In memoriam: Dr. Herbert Falk (1924-2008)


  • Alan F. Hofmann M.D.

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Medicine, University of California, San Diego
    • Division of Gastroenterology, Department of Medicine, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093-0063
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  • Potential conflict of interest: Nothing to report.

Hepatologists and gastroenterologists throughout the world were deeply saddened to learn of the death of Herbert Falk on August 8, 2008. Herbert Falk died at his home in Freiburg, Germany at age 84 after a long illness. Dr. Falk was a brilliant and creative entrepreneur who founded a small pharmaceutical company and nurtured its growth to a global enterprise. He used the profits of his company to establish the Falk Foundation, which became an extraordinary educational institution, underwriting symposia in hepatology and gastroenterology throughout the world. Dr. Falk was also a humanist of great generosity who introduced two generations of physicians to the charms of Freiburg and the beauty of his native Black Forest. 1

Illustration 1.

Dr. Herbert Falk (1924-2008)

Born to a pharmacist's family in Müllheim, Dr. Falk was drafted into the German army just as he finished high school. He took part in Rommel's ill-fated campaign in North Africa and was captured by the British. Transferred to the United States as a prisoner of war, he was incarcerated in Louisiana and then Texas. In Chicago, he worked in a pea canning factory, and at the end of the war, he was picking potatoes in Idaho. During these four years, he learned a rudimentary English which became highly useful to him in his later international activities. Returning to Freiburg, Dr. Falk quickly completed his medical studies, and pursued at the same time a degree in pharmaceutical science.

In 1960, he formed Dr. Falk Pharma in Freiburg. His first product was Hepatofalk, a multivitamin tablet also containing taurine. The product was inspired by Kalk's Drops, a multivitamin preparation developed by Heinz Kalk, who is considered the father of German Hepatology. Dr. Falk personally visited every physician in West Germany, recommending his product, whose cost would be reimbursed to the patient by the German government. With these early profits and a large bank loan, he organized his first symposium, “Jaundice”, in 1967 and was able to entice Franz Ingelfinger and Hans Popper to take part. The symposium was a great success. German physicians, still recovering from the hardships of the Second World War, heard the latest science from international experts, and in addition were hosted in beautiful Freiburg. The second symposium, “Alcohol and the Liver”, was held three years later, and was a still greater success. Rudi Schmid, at the peak of his career, summarized German talks in English and, and English talks, in German. In the subsequent years, Dr. Falk worked closely with Hans Popper who advised him to establish a nonprofit foundation whose function would be to support scientific advancement in the form of physician and patient education. The Falk Foundation, e.V. (nonprofit) was established in Freiburg in 1978.

Falk symposia, now nearly 200 in number, are characterized by the highest possible scientific quality and flawless organization. Often there were several one-day or two-day interlocking symposia joined together to form a “Freiburg Liver Week”. An essential part of every symposium was a hike in the Black Forest culminating in an evening filled with the local wines and jolly music. Participants were welcomed in the tiny villages by the mayor, a marching band, and at times, a wine fountain. In addition, there were excursions to regional attractions during the day for “significant others” attending the symposia. At the 100th Falk symposia, there were organized 12 hikes, all converging on a great hall where there was a personal welcome from Dr. Falk, music, a dinner with Black Forest specialities, and unlimited quantities of the local wines and beer. A professional photographer was a part of every symposium, and participants could expect to receive photos of their scientific and social activities some weeks after the symposia. In these symposia, Dr. Falk was always visible, but never dominant. He knew the name and professional status of virtually every participant. Tall, energetic, always smiling, never hesitant to make a decision, greeting participants in five languages, he radiated warmth for his fellow physicians and a constant attitude of helpfulness. He often sponsored the attendance of physicians from developing countries, as well as the widows of prior luminaries. Although the majority of symposia were held in Germany, others took place in Canada, the United States, Chile, Switzerland, Italy, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Russia, the Ukraine, Georgia, Israel, Turkey, The Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Sweden, and Australia.

Besides symposia, the Falk Foundation sponsored many workshops on topics of no obvious commercial relevance. In 1969, even before the Foundation was formed, Dr. Falk sponsored a meeting on sugar absorption that took place on a chartered boat, which slowly circumnavigated the Titisee, a lake in the Black Forest. Other workshops dealt with, for example, porphyrins, collagen metabolism in the liver, intestinal adaptation, intestinal ion transport, and many highly specialized scientific topics. Every workshop was followed by publication of a book containing its scientific presentations. For the small group of people working on bile acids, the Falk Foundation has sponsored a biennial meeting since 1970. These are meetings when new science is presented, old friendships are renewed, and new collaborations are arranged.

