The Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize celebrate its 70th birthday this year. In the discoveries and inventions it honors, the history of modern medicine is impressively reflected. Since 2000, nine Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize winners have subsequently been awarded a Nobel Prize.
The prize is doubly enrooted in the Weimar Republic. The Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize was established in 1926 by the Board of the Georg-Speyer-Haus Foundation on occasion of the 80th birthday of its namesake. From then on, it was awarded every three years for outstanding work in the fields of chemotherapy and biology, even through all the years of the National Socialist dictatorship, but after 1935 only "in-house" to employees of Ehrlich's institutes located in Frankfurt, without public announcement. The Paul Ehrlich Prize, donated by Ehrlich's widow Hedwig in 1929, could only be awarded from 1930 to 1934. Then it fell victim to German anti-Semitism.
Premiere in the Paulskirche
After the war, it was decided in April 1952 to merge the Paul Ehrlich Prize and the Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize, partly due to drastically reduced foundation assets. In the 1950s, the prize winners therefore received only a certificate and a plaque. The first two prize winners were again two researchers who had excelled in-house, Gerhard Eißner and Wolf-Helmut Wagner. In 1953, the Scientific Council then awarded Adolf Butenandt, who had already received half of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1939 for his work on sex hormones.
In 1954, the award ceremony was held for the first time in Frankfurt's Paulskirche. It also marked the 100th anniversary of Paul Ehrlich's birth, which is why Theodor Heuss, President of the Federal Republic of Germany, attended the ceremony. The laureate was Sir Ernst Boris Chain. A son of Jewish parents, he had been born and raised and earned a doctorate in biochemistry in Berlin before he had to flee to England in April 1933 to save his life. There, based on the discovery of Alexander Fleming, he and Howard Florey developed penicillin into the first antibiotic, an achievement for which the three shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1945.
A convincing chairman of the council
Between 1954 and 1960, the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize was awarded every two years, initially once again to two earned luminaries, namely Gerhard Domagk, who had received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1939 for the discovery of sulfonamides, and Richard Kuhn, who had received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1938 for his vitamin research. From 1960 onwards, the prize was endowed with 100,000 DM from federal funds. This was because Hans Walter Schmidt-Polex, the chairman of the Scientific Council, had succeeded in convincing the German government of the importance of the prize in the scientific world. From then on, on even-numbered birthdays of Paul Ehrlich, half of the cash prize was awarded to one or two main prize winners. The other half was divided the following year among scientists proposed by the main laureate. This practice was maintained up to 1977. In all even years, the main prize was awarded in the Paulskirche; in all odd years, the prize was awarded to the laureates nominated by the main prize winners at an academic ceremony in a Goethe University Hall.
A plea for basic research
In 1966, the top prize went to Peyton Rous, who was 86 years old at the time. He had made his fundamental discovery that viruses can cause tumors 56 years earlier. In the fall of the same year, he received one half of the Nobel Prize in Medicine. With his proposal for the next odd year's laureates, the predictive power of the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize for future Nobel Prizes took off. For Rous nominated, among others, Renato Dulbecco, who had shown how viruses can cause tumors, for which he shared the 1975 Nobel Prize in Medicine with David Baltimore and Howard Temin. Just over a decade later, Dulbecco gave biomedicine another major boost. On March 7, 1986, he published a call in the journal Science for an undertaking whose “significance would be comparable to that of the effort that led to the conquest of space." This call reached its addressees a few weeks after NASA's Challenger catastrophe. It thus struck a responsive chord in many experts and decision-makers and cleared the way for the deciphering of our entire genetic information in the Human Genome Project.
The elucidation of the role of programmed cell death in embryonic development; the discovery of RNA interference; the depiction of the ribosome at atomic resolution; the discovery of telomerase and its role in aging; the development of checkpoint inhibitors against cancer; and the development of the CRISPR-Cas method for genome editing: these are all outstanding achievements that have been honored since 2000, first in Frankfurt and then in Stockholm. "This Award is a strong endorsement of curiosity-driven, fundamental discovery science" said Jennifer Doudna when she accepted the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize in 2016. "I hope that it will help us all emphasize its intrinsic value to society."