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Dr Otto Warburg in his study.

The Nazi who could have cured cancer

The Nazi regime was undoubtedly one of the most evil tyrannies in modern history and was directly responsible for the persecution and genocide of millions of Jews, Slavs, gypsies, homosexuals and disabled people. The atrocities of the Third Reich have been well-documented and the vast majority of people today are well aware of the horrors of the Holocaust. However, that's not to say that Nazi Germany wasn't also responsible for a number of impressive breakthroughs in the fields of science, medicine and engineering. This is not to excuse their appalling crimes, but nevertheless, it seems paradoxical that the Fascists who killed and maimed so many innocents have also advanced so many fields of human endeavour. Just look at how many Nazi scientists were cleared of war crimes and recruited by the United States in Operation Paperclip after the end of the war. Unfortunately for many people, Dr Otto Warburg was not one of them.

Since Nazi Germany was an autocracy, scientific research was dictated by the often-mercurial whims of Adolf Hitler, and one of the Führer's biggest fears was cancer. Indeed, Hitler himself was something of a health freak throughout his life. He was vegetarian and was ardently against smoking; not to mention the Nazis produced a nicotine-free brand of tobacco in the 1930s after Eberhard Schairer and Erich Schöniger observed that lung cancer patients were also likely to be heavy smokers. After the removal of a laryngeal polyp, Hitler became paranoid about anything cancer-related.

A portrait of Adolf Hitler. Credit: Getty

As Robert Proctor, author of the medical history book The Nazi War on Cancer states, "The irony is that in this murderous regime, you also find the world’s most progressive anticancer policy. This has been totally ignored ... Health researchers feel uncomfortable citing Nazi sources, and historians are wary of stressing anything that appears 'positive' about the period. What has to be recognised is that good science can travel with bad politics."

Nowhere is this more apparent than the case of scientist Dr Otto Warburg, a pioneer in the field of physiology and cancer research, who even managed to win the Nobel prize in 1931 as a result of his research. Yet, when a shadow fell over Germany in the wake of the Great Depression and fascism seized the nation, Warburg was forced to collaborate with the Nazi party in order to preserve his research. For Warburg had loftier ambitions than most men. He was less concerned with the horrors of the second world war, and the institutional abuses of minorities perpetrated under Hitler's orders.

In his mind, the only war worth fighting was against disease, against malignant cells and inoperable tumours, which would kill far more people than the Nazi party ever would. Many of his peers treated his complicity with scorn, and yet despite once being one of the most famous researchers of his day, he is practically unknown among the former Allied powers, even though his contributions to cancer research were so vital. In another time, living outside a dictatorship, maybe Warburg could have cured cancer.

Dr Otto Warburg sitting at a desk. Credit: Getty

Dr Otto Warburg was born in 1883 on the border between Germany and Switzerland and was a quarter Jewish on his father's side. As a young man he studied chemistry under the famous Emil Fischer, and later served in World War I in a cavalry unit, where he was awarded the Iron Cross for his feats of bravery. Although he did not deny his Jewish heritage, he was intensely patriotic. He was also a friend and contemporary of Albert Einstein, who convinced him to academia after armistice day.

By 1918, Warburg had been appointed professor at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biology and by 1931 he was named Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Cell Physiology. It was after the latter appointment that he first began his research into cancerous cells by investigating the metabolism of tumours and the respiration of cells, discovering that cancerous cells appeared to thrive in a low-alkaline, low-oxygen environment. He was awarded the Nobel prize for this discovery. But he was still dissatisfied: he had not yet discovered the primary cause of cancerous cells. What unknown factor caused them to divide wrongly? Warburg could not rest until the question was settled.

Warburg was known for being a very private man, sarcastic and biting yet also warm and caring. He could tax his research assistants to no end, kept a distance from his extended family, and had no contact with the Jewish community. He was a lifelong bachelor, and there were many rumours about the nature of his sexuality. Many people believed him to be a closeted gay man.

He was apolitical, and appeared to favour no ideology other than that which would further his research. There is no doubt that he was a Nazi affiliate, but he could be critical of the Nazi regime, and at one point his heretical comments even resulted a temporary dismissal from his academic post. He was reinstated not long after, despite Hitler considering his work far too critical.

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Indeed, Warburg was treated with an unusual amount of lenience by the authorities. Herman Göering demanded that he be reclassified as a quarter-Jewish, instead of half by the typical standards. He was protected from persecution thanks to his connections with the Reichwehr and Viktor Brack and Phillip Bouhler, two high-ranking SS and government operatives.

Furthermore, Warburg's sisters survived by marrying high-status Aryans and by converting to Christianity. Warburg’s biographer, the Nobel Laureate Hans Krebs, later wrote: "Warburg’s willingness to let his Jewish blood be diluted in this way, and thus to make a pact with the Nazis, incensed colleagues outside Germany."

By the year 1944, Warburg felt that he was close to a cure for cancer. He developed the Warburg hypothesis, a theory which remains as controversial as it is important in the field of cancer research. In it, Warburg used his Nobel prize-winning theory to advance his concept of a primary cause of cancer in cells. Warburg believed that oxygen starvation in cells was the key to everything.

If a cell was deprived of oxygen then it would rely on fermentation instead of respiration in order to gain energy. The cells would depend on glycolysis to achieve this, and thus would produce a more acidic environment as a result of the fermentation process; the pace of cancer cell growth and division is quicker than the production of non-cancerous oxygen-supplying blood vessels, and thus cancer soon overtakes the body and causes a number of adverse health effects ... or so Warburg claimed.

A dividing cell. Credit: Getty

His study of "hydrogen transfer of cell enzymes" earned him a third Nobel nomination, but the publication was highly politicised, and a number of fellow-scientists were content to shun him and his contributions as a result of his political affiliations. It could be argued that Warburg was only working with the Nazis out of necessity, and to preserve work that could save millions of lives.

But the fact that he was offered a position working for the Rockefeller Institute during WWII, which he himself turned down, seems to contradict this. After the end of the war, he applied to work in the United States, but was refused a Visa and struggled to gain exposure for his work during the war. Warburg was convinced that he was right about a complete theory of cancer and that the increasing rates of cancer diagnosis in the western world were down to pollution and exposure to toxins.

Warburg died of a pulmonary embolism in 1970 and did not live to see his theory confirmed. Today, a number of other prime causes of cancer have been advanced besides sugar fermentation, although nearly 18,000 publications have been published on the Warburg effect in the period 2000 to 2015 and thousands of publications claim to have determined its functions or causes. Yet we still have approximately 8 million people suffer from cancer each year.

A cancer researcher. Credit: Getty

The moral of this story is that science can never truly be apolitical. Like it or not, science is dictated by political aims, and the ideology and morality of the scientist has a direct effect on the public reception of their findings. As Warburg himself once wrote: "The prevention of cancer will come there is no doubt, for man wishes to survive. But how long prevention will be avoided depends on how long the prophets of agnosticism will succeed in inhibiting the application of scientific knowledge in the cancer field. In the meantime, millions of men must die of cancer unnecessarily."

Warburg's complicity with the Nazis directly impeded the results of his inquiries. Who knows what he might have achieved otherwise? But we cannot remain complacent to the health crisis facing us. Please donate to Cancer Research UK to end the pain of countless people around the world.