The wheel of history has come full circle for Otto Meyerhof (1884-1951), a biochemist who was once the pride of Germany as a Nobel laureate, then a Jewish refugee, and now rehabilitated and honored by his native country.
A particularly interested witness to this process is Burbank resident David Meyerhof, grandson of the scientist, who recently received a letter from the German Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
The letter announced that on Oct. 5, the society would confer a newly established monetary award on a young scientist in the name of Otto Meyerhof in recognition of the latter’s contribution to science and research.
Meyerhof’s most significant work was on the chemical reactions of metabolism in muscles, which pointed to an understanding of the source of energy in the body.
In 1922, Meyerhof was warded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, together with British scientist A.V. Hill.
The proud German government of the Weimar Republic appointed Meyerhof head of the country’s prestigious medical research institute in Heidelberg and later set up a special laboratory for him in Berlin.
The roots of the Meyerhof family in Germany went back some 400 years, and, like most German Jews of his background and standing, Otto Meyerhof was fully assimilated.
He had his three children baptized at birth, but his true religion was his scientific work, his grandson recounted in an interview.
Everything changed when Hitler came to power. The Nobel laureate was stripped of his teaching post in 1935, though, in view of his global reputation, he was allowed to continue as head of the Heidelberg research institute.
In that position, and despite attacks on him in the Nazi press, he was able to employ and protect young Jewish scientists on his staff.
But by 1938, even the most patriotic German Jew could sense that there was no future for him under the Nazis. One evening, Meyerhof prepared an elaborate experiment in his lab as a cover and the same night took a train to Paris.
Two years later, when the German army overran France, Meyerhof joined the desperate stream of Jewish refugees trying to escape. Thanks to the help of Varian Fry, an American journalist who famously set up an escape route across the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain, saving the lives of many noted artists, scientists and intellectuals, among others, Meyerhof and his family were able to reach Lisbon, Portugal, and catch a ship to New York.
He arrived in the United States in late 1940 and accepted a professorship at the University of Pennsylvania.
His then 18-year-old son, Walter, in the meantime had escaped from a French internment camp and made it to New York on his own, and went on to became a noted nuclear physics professor at Stanford University.
Walter’s son, David, was born in late 1950 in Palo Alto, Calif., some 10 months before the death of his grandfather, and growing up he knew little of his family’s history.
Indeed, David Meyerhof said, it wasn’t until he was in his 20s that his father told him about his grandparents and their escape from Germany.
After high school, David attended UC Santa Barbara and California State University, Los Angeles, and then for 33 years taught a sixth-grade honors class in math and science at the Florence Nightingale Middle School in Highland Park.
Most of his students were of Latino or African-American descent, and, he said, “I take great pride that most of them have gone on to fine colleges.”
Now retired, the 62-year-old Meyerhof has been researching his family history and their Jewish connections more intensively.
Although not religious, he and his wife, Carol, attend services on Jewish holidays, but his main interest is to talk to middle- and high-school students about the Holocaust and his family’s legacy.
Meyerhof has received many letters and e-mails from students in the Burbank Unified School District, and he particularly cherishes notes from students who declare that his talks have changed their lives.
He wrote a book of poetry, “Look Beyond,” which, he said, includes “60 poems of inspiration and affirmation, based primarily on my parents.”
For personal reasons, Meyerhof said he will not attend the prize award ceremony on Oct. 5, but he plans to go to Germany next year and join in observances marking the 130th anniversary of his grandfather’s birth.