Karl Ullrich, APS Honorary Member



Klaus W. Beyenbach and Eberhard Fromter

Published in The Physiologist Vol. 53, No. 5, pp 186-187, Oktober 2010.

Karl Julius Ullrich, an Honorary Member of the American Physiological Society, died on Monday, August 2, 2010 at the age of 84. Departing from us, he has left a rich legacy in Renal Physiology and in the Max Planck Institut für Biophysik which he served as Director from October 1967 to November 1993. In the 26 years of unfailing dedication, he elevated this Institute to a world class institution of intense activity and highest quality of research in renal and epithelial physiology.

Karl was born on Nov. 18, 1925 in Würzburg. He spent the first ten years of his life in lower Franconia, where his father was a schoolteacher and his mother a home-maker. For two years he attended a Catholic Boarding School in Würzburg and then transferred to a public school in Hammelburg at the foot of the Rhön-Mountains to which his parents had moved. At the age of 17 he had to leave school without a diploma being called up to military service in WWII. He served as sergeant in the former Yugoslavia, Northern Italy and central Germany and was fortunate to survive the war; his entire platoon perished under a collapsing bomb shelter during an air raid of Regensburg. In the last throws of the war he was captured by the American Army and was detained in a prison camp. In the three months of internment he took English classes, and he decided to study medicine. His dad who also had served in the German Army, was captured in the Russian theater, and was unduly executed, as Karl learned in 2007 in an unexpected letter from the Russian Embassy. Though the letter restored the integrity of his father, it came too late for his mother who had passed away 1971.

Life in post-war Germany was difficult. Supported by his mother who lived on a small pension, Karl, her only child, managed to attend the university in Erlangen to earn his High School Diploma. He transferred to the University of Würzburg where in 1951 he earned his MD degree with a thesis describing self-designed experiments on post-infectious orthostatic disorders. During his internship at the University of Würzburg, Karl came across Homer W. Smith’s book The Kidney in Health and Disease. The book piqued his interest in renal function and led him to extend his studies to measurements of renal blood flow and filtration rate. After a brief period serving as substitute country family doctor, Karl decided to devote himself to basic research.

The Marburg years. In 1952 Karl joined the laboratory of Prof. Kurt Kramer in Marburg, a leading cardiovascular scientist who had worked in aviation physiology in the US. It was the time that H. Wirz, B. Hargitay and W. Kuhn had published the countercurrent hypothesis of urine concentration and the pressing questions to Karl were 1) how do osmotic pressures within the renal medulla change during urinary concentration; and 2) What solutes underlie the observed increase in osmotic pressure during antidiuresis? At Karl’s disposal for this work were a torsion balance, a razor blade holder, a freezing point osmometer, a flame photometer, and some Conway dishes for measuring urea. Karl and Karl Heinz Jarausch worked day and night: “My whole recreation was to look out of the window of my laboratory to the St. Elisabeth church, a miracle of early Gothic architecture.” What emerged from this kind of immersion was the confirmation of the countercurrent hypothesis. In their landmark paper of 1956, Ullrich and Jarausch demonstrated that the solute gradient in the renal medullary tissue varies with urine concentration and is mainly made up by NaCl and urea. Karl observed that the medulla contained high concentrations of the hitherto unknown chemical glycerophosphocholine and of inositol, substances that later were found to be osmolytes involved in the osmotic balance of medullary cells. In the summer of 1953 Karl married Marga Halbleib, whom he had known since school in Hammelburg. On Karl’s advice she became a school teacher, and her small salary was important for the family to make ends meet, especially after their first son Martin was born in 1954.

The Göttingen years. In 1955 Karl and his family followed Kurt Kramer to Göttingen, where he continued his studies and obtained the German equivalent of the PhD degree. Applying microcatheterization and micropuncture techniques in renal medullary structures he found that collecting ducts absorb NaCl and urea and secrete hydrogen and ammonium ions. More important, however, was the methodological legacy of the Göttingen years. Karl had a practical mind, paired with an exuberant imagination and untiring enthusiasm. He wanted to understand how renal tubules work. He conceived a series of microanalytical techniques which he developed with his colleagues and the machine shop of the Physiological Institute. Next to the equipment for microcatheterization, Karl devised a micro-cuvette for photometric measurements in microliter volumes, a rotating glass-pipette beveller for smooth punctures of tubules and blood capillaries, a micro-pump for constant low-rate perfusion of tubular loops to analyze efflux or influx of tracer molecules and the “shrinking droplet” method for measuring local tubular volume absorption. These tools and methods provided the basis for his future research and were adopted by other laboratories in the world. Daughter Susanne was born in 1956, and son Christoph in 1959. In August 1959 Karl embarked with his family and his technician G. Pehling on an ocean-liner for an eight months sabbatical in the US. The collaboration with B. Schmidt- Nielsen and C. Gottschalk proved an exciting and fruitful experience. The recirculation of urea was detected as well as the effect of diet on the urea efflux from the collecting duct.

The Berlin years. Returning from the US, Karl was offered the chair of the new Institute of Physiology at the Free University of Berlin. He accepted, but under the condition of having a cochairman, which allowed O.H. Gauer to accept the second professorship. Berlin, though a divided city, offered ideal working conditions. The move to Berlin was timely, as Karl had his arsenal of new techniques and positions to fill. Next to two senior coworkers, he attracted a strong group of young post-docs, many of them from abroad. In his own laboratory Karl measured the zero-net-flux concentration differences across the proximal tubule for Na+, Cl -, K+ and Ca2+ and the quantitative determination of the osmotic water permeability of rat proximal and distal tubules.

