|Rare Book & Manuscript Library|
At a Glance
Box 1: Cataloged correspondence, manuscripts and photographs; Boxes 2 and 3: Arranged correspondence, manuscripts, photographs, memorabilia and printed materials; Boxes 4-7: Printed materials; Boxes 8 and 9: Awards and memorabilia; 2 scroll cylinders (degrees).
Correspondence, manuscripts, photographs, memorabilia, and printed materials primarily concerning biochemistry. Correspondents include 24 Nobel Prize winners, including Otto Loewi, Otto Meyerhof, Archibald Vivian Hill, Feodor Lynes, Severo Ochoa, and Otto Warburg. Other correspondents include Sir Hans Krebs, John Farquhar Fulton, Jean Pierre Changeux, and others in Europe, Israel, Japan, and the USSR as well as the USA. Nachmansohn's concern with the place of Jews in science appears throughout the collection, especially in material concerning the Weismann Institute and other academic institutions to which he belonged. There are photographs of colleagues, many signed and inscribed during his many trips. The printed materials consist chiefly of Nachmanson's published works beginning with his 1927 doctoral dissertation (University of Berlin) and continuing throughout his professional life at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (1926-1930), the Sorbonne (1933-1939), Yale University (1939-1942), and Columbia University (1942-1982).
Using the Collection
Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Restrictions on Access
This following boxes are located off-site: 2-9 and Tube Box. You will need to request this material at least three business days in advance to use the collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room.
Ownership and Custodial History
Gift of Dr. David Nachmansohn, 1976.
Gift of Mrs. Edith Berger Nachmansohn, 1984.
Gift of Joseph A. and Ruth D. Nachmansohn Rothschild, PhDs, 1992.
About the Finding Aid / Processing Information
Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Papers Processed BRC 10/21/76.
Addition Processed JL-W 04/--/85.
2020-07-17 Remediated finding aid with edited, enhanced description. cml
History / Biographical Note
David Nachmansohn (1898-1983) was a biochemist, who was responsible for clarifying the role of phosphocreatine energy production in the muscles, and the role of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in nerve stimulation. He was also recognized for his basic research into the biochemistry and mechanism underlying bioelectric phenomena.
In 1898, Dr. Nachmansohn was born in Ekaterinoslav, Russia (now Dnipro, Ukraine) into a Jewish liberal and democratic family, which he credited with imbuing him with the importance of cultural, spiritual, and moral values. As a child, his family moved to Berlin, where he attended a "humanistic" gymnasium, where he pursued studies in Latin, Greek, history, and literature. Although the curriculum did not expose him to the sciences, Nachmansohn credited literature, particularly, Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) for having a most profound influence on his thinking and outlook on life. In the second part of Faust, Nachmansohn stated: Faust realized at the end that the greatest value in life, that which gives life real meaning and the deepest satisfaction, is creative achievement. This belief that creative work is more valuable and counts more than anything else would remain the constant guideline of his life.
After graduating from the gymnasium in 1918, at the insistence of his parents, Nachmansohn began his medical studies, which would offer him the promise of some amount of economic security in a period when German society was experiencing bleak social and political conditions. Although he pursued the traditional medical curriculum at the University of Berlin, he also engaged in some creative Goethean thinking and supplemented his studies by attending the lectures of the classical philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (1848-1931), the philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1875-1945) and the historian Friedrich Meinecke (1862-1954). Upon graduation in 1924, Nachmansohn received additional training in biochemistry under the physician and physiologist Peter Rona (1871-1945), who directed the biochemical laboratory in the Pathology Department at the Charité Hospital of the Berlin University Medical School. In 1926, he joined the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institut für Biologie (Institut) where he worked in the laboratory under the physician, biochemist, and Nobel Prize laureate Otto Meyerhof (1884-1951). At the Institut, Nachmansohn discovered that rapidly contracting muscles contained more phosphocreatine than slowly contracting ones, which eventually led to the hypothesis that phosphocreatine was involved in the regeneration of the Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) that was built up to provide energy during muscular contraction.
