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Lemberg, Max Rudolf (Rudi) (1896–1975)

by R. Bhathal

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Max Rudolf (Rudi) Lemberg (1896-1975), biochemist, was born on 19 October 1896 at Breslau, Germany (Wroclaw, Poland), elder son of Justizrat Dr Arthur Lemberg, lawyer, and his wife Margarethe, née Wendriner. Rudi came from a liberal, cultured home where adherence to the Jewish religion was more 'a matter of decent loyalty to one's forebears than a religious conviction'. Although law 'was a family tradition', there were scientists among his relations, including Albert Neisser who discovered the bacterium that causes gonorrhoea. A frail and over-protected child, Rudi was educated at home by a tutor and loved to roam the countryside. Soon his parents' flat was full of butterflies, lizards, frogs and tortoises. He attended the Johannes-Gymnasium and from May 1914 studied natural sciences at the University of Breslau (Ph.D., summa cum laude, 1922). His summers were spent at the universities of Munich (1915) and Heidelberg (1916). Lemberg had been initially rejected by the army on medical grounds, but was accepted on 2 June 1917. He served with the artillery in the German offensive of March 1918, was wounded, and won the Iron Cross (2nd class). While in France he became a Lutheran.

After World War I Lemberg returned to Breslau university, studied organic chemistry under Heinrich Biltz and submitted his doctoral thesis in October 1921. He was employed as Biltz's private assistant and published three papers with him. Poor prospects at German universities for a scientist of Jewish descent led Lemberg in 1923 to join Boehringer & Soehne, Mannheim, as an industrial chemist. In 1925 he was retrenched. He had married Hanna Adelheid Claussen on 23 December 1924 at Wroclaw; they were to remain childless.

Lemberg returned to the university at Heidelberg in 1926 to obtain a qualification which would allow him to lecture. In 1930 he was habilitated as privatdozent. On the recommendation of Professor Karl Freudenberg, he obtained a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to work (1930-31) under Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins at the Sir William Dunn Institute of Biochemistry, Cambridge, England, in the company of such outstanding scientists as Joseph Barcroft, David Keilin and Robin Hill. Back at Heidelberg in 1931, Lemberg established himself as one of the few experts on bile pigments. In 1933 the Beamtengestez ended his academic career in Germany. English friends and the Freudenbergs arranged for him to return to Cambridge and the haven of the Dunn Institute. He continued to systematize various bile pigment classes, but turned his attention 'from chemical structural to metabolic and functional aspects'. Thus began his gradual conversion from organic chemist to biochemist.

As the number of refugees increased, it became evident that not all of them could stay at Cambridge. In 1935 Lemberg accepted an appointment as director of the biochemical laboratories at Royal North Shore Hospital, Sydney. The decision was difficult and he saw it as the 'end' of his scientific career. He wrote: 'I went into the wilderness, for I did not expect inspiration from my Australian colleagues at that time. For many years I worked in an almost complete vacuum with little response'. At first he concentrated on the research he had initiated at Cambridge on the in vitro transformation of haemoglobin into bile pigments and summarized his ideas on the bile pigment problem in an article, 'Disintegration of haemoglobin in the animal body', in Perspectives in Biochemistry (Cambridge, 1937).

With colleagues such as J. W. Legge and W. H. Lockwood, Lemberg continued to study biological haemoglobin breakdown. When World War II had ended, he and Legge began writing Hematin Compounds and Bile Pigments (New York, 1949). An immediate success, the book became a standard text for workers in the tetrapyrrole field and established Lemberg as a leading biochemist. It also attracted gifted co-workers to his laboratory, particularly when the National Health and Medical Research Council supported his research programme. From 1949 he studied the structure of prosthetic groups, especially those of cytochrome oxidase and cytochrome, and the biochemistry and chemical pathology of porphyrias. In these fields he made significant contributions which stimulated other investigators worldwide. Lemberg was assistant-director of the hospital's Institute of Medical Research from 1952 until he retired in 1972. With J. Barrett he published Cytochromes (London, 1973); like his earlier book, it was thoroughly researched and presented.

Although Lemberg worked independently, he was active in scientific circles and recognized as a world authority in his field. He was elected a fellow (1952) of the Royal Society, a foundation fellow (1954) and council-member (1956-58) of the Australian Academy of Science, foundation president (1955) of the Australian Biochemical Society, and president (1955) of the Royal Society of New South Wales which awarded him its James Cook medal (1964) and Burfitt prize (1971). Other distinctions included the H. G. Smith medal (1948) of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, appointment (1956) as professor emeritus by the University of Heidelberg, the Britannica Australia award for science (1966) and an honorary D.Sc. from the University of Sydney (1970).

Naturalized in 1937, Lemberg had sponsored the emigration of his brother Walter to Sydney in 1939. Rudi had built a home in an acre (0.4 ha) of virgin bush at Wahroonga. While he cherished native flora and enjoyed bush-walking in the national parks and Snowy Mountains in the wild-flower season, he cultivated a garden of camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas. He was vice-president of the Occupied Europe Relief Society; he and his wife worked with Camilla Wedgwood to assist refugees.

Apart from his scientific research, Lemberg was engrossed in the fields of philosophy and religion. He reconciled his belief in science and religion through the concept of complementarity. A member of the Society of Friends, he delivered its 1966 James Backhouse lecture and was prominent in public discussions of mankind's use of science. Lemberg was an idealist who spoke his mind forthrightly. He was also a dedicated pacifist (under continuing surveillance by Australian security), but, when it came to the question of Israel, his Jewishness clashed with the Quaker in him. Survived by his wife, he died on 10 April 1975 at his Wahroonga home and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Encounter with Rudi Lemberg (priv print, Syd, 1975)
  • Annual Review of Biochemistry, 34, 1965, p 1
  • Records of the Australian Academy of Science, 4, no 1, 1978, p 132
  • Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol 22, 1976, p 257, and for list of Lemberg's publications
  • Search (Sydney), 6, no 10, 1975, p 404
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Journal and Proceedings, 1975, p 166
  • Royal Society of New South Wales Archives, Sydney
  • naturalisation file, A1/1 item 37/9065, and ASIO file, A6119/64 item 502 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Lemberg papers (Australian Academy of Science Library).

Citation details

R. Bhathal, 'Lemberg, Max Rudolf (Rudi) (1896–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lemberg-max-rudolf-rudi-10811/text19177, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 18 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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