Gerrit Isenberg#


A cell physiologist between East and West of Germany

Gerrit Isenberg
Department of Physiology, Julium-Bernstein-Institut für Physiologie, Martin-Luther University Halle, Halle 06097, Germany
Received l December 2003; accepted 12 January 2004
© 2004 Published by Elsevier Ltd.

I was bom in 1942 in the small city of Halberstadt. My father was a surgeon and owned a small private clinic, he ended up in jail in 1943 when he said something critical about the Nazi regime. in April 1945, Halberstadt was bombed flat. My mother fled with me as a little child into the rocks surrounding the city. In May 1945, the Nazi regime ended and my father was released as a sick and aged person. Essentially, I grew up under the love of my grandmother. I had a childhood very much like other children in those post war days in Leipzig, a medium-sized city in the "wrong” eastern part of Germany, the GDR (German Democratic Republic).

At the age of 16, I spent my summer vacations with the Ramshorn family. The Ramshorns lived in the countryside in an Institute of the German Academy where father Ramshorn was a Professor of plant physiology. I enjoyed the family with daughter Elisabeth and son Reinhard, but I was excited by the father who introduced me to the laboratory: using a stopwatch, I observed how seedlings changed their colour from white to green on exposure to light.

As far as I can remember, this was my first contact with science, and it impressed me persistently. After finishing school in 1960, I had to decide what to do next. Could I study physiology? Professor Ramshorn pointed out to me that a solid professional background is important for survival during difficult times, I accepted his advice to postpone the decision of whether or not to do science and the kind of science, till the time I would complete my education as a "normal physician". Despite facing problems due to not belonging to a working class family, I entered the Karl-Marx-University Leipzig in October 1960 as a student of medicine.

Student life (Leipzig 1960-1966)

The first years in university were fun. I liked the lectures and the practical courses, and the first state examination (Physikum) yielded the best grades. Since I liked human physiology best of all the subjects in the pre-clinical course, I decided to become a physiologist not at the end but in the middle of my studies. I wished to become a physiologist because I was naively interested in the functioning of the human body. I was convinced that my medical education was not enough to understand physiology and therefore struggled for a permit to study Physics in combination with Medicine. When this was allowed by the central government, I began to study Physics in October 1963. Student life was fun as girls and boys lived together, I married in 1964, and shortly had a young family of two sons, Jérg 1965 and Dirk 1966, The communist system supported young families like ours by offering Kindergartens. The two grandmothers were in the mid fifties; although they were occupied by their professions, they could always find a way to handle the children with love when the Kindergarden could not take the children because of diarrhoea, severe cough, etc.

In the German university, medical students work for their thesis (MD) before their final examination, and do this work in the evenings or weekends. I found my adviser in Prof. Georg Kuchler, Physiology. He asked me to measure membrane potentials of frog skeletal muscle fibres as they were modulated by changes in extracellular pH and (Ca2+). For most of the time I put together valves left over from the war times into a "cathode follower" that was used for the actual measurements. The thesis was defended in 1966 and l received the title of an MD at the time when I had finished the final state examination as a physician.

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