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Emil Abderhalden

Emil Abderhalden

Emil Abderhalden (March 9, 1877 – August 5, 1950) was a Swiss biochemist and physiologist. His main findings, though disputed already in the 1920s, were not finally rejected until the late 1990s. Whether his misleading findings were based on fraud or simply the result of a lack of scientific rigor remains unclear. Abderhalden's drying pistol, used in chemistry, was first described by one of his students in a textbook Abderhalden edited.[1]


  • Biography 1
  • Scientific work and controversy 2
  • Family 3
  • Bibliography 4
  • Sources 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


Emil Abderhalden was born in Oberuzwil in the Canton of St. Gallen in Switzerland.

Abderhalden studied medicine at the University of Basel and received his doctorate in 1902. He then studied in the laboratory of Emil Fischer and worked at the University of Berlin. In 1911 he moved to the University of Halle and taught physiology in the medical school.[2] From 1931 to 1950, he was president of the German Academy of Natural Scientists Leopoldina. In 1936 he was appointed member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.[3]

During World War I, he established a children's hospital and organized the removal of malnourished children to Switzerland. Subsequently, he resumed his research into physiological chemistry and began to study metabolism and food chemistry.

After World War II Abderhalden returned to Switzerland and got a position at the University of Zurich. He died there at age 73.

Scientific work and controversy

Abderhalden is known for a blood test for pregnancy, a test for cystine in urine, and for explaining the Abderhalden–Kaufmann–Lignac syndrome, a recessive genetic condition. He did extensive work in the analysis of proteins, polypeptides, and enzymes. His Abwehrfermente ("defensive enzymes") theory stated that immunological challenge will induce production of proteases. This was seemingly "proven" by many collaborators in Europe, although attempts to verify the theory abroad failed.

The pregnancy test was determined to be unreliable a few years after its inception.[4] In late 1912 Abderhalden's "defensive ferments reaction test" was applied to the differential diagnosis of Leonor Michaelis discovered in the mid-1910s; by 1922, Michaelis' reputation was so tarnished that he had to leave the country to embark on an outstanding career of scientific success abroad. Otto Westphal later called Abderhalden's Abwehrfermente work "a fraud from beginning to end".

Abderhalden's work was strongly ideologically slanted: his theory was put to use for human experiments by Otmar von Verschuer and Josef Mengele to develop a blood test for separating "Aryan" from "non-Aryan" individuals. While Abderhalden himself did not take part in this work, evidence suggests that he was instrumental in ideologically streamlining the German Academy of Natural Scientists Leopoldina by having the Jewish members purged[6] and replaced by Nazi sycophants.

"In another research project of the KWI-A Berlin Mengele worked officially in his role as camp doctor at Auschwitz. Biochemist Emil Abderhalden had turned in 1940 to Verschuer, because he needed the blood of twins to check the "Abderhalden reaction named after him" on identical twins. Abderhalden asserted here, that certain reactions of the immune system are stimulated by the production of each specific proteases. Due to the detection of such enzymes in the blood - Abderhalden called it "Defensive enzymes" - the detection of diseases such as mental illness or cancer through blood tests should be possible. Abderhalden also believed that racial characteristics were included in the proteins of the tissue and blood. These suggestions were taken up by Verschuer and developed into a research project on the inheritance of "specific white type bodies", from which he obviously hoped to, to be able to develop a blood test for the determination of human race. In an interim report of the KWI-A at the German Research Foundation, which funded the project, Verschuer explained that his assistant was posted as a camp doctor in Auschwitz, Dr Mengele, who was entered as an employee in this branch. "With the permission of the Reichsführer-SS be conducted anthropological studies of the various racial groups in this concentration camp and sent the blood samples to my laboratory for processing." Also, the biochemist Günther Hillmann was included in the project, was established as a specialist for protein research by the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biochemistry under Adolf Butenandt. Verschuer spoke in this context of 200 studied blood samples from family members of different "races" which substrates are made of." (trans. from German:, Joseph Mengele)

Despite of his theories being rejected as early as the mid-1910s, Abderhalden still loomed large as a kind of "father figure" in parts of the German scientific community and only by Deichmann and Müller-Hill's scathing 1998 review,[6] the entire extent of the rejection was revealed. However, in Abderhalden's days, the science of immunology was all but non-existent. That his experiments indeed seemed to "work" on occasion was probably due to immunoprecipitation. The crucial difference between this and Abderhalden's theory is that the former is an effect of antibodies, whereas the fictitious Abwehrfermente were presumed to be proteases; a difference that has large implications for biochemistry and immunology.

