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Emil Abderhalden

See also: Abderhalden and Rudolf Abderhalden

Emil Abderhalden (March 9 1877 - August 5 1950) was a Swiss biochemist and physiologist. He was born in Oberuzwil in the Canton of St. Gallen in Switzerland.

Emil 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. From 1931 to 1950, he was president of the German Academy of Natural Scientists Leopoldina.

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 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 (Van Slyke et al. 1915). In late 1912 Abderhalden's "defensive ferments reaction test" was applied to the differential diagnosis of dementia praecox from other mental diseases and from normals by Stuttgart psychiatrist August Fauser (1856-1938), and his miraculous claims of success were soon replicated by researchers in Germany and particularly in the United States. However, despite the worldwide publicity this "blood test for madness" generated, within a few years the "Abderhalden-Fauser reaction" was discredited and only a handful of American psychiatric researchers continued to believe in it (Noll, 2006). Certainly by 1920 the test was all but forgotten in the USA. Abderhalden's reputation continued to grow in Germany, however, where collaborators managed to "replicate" his results, usually by simply repeating experiments until they succeeded and discarding the negative results. As Abderhalden was seen as the founder of scientific biochemistry in Germany, questioning his work could harm one's career, as 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 and replaced by Nazi sycophants.[citation needed]

Despite the 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, the entire extent of the rejection was revealed. It must be noted, however, that 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 the whether Abderhalden was simply grossly mistaken or perpetuating deliberate fraud can be found in Kaasch (2000).


  • 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.


  • Deichmann, U. & Müller-Hill, B. (1998): The fraud of Abderhalden's enzymes. Nature 393:109-111. HTML abstract
  • Firkin, B. G. & Whitworth, J. A. (1987): Dictionary of Medical Eponyms. Parthenon Publishing. ISBN 1-85070-333-7
  • Kaasch, M. (2000) Sensation, Irrtum, Betrug? -- Emil Abderhalden und die Geschichte der Abwehrfermente. Acta Historica Leopoldina, 36: 145-210.
  • Noll, R. (2006) The blood of the insane. History of Psychiatry, 17:395-418.
  • Van Slyke, Donald D.; Vinograd-Villchur, Mariam; and Losee, J.R. (1915): The Abderhalden Reaction. Journal of Biological Chemistry 23(1):377-406. PDF fulltext experimental evidence of the unreliability of the Abderhalden pregnancy test
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Emil_Abderhalden". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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