May 27, 2024

Minister and great biochemist: Hans Tobey is dead

Hans Tobe died at the age of 99. He was a central figure in Austrian science and science policy.

The sparkle in his eyes when he talked about science – and even more so: his own science and biochemistry – will be unforgettable to anyone who met Hans Tobe. He was a researcher who could not hide his enthusiasm and research was so important to him that he entered politics because he wanted to change the framework conditions in Austria. From 1987 to 1989 he was Minister of Science in the Grand Coalition under Vranitzki. Before that, he was President of the FWF Science Fund, introducing the international peer review system, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Rector of the University of Vienna and President of the Academy of Sciences. He was not able to assert all his political-scientific convictions, for example, he was opposed to the class of medicine at his own university: the connection with the natural sciences was very important to him.

From insulin to mitochondria

But above all, Hans Tobe was a great researcher. It is no myth that he narrowly missed out on the Nobel Prize: as a young researcher at Cambridge, he played a key role in determining the amino acid sequence of insulin, for which Frederick Sanger was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1958. Toby’s research interests covered many Topics in biochemistry, not just elucidating the structure of peptides and proteins. He also worked on nucleic acids, carbohydrates and viruses, and discovered a group of substances (neuraminic acid derivatives) with antiviral effects. He investigated cellular respiration and antigens on cell surfaces and mitochondria. Together with his colleague Gottfried Schatz, he succeeded in proving that these cellular organelles also contain DNA that is also transported.

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Toby was optimistic about the possibilities of genetic engineering, but always advised speed and thoughtfulness, for example in research into embryonic stem cells. His political commitment – when he was with the ÖVP party – was shaped by his Christian faith, which for him was completely compatible with his convictions as a scientist. It never occurred to him to pit his belief in creation against the theory of evolution. But you can also discuss such topics with him, motivated by the enthusiasm he shows. This remained with him until his old age. Hans Tobe has now died at the age of 99, and Austria, the country of research, still remembers him.

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