Medstars’ Heroes: Professor Gustav Rudolf Victor Born
Gustav Born’s research into platelets, blood clotting and pharmacology has revolutionised cardiology and haematology, improving the healthcare of millions.
Gustav Victor Rudolf Born was born in Germany in July 1921 to a Jewish family. He lived with his parents; Max and Hedwig. Hedwig was a published poet, Max a renowned physicist who later went on to win the Nobel Prize for his research in quantum mechanics, coining the very term ‘quantum mechanics’ along the way.
In 1933 Hitler, now chancellor of Germany, had begun to impose anti-Jewish law. Max was put on leave from his position as chair at Göttingen University. His teaching was halted and restrictions impeded most of his academic activity. It was the final word of close family friend Albert Einstein who was in Belgium at the time, sending a message saying, ‘Leave at once.’, that convinced the Born family to leave as refugees for England.
The family traveled to Cambridge and were welcomed into the home of Ernest Rutherford, the New Zealand-born British scientist widely regarded as the founder of nuclear physics. Gustav continued his education in Cambridge. Despite his father’s best efforts and frequent visits from Nobel Prize-winning physicists, Gustav felt he could not follow his father into physics because he was “too stupid or too unmathematical.”
With the world was on the brink of war, Gustav’s ground-breaking career in pharmacology began. His father said to him, “Study medicine like my father. You will not have to kill anyone in the war and you are less likely to be killed,” They seemed like good reasons to Gustav even if he had no interest in the field.
Gustav served as a practical doctor with the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War Two. Initially in India, Gustav later traveled to Burma before ending his service in Japan – specifically, Hiroshima. On August 6th 1945 the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on the City of Hiroshima. At the time of the bombing, Hiroshima was home to 280,000-290,000 civilians as well as 43,000 soldiers. Between 90,000 and 166,000 people are believed to have died from the bomb in the four-month period following the explosion. It was during these four months that Gustav landed in Hiroshima. Together with only three or four other doctors, Gustav was among the first allied staff to visit the war-torn skeleton of the city. “It was a vision you could never forget,” he said.
“In the rubble people stood at the roadside, desperate, thin and starving, and very quiet,” he stated later in life. “Thousands were still dying from the effects of radiation.”
Gustav couldn’t ignore the looming irony; that the devastating blow had been swung by the nuclear fist of one of his father’s top students, Robert Oppenheimer. Max Born had been invited to Los Alamos, USA – the birthplace of the world’s first atomic bomb. Instead, Max sent Gustav to deliver a letter announcing his withdrawal from the operation and described nuclear weapons as a “devilish invention.”
For Gustav Born, Hiroshima catalysed a medical career that would revolutionise haematology and, ultimately, impact more lives than those lost in Japan, 1945.
What particularly struck Gustav was the excessive bleeding by those exposed to radiation. Their bone marrow had been destroyed and they had lost the ability to generate platelets that help the blood to clot. Upon his return to England after the war, Gustav began research into platelets together with Howard Florey, who had worked alongside Alexander Fleming in the development of penicillin.
Platelets and the aggregometer
Platelets flow through the blood fairly unnoticed, but when a blood vessel is damaged, they become sticky and “aggregate” together to form a clot. This prevents any further escape of blood.
To measure this quantitatively, Gustav created a simple device that proved immensely effective. It was soon adopted by laboratories and hospitals all over the world. The device, known as the Born aggregometer, put blood through a centrifuge which separated the platelets from the blood cells and could then be studied.
Crucially, as well as observing how a low platelet count can cause fatal bleeding, Gustav showed how the reverse is true among other patients. Platelets can occasionally block blood vessels by forming blood clots called “thrombi”, which lead to stroke and heart attacks. Gustav proved that certain drugs, including aspirin, can stop platelets from aggregating and can effectively be used as anti-clotting drugs to help prevent stroke and heart attacks. His later work explained the link between high blood pressure, atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease.
By discovering the chain reaction that allows platelets to quickly form a clot, Gustav paved the way for antiplatelet medicines that have reduced the risk of heart attack and stroke for millions of people.
Later career and honours
Throughout his distinguished career, Gustav achieved multiple distinctions and was honoured by academic institutions all over the world. He was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1972 and was awarded the society’s Royal Medal. His more unusual distinctions include being the uncle of Grease! star, Olivia Newton-John.
Professor Gustav Rudolf Victor Born FRS, was born on July 29, 1921. He died on April 16, 2018, aged 96
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