After the Nazi regime came to power, in January 1933, Nachmansohn left Germany with his family to Palestine, but the scientific facilities were not favorable there for the continuation of his research. Therefore, after receiving several offers, he gained a position in the Faculty of Sciences at the Sorbonne, Paris (1933-1939). At the Sorbonne, Nachmansohn determined that acetylcholinesterase is present at high concentrations in many different types of excitable nerve and muscle fibers and in brain tissue. This discovery was crucial to lending support for 1936 Nobel Prize laureates Otto Loewi (1873-1961) and Henry Dale's (1875-1968) then novel proposal that acetylcholine functions in the transmission of impulses from nerves across junctions to other nerves or to muscles.
At the invitation of John F. Fulton (1899-1960), in September 1937, Nachmansohn visited the United States and gave a lecture at Yale University. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, in 1939, Fulton asked him to join his laboratory. At Yale, he published studies confirming the presence of even higher concentration of acetylcholinesterase in the electric organ of electric eels. This work also demonstrated a strong connection between the release of acetylcholine and the electric discharge.
In 1942, Nachmansohn accepted a faculty position at from Columbia University as a Professor of Biochemistry (1942-1967) and later became a special lecturer (1967-1982). Nachmansohn stated that he was attracted to Columbia's reputation as a great scientific and intellectual center. In the Medical School, for example, basic laboratory research was strongly emphasized, particularly under the forceful leadership of Clarke, Hans Thacher (1887-1972) and Robert F. Loeb (1895-1973). He declared that, in the 1930s, Clarke's liberal attitude and generous personality had attracted many prominent investigators such as Rudolf Schoenheimer (1898-1941), Konrad Emil Bloch (1912-2000), David Shemin (1911-1991) and David Ezra Green (1910-1983).
At Columbia, Nachmansohn attracted a great number of students and investigators to his laboratory at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, which was a place of much excitement and feverish activity. For example, Nachmansohn and his colleagues wrote nearly four hundred articles, the majority original research papers, were published from his laboratory between 1947 and 1977. In the spring of 1980, former students, collaborators, and friends of Nachmansohn organized an international symposium at the University of Liège to honor him on his eighty-first birthday. It was apparent to Nachmansohn at this meeting that his field of endeavor had been expanded in many directions by his former associates and their students. Particularly noteworthy was the tremendous progress made in the understanding of the molecular structure of acetylcholine esterase and of the acetylcholine receptor.
After his retirement in 1967, Nachmansohn continued to work, travel, and lecture extensively. To illustrate, having a great pride in his Jewish heritage, he was an enthusiastic champion of the Zionist cause and made many visits to Israel. In this regard, Nachmansohn was an active supporter of the Hebrew University and the Weizmann Institute, where he served as a member of the board of governors. He was a firm believer in the world fraternity of science and was among the first scientists of German Jewish origin to visit Germany after the war, working tirelessly for the reestablishment of scientific ties between Germany and the West. Nachmansohn also promoted intensely scientific rapprochement between Germany and Israel. In the 1970s, Nachmansohn devoted himself to the study of the role played by German-Jewish scientists in the explosion of scientific knowledge that took place in the first quarter of the 20th century. This scholarly investigation culminated in the publication of his book, German-Jewish Pioneers in Science: 1900-1933.
Over the course of his career, Nachmansohn received many honors. He was elected a member of the German Academy of Natural Sciences (Leopoldina) (1963) and became a member of the National Academy of Sciences (1965). Nachmansohn was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an honorary fellow of the Weizmann Institute of Sciences of Israel (1972) and the Berlin Medical Society. He was a recipient of the Pasteur Medal (Paris), the Neuberg Medal (New York), the Medal of the Société de chimie biologique (Paris), the Albrecht von Graefe Medal of the Berlin Medical Society, the Nicloux Medal (Paris), and the Gold Medal of the Spanish Council for Scientific Research. Nachmansohn received an honorary MD degree from the Free University of Berlin and honorary DSc degrees from the University of Liège (Belgium) and Tufts University (Boston). In October 1984, an international symposium on the molecular basis of nerve activity was held at the Free University of Berlin in memory of David Nachmansohn. Attesting to the high esteem in which David Nachmansohn was held by his colleagues, this conference was sponsored jointly by the Max-Planck Gesellschaft zur Forderung der Wissenschaften [Max-Planck Society for the Advancement of Science], the Société française de chimie biologique [French Society of Biological Chemistry], the Weizmann Institute of Sciences, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft [German Research Foundation], the Free University of Berlin, and the Gesellschaft für Biologische Chemie [Society for Biological Chemistry].
On November 2, 1983, Dr. David Nachmansohn passed away in NYC.