Wirklicher Geheimer Oberregierungsrat. Otto studied
chemistry under the great Emil Fischer, and gained the
degree, Doctor of Chemistry ( Berlin ), in 1906. He then studied under von Krehl and obtained the degree, Doctor of
Medicine ( Heidelberg ), in 1911. He served in the Prussian Horse Guards during World War I. In 1918 he was
appointed Professor at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biology, Berlin-Dahlem. Since 1931 he is Director of the
Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Cell Physiology, there, a donation of the Rockefeller Foundation to the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft, founded the previous
Warburg's early researches with Fischer were in the polypeptide field. At Heidelberg he worked
on the process of oxidation. His special interest in the investigation of vital processes by physical and
chemical methods led to attempts to relate these processes to phenomena of the inorganic world. His methods
involved detailed studies on the assimilation of carbon dioxide in plants, the metabolism of tumors, and the chemical constituent of the oxygen transferring
respiratory ferment. Warburg was never a teacher, and he has always been grateful for his
opportunities to devote his whole time to scientific research. His later researches at the Kaiser Wilhelm
Institute have led to the discovery that the flavins and the nicotinamide were the active groups of the
hydrogen-transferring enzymes. This, together with the iron-oxygenase discovered earlier, has given a
complete account of the oxidations and reductions in the living world. For his discovery of the nature and
mode of action of the respiratory enzyme, the Nobel Prize has been awarded to him in 1931. This discovery has opened up new ways in the fields of cellular metabolism and
cellular respiration. He has shown, among other things, that cancerous cells can live and develop, even in
the absence of oxygen.
In addition to many publications of a minor nature, Warburg is the author of Stoffwechsel der Tumoren (1926),
Katalytische Wirkungen der lebendigen Substanz (1928), Schwermetalle als Wirkungsgruppen von Fermenten (1946),
Wasserstoffübertragende Fermente (1948), Mechanism of Photosynthesis (1951), Entstehung der Krebszellen (1955), and
Weiterentwicklung der zellphysiologischen Methoden (1962). In the last years he added to the problems of his
Institute: chemotherapeutics of cancer, and the mechanism of X-ray's action. In photosynthesis he discovered with
Dean Burk the I-quantum reaction that splits the CO2, activated by the respiration.
Otto Warburg is a Foreign Member of the Royal Society, London (1934) and a
member of the Academies of Berlin, Halle , Copenhagen , Rome , and India . He has gained l'Ordre pour le Mérite,
the Great Cross, and the Star and Shoulder Ribbon of the Bundesrepublik. In 1965 he was made doctor honoris causa
at Oxford University.
He is unmarried and has always been interested in equine sport as a pastime.
From Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine 1922-1941.
Otto Warburg died in 1970.