The Frankfurt years. In 1967 Karl was elected a member of the Max- Planck Society and called to head the physiological section of the Max-Planck Institute of Biophysics in Frankfurt at the river Main. The move to Frankfurt improved opportunities for research. It allowed him to assemble an astute biochemical research group and to create a state of the art facility for electron microscopy. Close contacts with the other two sections of the Institute headed by the physico-chemist R. Schlögl and the biologist H. Passow provided theoretical background for membrane transport and insights into the structure and function of nonepithelial cell membranes. In addition, Schlögl would often rescue Karl’s overspent research budget at year’s end. Thus was the general cooperative atmosphere at the Max Planck Institute. Its scientific output was enormous as a result. Karl’s laboratory continued the micropuncture experiments on proximal tubules of the rat kidney in vivo. The driving forces for absorbing Na+, Cl-, HCO3- and urea were determined and the specificity and Na+ dependence of transporters of sugars, amino acids, phosphate, sulfate, lactate and other solutes elucidated. Karl’s findings were corroborated by electrophysiological experiments in the laboratory of E. Frömter and further corroborated and extended by experiments on membrane vesicles performed in the biochemical laboratory led by R. Kinne, H. Murer and later G. Burckhardt. Thus a comprehensive picture was obtained of the transport properties of the apical and basolateral cell membrane of mammalian proximal tubules. In addition, other tubular segments of the nephron were analyzed such as the thick ascending limb of the loop of Henle by the late R. Greger, as well as sweat glands, the excretory pancreas and the intestine by I. Schulz and others. Karl, however, continued to focus his work on renal proximal tubules. He developed a method for “zero-net flux stop-flow capillary perfusion” which enabled the identification of different organic anion and cation transporters in the contraluminal cell membrane. He used hundreds of synthetic compounds - among them analogs, agonists, antagonists, and drugs - to elucidate the structural requirements for solute transport in vivo, thereby elucidating the effects of charge, hydrophobicity, and hydrogenbonding on transport crucial for the design of pharmacological agents.

Karl’s laboratory in Frankfurt attracted a steady stream of visitors and scientific collaborators. All those who over the years became friends with Karl and Marga fondly recall the generosity and hospitality which Marga offered at their home. Visitors also recall the stately old central villa of the Institute – the former home of a Jewish banker whose widow had bequeathed it for the purpose of research in 1924 – with its inner courtyard, its magnificent wooden staircase and stuccoed ceiling in the lecture hall. Here, no one ever fell asleep, be it for the high quality of the presented science, the lively and penetrating discussions, or the old, uncomfortable hinged wooden benches, which Karl would not allow to be replaced.

Karl’s contribution to our understanding of kidney functions goes far beyond what has been published under his name. The research frontiers that Karl had pioneered have allowed his students and collaborators to pursue new knowledge and endeavours. More than a dozen of them have obtained leading academic positions in Germany and other countries. For them and in turn for their students, Karl is like a centre of their scientific universe.

Karl received many honours and distinctions. He was invited to countless international meetings and delivered many plenary lectures and keynote talks. The most prestigious lecture was perhaps the Walter B Cannon Lecture delivered at the Centennial Meeting of the American Physiological Society (1987). Very early in his career Karl was elected member of the Academy Leopoldina, which today is the German National Academy of Sciences. He was elected honorary member in nearly a dozen national and international learned societies. The list of medals, awards, prizes and honorary doctorates he received is long and impressive. Yet in spite of all the recognition, Karl remained modest and kind and a man who would never renege on his word. Whenever collaborators or students came to him with a problem of scientific, technical or personal nature, Karl would listen and engage himself for the better. When, for example, visitors complained that they could not sleep in the guest room of the Villa because of pigeons cooing, he himself climbed up underneath the roof to evict the sleep offenders. Karl also lent his fervor for the public good. He made sure that Biology was taught well in High School; he helped raise funds for cultural events and supported the Fine Arts. During the time of the Cold War he sustained colleagues in Eastern- Block countries by maintaining close contact, by extending frequent invitations, by providing a work place and housing at the institute and by helping them out with chemicals, instruments or scientific literature.

Not long after Karl’s retirement in 1993 Marga’s health began to diminish. As she became increasingly disabled, Karl alone took over the household and all the care of his wife until she passed away in 2002. His devotion had taken a toll on his own health, but he returned to his former habits of reading the scientific literature and monitoring the progress of his large academic family. On July 31, 2010, the eighth anniversary of Marga’s passing, Karl visited her graveside in the company of his son Christoph, a well known pianist. On the walk back to his home Karl’s heart all of sudden decided to deny further service. He died two days later, never having reached consciousness again.

Karl is survived by his children and 7 grandchildren, Christian, Andreas, Thomas, August, Sophie, Paula and Lili. Whether we are his own children or his academic children, we share the loss of a father.

Klaus W. Beyenbach Ithaca, NY

Eberhard Fromter Frankfurt, Germany

Academia Europaea gratefully acknowledges the permission by Klaus W. Beyenbach and Editors von The Physiologist to publish the obituary.

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