Taking a Nobel trip through the past

Not many people can say their grandfather won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, nor can they say their family escaped the Holocaust.

David Meyerhof, however, can add that he visited his grandfather’s history-making laboratory to his list of family trivia when he returns from a trip to Germany in May.

Meyerhof, along with his 24-year-old son Matthew Meyerhof — a John Burroughs High School graduate — were invited by the town of Heidelberg, Germany, to visit the place where his father grew up, the medical center named after his grandfather and the laboratory where Otto Meyerhof performed his Nobel Prize-winning research in biochemistry.

The Meyerhof family last made this trip 10 years ago when the namesake medical center was dedicated. The Otto Meyerhof Centre for Outpatient Care and Clinical Research is the first of its kind in Germany to be dedicated to a Jewish scientist and professor, according to David Meyerhof.

His family will arrive from five countries for the ceremony, something that will never happen again, David Meyerhof said.

His father, former Stanford University physics Professor Walter Meyerhof, died in 2006, and his mother, who celebrated her 90th birthday this weekend, is unable to make the trip.

On the eve of the Holocaust Days of Remembrance, the weeklong commemoration of the Nazi atrocities that runs through this coming week, the trip carries an added significance.

“I think it’s incredible that this city has shown so much appreciation of my grandfather and of the Jewish people,” David Meyerhof said. “They’re allowing people to see where they used to live and really working to overcome the prejudice of the past.”

Otto Meyerhof, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Medical Research at the University of Heidelberg, was among those pushed out by a wave of anti-Semitism at the school during the time of Nazi control.

He fled the city and eventually made his home in Pennsylvania. His son was briefly in an internment camp, and the family had to travel across Europe. They escaped imprisonment on more than one occasion.

Otto’s 1922 Nobel Prize-winning discovery of the relationship between the consumption of oxygen and the metabolism of lactic acid in the muscle has deemed him the “father of biochemistry” in the medical world.

Four of his students went on to win Nobel Prizes.

“It’s incredible,” said David Meyerhof, a Los Angeles Unified science and math middle school teacher. “Nearly every college, and even high school science, textbook has my grandfather’s name in it and includes his contributions to the world of science.”

A teacher for 33 years, David Meyerhof is retiring in June, but has made sure to point out the mention to every one of his classes.

The Meyerhof family’s list of accomplishments may be lengthening soon, as Matthew Meyerhof, a graduate student at UC Merced, is working on his own thesis on the release of Nitrogen by certain bacteria in the ocean.

However, the first mention of studying nitrifying bacteria was by Otto Meyerhof in the early 20th century and David Meyerhof could not be more proud.

He hopes this trip will be different than the last and wants to focus more on experiencing his family’s history in Germany.

“I want to walk in the hallways in the building of my grandfather’s laboratory,” David Meyerhof said. “I want to feel what it was like, and I want to experience how all those scientists felt who worked with my grandfather.”

Otto Meyerhof died of a heart attack in 1951 at the age of 67, the year after his grandson, David, was born.

“I was never able to know him,” David Meyerhof said. “I feel like this is another way to do just that.”

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