Otto Loewi

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Otto Loewi (June 3, 1873 - December 25, 1961) was a German-American pharmacologist. His discovery of acetylcholine helped in enhancing medical therapy and personally earned for him the 1936 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine which he shared with Sir Henry Dale.



According to Loewi, the idea for his key experiment came to him in his sleep. The next day, he dissected out of frogs two beating hearts: one with the vagus nerve which controls heart rate attached, the other heart on its own. Both hearts were bathed in a saline solution (i.e. Ringer's solution). By electrically stimulating the vagus nerve, Loewi made the first heart beat slower. Then, Loewi took some of the liquid bathing the first heart and applied it to the second heart. The application of the liquid made the second heart also beat slower, proving that some soluble chemical released by the vagus nerve was controlling the heart rate. He called the unknown chemical Vagusstuff. It was later found that this chemical corresponded to acetylcholine (Kandel, et al 2000).

Loewi's investigations “On an augmentation of adrenaline release by cocain” and “On the connection between digitalis and the action of calcium” were profound concepts and were studied relentlessly by others decades later.

He also clarified two mechanisms of eminent therapeutic importance: the blockade and the augmentation of nerve action by certain drugs.


The Nobel Prize diploma of Otto Loewi, displayed in the Royal Society, London.
The Nobel Prize diploma of Otto Loewi, displayed in the Royal Society, London.

Loewi was born in Frankfurt, Germany. He received his medical doctoral degree from University of Strasbourg (then part of Germany) in 1896. After seeing a number of deaths due to incurable diseases such as tuberculosis and pneumonia, he decided to give up clinical work and devote his time to pharmacology research.

Beginning in 1898, he spent many years in Austria, where his first lines of research were in the area of metabolism. Loewi investigated how vital organs respond to chemical and electrical stimulation. He also established their relative dependence on epinephrine for proper function. Consequently, he learnt the way of how nerve impulses are transmitted by chemical messengers. The first chemical neurotransmitter that he identified was acetylcholine.

At the onset of World War II, Loewi fled Austria when the Nazis invaded in 1938. Loewi moved to the United States in 1940, where he became a research professor at the New York University College of Medicine. In 1946, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. In 1954, he became a Foreign Member of the Royal Society. He died in New York City.


  • Kandel, Eric, James Schwartz, and Thomas Jessel. 2000. Principles of Neural Science. 4th ed. McGraw-Hill, New York.

External links

es:Otto Loewi


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