The Falk Foundation has also sponsored the publication of informational brochures, some for physicians, others for patients dealing with every aspect of intestinal and hepatobiliary diseases. It publishes monthly a collection of abstracts dealing with liver disease. It has sponsored the construction of wall charts summarizing among other topics, intermediary metabolism and disease pathophysiology. The Falk Foundation has also commissioned the biographies of a number of scientific figures as summarized in Table 1. These are provided at no cost to the interested reader. A number of prestigious prizes for outstanding scientific achievement have been generously endowed by The Falk Foundation, as summarized in Table 2.

Table 1. Biographies Sponsored by the Falk Foundation
  • *

    The biographies of Hans Popper, Dame Sheila Sherlock, Burrill Crohn, and Siegfried Thannhauser are available in both English and German. Those with an asterisk are available only in German.

Hans Popper (1903-1988), Life and WorkH. Thaler and Dame Sheila Sherlock
Dame Sheila Sherlock (1918-2001), Life and WorkJames S. Dooley
Burrill B. Crohn (1884-1983), Life and WorkHenry D. Janowitz
Siegfried Thannhauser (1885-1962), Physician and Scientist in Turbulent TimesNepomuk Zöllner and Alan F. Hofmann
Adolf Kussmaul (1822-1902), A Biographical Sketch*F. Kluge
Heinrich Otto Kalk (1895-1973), Life of a Gastroenterologist and Hepatologist*E. Wildhirt
Ismar Boas (1858-1938), A Biographical Sketch*W. Teichmann
Hans Adolf Krebs (1900-1981), Biochemical Genius*Karl Decker
Rudolf Schönheimer (1898-1941), Life and Work*Heiner K. Berthold
Table 2. Prizes Endowed by the Falk Foundation
Name of PrizeCriteria
Adolf Windaus PrizeExcellent work in the field of bile acid research
International Hans Popper PrizeOutstanding research in clinical and/or experimental Hepatology
Adolf Kussmaul PrizeYoung scientist in gastroenterology
 To promote further training or research
Ludwig Demling PrizeTo promote clinical research in inflammatory bowel disease
Thannhauser Medal and Thannhauser PrizeFor outstanding research (awarded by the German Society of Digestive and Metabolic Disorders)
Dame Sheila Sherlock PrizeFor exceptional achievement in clinical hepatology
Poster PrizesFor outstanding posters at Falk Symposia

All of this magnanimity requires a successful commercial enterprise to support its largesse. After Hepatofalk, the next product was the natural bile acid, chenodeoxycholic acid (chenodiol, Chenofalk) which was introduced for the dissolution of cholesterol gallstones. Today, chenodiol is used to treat inborn errors of bile acid biosynthesis. Chenodiol was followed by ursodiol (Ursofalk), initially for gallstone dissolution, and subsequently, for the treatment of cholestatic liver disease. A preparation of mesalazine was introduced for inflammatory bowel disease, followed by budesonide, a prednisone analog with higher first-pass liver clearance and fewer side effects. Dr. Falk Pharma also markets azothioprine, a polyethylene glycol-based laxative, a polyethylene glycol-based colonic lavage solution, a zinc preparation, as well as a fiber preparation.

Dr. Falk never forgot his roots. He was a hiking enthusiast, and authored a series of illustrated booklets detailing walks in his beloved Black Forest. He loved good food, and Falk symposia often distributed guides to the local restaurants. During the past decade, lunches at Falk symposia in Freiburg have been catered by the Colombi Hotel, one of the hundred great hotels of the world. For scientists accustomed to cafeteria lunches, this was a taste of luxurious living.

For his many achievements as a patron of medical education, Dr. Falk received many honors. These included honorary membership in gastroenterological and liver societies throughout the world. Honorary degrees were awarded by the University of Freiburg, the University of Basel, and the University of Cluj (Romania). Dr. Falk received the Lifetime Distinguished Service Award of the American Gastroenterological Association in 2004 and the Distinguished Service Award from the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases in 1989.

Dr. Falk is survived by his wife of 45 years, Ursula, who has now assumed the directorship of Dr. Falk Pharma. His son, Martin, lives in Freiburg, and directs the Falk Foundation. His daughter, Carola, lives near Munich. She has borne three grandchildren and works in medical administration.

Herbert Falk will live on in our memories as a uniquely talented entrepreneur who, at the same time, was a generous and imaginative patron of medical education through his foundation. The leading hepatologists of the world have been the recipients of his generous hospitality and formed long-lasting friendships while furthering postgraduate education. Dr. Herbert Falk brought advances in medical science to physicians throughout the world and thereby improved medical understanding and patient care. It is a rich legacy, and we miss him greatly.