Norbert Hilschmann (1931–2012)


The German Society for Immunology (DGfI) deeply regrets the death of its founding member, Prof. Norbert Hilschmann, who passed away in Göttingen, Germany on December 3rd 2012.

Norbert Hilschmann was born on February 8th 1931 in Nürnberg. He studied medicine at the Universities of Erlangen and Munich, where he finished his medical studies and completed the doctoral thesis under the guidance of Nobel laureate Prof. Otto Wieland. Following two years of training in internal medicine, he obtained a fellowship to join the Max-Planck-Institute for Biochemistry in Munich, headed by Nobel laureate Prof. Adolf Butenandt. From 1959 to 1962 Prof. Hilschmann worked in the group of Gerhard Braunitzer, who later became the director of the MPI for Biochemistry, on the structural determination of hemoglobin. At that time the Braunitzer lab was the leading institution for determining the amino acid sequence of proteins. Without any doubt, this period of training in a broad spectrum of biochemical methods raised Prof. Hilschmann's interest in protein chemistry and structural biology and paved the way for the future discoveries in what we now call molecular immunology. In 1962 Prof. Hilschmann joined the group of Dr. Lyman C. Craig at the Rockefeller Institute in New York as a guest investigator. During these years, Prof. Hilschmann studied the structure of the so-called Bence-Jones proteins, monoclonal antibody light chains that are secreted by malignant cells in patients with multiple myeloma, as we know today. Together with Lyman C. Craig, Norbert Hilschmann was the first to describe that these molecules consist of two parts, i.e. the variable and the constant part. He was able to decipher the complete amino acid sequence of different Bence-Jones proteins and could show that they differ in some (variable) but not other (constant) parts. This seminal work, published in 1965 [1], was a major contribution to the on-going discussion of how the diversity of antibodies can be generated on the basis of the one gene–one enzyme/polypeptide paradigm put forward in the early 1940s by George W. Beadle and Edward L. Tatum (working on biochemical reactions in Neurospora crassa) as well as Adolf Butenandt (working on tryptophan processing enzymes). Furthermore, this work formed the basis for the subsequent systematic structural analysis and sequencing of all human immunoglobulin classes. In 1965 Prof. Hilschmann returned to Germany where he was an independent group leader at the Max-Planck-Institute for Experimental Medicine in Göttingen. In 1971 he was appointed member of the Max-Planck Society and Director of the Department of Immunochemistry at the MPI for Experimental Medicine where he remained until his retirement in 1999. In addition to continuing his work on antibody structure, Prof. Hilschmann studied the structure of major histocompatibility (MHC) antigens from the 1980'ies on. Despite the availability of molecular DNA-based methods, he focused mainly on protein chemistry. Again, his group was the first to publish the complete amino acid sequence of the two chains of MHC class II molecules [2].

Among the many awards, Prof. Hilschmann received the Feldberg Foundation prize in 1971, the Robert-Koch prize in 1974, and the Hoechst prize in 1975, and he was an elected member of the German National Academy Leopoldina and the Göttinger Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Upon his return to Germany, Prof. Hilschmann joined the efforts of a small group of dedicated scientists to establish an immunological society in Germany in order to foster the development of Immunology as a discipline of its own and to promote scientific exchange and the organization of immunological meetings. Prof. Hilschmann was among those 19 scientists who met in Frankfurt/Mail in July 1967 to launch the “Gesellschaft für Immunologie”, now termed German Society for Immunology (DGfI) with more than 2400 members. The DGfI will keep the memory of Norbert Hilschmann not only as an excellent scientist and pioneer of molecular immunology but also as a founding member of our society.

The Executive Board of the German Society for Immunology (DGfI)

Hans-Martin Jäck, President

Dieter Kabelitz, Past-President

Jürgen Wienands, President-Elect

Carsten Watzl, Secretary General