Feldberg Foundation

for anglo-german scientific exchange
Established 1961

Research achievements

Wilhelm Feldberg was renowned both for his research and teaching. A research career of more than sixty years produced a prodigious output of 354 scientific papers. His first work was on the pharmacology of histamine, particularly its effects on the circulation. As a young researcher in Berlin, Feldberg succeeded in identifying histamine in perfusates from isolated guinea pig lungs challenged with antigen, as well as a second substance called ‘slow-releasing substance of anaphylaxis’, later identified with the leukotrienes. These observations were crucial to the understanding and treatment of antigen-antibody reactions in asthma.

Feldberg is best known for his an outstanding contributions to one of the most fundamental concepts in physiology and pharmacology – that a nerve impulse is transmitted from the nerve endings of a nerve cell or neurone to a second neurone or an effector organ, such as a muscle, by the release of a chemical substance or ‘neurotransmitter’ into the intervening gap or ‘synapse’. This is the theory of neurohumoral transmission. The problem was to detect and identify the transmitter. As a young researcher in Berlin, Feldberg devised a method for perfusing organs through their arterial blood supply, and measuring acetylcholine in the perfusate collected during electrical stimulation of the nerve. In Berlin, and in later work with Dale and his colleagues at the National institute for Medical Research (NIMR) at Hampstead, Feldberg used this technique to establish acetylcholine as a neurotransmitter at several important sites in the peripheral nervous system and at skeletal muscle. Feldberg and his colleagues were even able to measure the actual number of molecules of acetylcholine released by a single nerve impulse. Feldberg also studied the enzymes involved in the synthesis of acetylcholine (‘cholineacetylase’) and its breakdown in the tissues (‘cholineasterase’). Cholineacetylase was detected in extracts of brain and gut, and the distribution of this enzyme in the central nervous system was used to define ‘cholinergic’ and ‘non-cholinergic’ neural pathways. During World War II, Feldberg demonstrated that the toxic effects of war gases were caused by an action that suppressed some cholinesterase action.

One of Feldberg’s favourite aphorisms was ‘die Methode ist alles’ (the method is everything), and nowhere is this better exemplified than by his ‘pharmacological approach to the brain’. To circumvent the ‘blood-brain barrier’ which prevents access of many drugs to the brain and to exclude peripheral systemic effects, he perfected a method for injecting drugs directly into the ventricles. Using this technique, he defined the site and mode of action of several important drugs in the CNS. With his co-workers, he was able to show that prostaglandins produce fever by acting on a temperature-regulating centre in the hypothalamus; and demonstrated that drugs such as paracetamol, which reduce fever, do so by lowering the level of prostaglandins in the brain.

In other important work, he elucidated aspects of the control of blood sugar, blood pressure, and the release of the hypothalamic hormone, vasopressin, which is important for the control of fluid balance in the body.

Feldberg’s research gained international recognition. He was elected to the fellowship of several scientific societies and awarded a number of honorary degrees both at home and abroad. His final accolade was the award of the Wellcome Gold Medal of the British Pharmacological Society.

Feldberg was an inspired teacher. During the tenure of his Readership in Physiology at Cambridge from 1938 to 1949, his lectures, and particularly his practical class demonstrations, were highly acclaimed by his undergraduate students. He had a genius for collaborative work. In 1949 he became Head of the Division of Physiology and Pharmacology at NIMR which had then moved to Mill Hill. It attracted a succession of aspiring young postgraduates from all parts of the world. Each would in turn be recruited to Feldberg’s newest research project and gain enormously from his teaching.

For a fuller account of Wilhelm Feldberg’s life and work, see Wilhelm Feldberg 1900-1993 (Memoirs of Fellows Royal Society Lond 43, 143-170, 1997, by G. Bisset and T.V.P. Bliss).

About | The founder | Board members | Prizewinners | Selection of prizewinners | Contact us