The most comprehensive analysis of the issue as to whether Abderhalden was simply grossly mistaken or perpetuated deliberate fraud can be found in Kaasch.[7]


He has family living in the United States today, including many members in Massachusetts.


  • Bibliographie der gesamten wissenschaftlichen Literatur über den Alkohol und den Alkoholismus. Unter Mitw. von ... und mit Unterstützung der Kgl. Akademie der Wissenschaften in Berlin. Berlin and Vienna, Urban & Schwarzenberg, 1904.
  • Abbau und Aufbau der Eiweisskörper im tierischen Organismus. Hoppe-Seylers Zeitschrift für physiologische Chemie, Strassburg, 1905, 44: 17–52.
  • Lehrbuch der physiologischen Chemie in 30 Vorlesungen von Emil Abderhalden. Berlin and Vienna, Urban & Schwarzenberg, 1906. 786. pages.
  • Neuere Ergebnisse auf dem Gebiete der speziellen Eiweisschemie. Jena 1909.
  • Physiologisches Praktikum. Berlin 1912; 3rd edition, 1922; translated into Spanish and Russian.
  • Schutzfermente des tierischen Organismus. Berlin, 1912; 5th edition, 1922 entitled: Die Abderhaldensche Reaktion. Translated into English, French, Russian, and Spanish.
  • Synthese der Zemmbausteine in Pflanze und Tier. Berlin, 1912; 2nd edition, 1924.
  • Die Grundlagen unserer Ernährung und unseres Stoffwechsel. Berlin, 1917; 3rd edition, 1919.
  • Lehrbuch der physiologischen Chemie in Vorlesungen von Emil Abderhalden., 3rd edition, expanded and revised. Berlin and Vienna, Urban & Schwarzenberg, 1914–1915. 4th edition, revised: Berlin and Vienna, Urban & Schwarzenberg, 1920–1921.
  • Lehrbuch der physiologischen Chemie mit Einschluß der physikalischen Chemie der Zellen u. Gewebe u. des Stoff-u.Kraftwechsels des tierischen Organismus in Vorlesung von Emil Abderhalden. 4th edition, revised: Berlin and Vienna, Urban & Schwarzenberg, 1923. 6th edition, 1931; translated into English and Russian. Edition 23 to 25, Basel, Schwabe, 1946. 417 pages.


  • Firkin, B. G. & Whitworth, J. A. (1987): Dictionary of Medical Eponyms. Parthenon Publishing. ISBN 1-85070-333-7


  1. ^ Andrea Sella (February 2009). "Classic Kit: Abderhalden's drying pistol". Chemistry World.  
  2. ^ Chambers Biographical Dictionary, ISBN 0-550-18022-2, page 2
  3. ^
  4. ^ Van Slyke, Donald D.; Vinograd-Villchur, Mariam; and Losee, J.R. (1915). "The Abderhalden Reaction" (PDF).   (experimental evidence of the unreliability of the Abderhalden pregnancy test)
  5. ^ Noll, R. (2006). "The blood of the insane". History of Psychiatry 17 (68 Pt 4): 395–418.  
  6. ^ a b Deichmann, U.; Müller-Hill, B. (1998). "The fraud of Abderhalden's enzymes".  
  7. ^ Kaasch, M. (2000). "Sensation, Irrtum, Betrug? – Emil Abderhalden und die Geschichte der Abwehrfermente". Acta Historica Leopoldina 36: 145–210. 

External links

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