The Georg-Speyer-Haus institute for biomedical research can look back on 100 years of history. If you are interested in understanding the institute’s history, you are encouraged to go back to the year 1895, the so-called Gründerzeit in Frankfurt am Main.
In those years the energetic mayor of Frankfurt, Franz Bouchard Ernst Adickes, formed an initiative to make use of every possibility to support intellectual leaders [cf. Bäumler, S. 122]. Following these plans, he applied to the Head of the Ministry, Friedrich Althoff, who was a central figure within the German minsitry of education and its financing at that time. Due to these endeavours Paul Ehrlich was recruited to Frankfurt as a scientific leader and director of the newly opened Royal Institute of Experimental Therapy.
Ludwig Darmstaedter, one of the most important and influential characters within the institute’s history, soon supported the scientific and economic potential of Paul Ehrlich’s work. Thanks to him, Franziska Speyer, widow of patron Georg Speyer, donated 1 million Goldmark in 1904, which provided the basis for today’s Georg-Speyer-Haus. In 1905 mayor Franz Adickes allocated land for the construction of a building next to the Royal Institute of Experimental Therapy. After its completion the Georg-Speyer-Haus became the property of the city of Frankfurt. Therefore, the city is responsible for the maintenance of the institute.On September 3rd 1906 the Georg-Speyer-Haus had a grand opening and was handed over to its first director Paul Ehrlich.
During his life, Paul Ehrlich established many theories and worked hard as chemist, physician, serologist, and immunologist, and even nowadays he still has the same excellent reputation as he had in his lifetime. He is one of the founders of experimental medicine, modern chemotherapy, and immunology. In 1908 he received the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine.
One of his theories is, that there is a magic bullet to every illness of the human body, which will only attack and eliminate the related illness. His idea and its very first application illustrates the systematic search for a specific agent, which is effective against syphilis. He started his first experiments to test efficiency with Atoxyl, an arsenic compound. After a long lasting marathon of investigations of possible substances Alfred Bertheimer was able to synthesize Asphenamin. Together with Sahachiro Hata (* March 23rd 1873; † November 22nd 1938), a Japanese visiting scientist, Paul Ehrlich was able to prove the efficiency of the so-called ‘compound 606’. When Salvarsan entered the market, for the first time it was possible to heal syphilis, one of the most lethal infectious diseases in Europe.
Paul Ehrlich established a whole network of international contacts, which enabled and promoted research beyond national as well as language borders. This network brought Sahachiro Hata and Paul Karrer to the institute in 1912. Paul Karrer, the Nobel prize laureate of 1937 was meant to perform research at the Georg-Speyer-Haus for a period of six years, but was then called to the University of Zurich. In 1919 Karrer became director of the chemical institute at Zurich’s university.
Two years after Paul Ehrlich’s death in 1915 Wilhelm Kolle led both institutes until 1935. During his period as director the financial situation of the Georg-Speyer-Haus significantly improved. In 1921 Ludwig Darmstaedter initiated a complete separation between the Georg and Franziska Speyer scholarship foundation, which was now meant to support Frankfurt’s university and the Georg-Speyer-Haus. This separation was made in order to guarantee that the revenue for the Salvarsan licences were made available to the Georg-Speyer-Haus and therefore were able to finance the ongoing research. From this point on the Georg-Speyer-Haus was an independent and charitable foundation supporting research at the institute of the same name.
The improvement of Salvarsan (Neosalvarsan) and important restructuring of the institute took place during Kolle’s time. In 1922 the buildings of the Royal Institute of Experimental Therapy and the Chemotherapeutical Research Insitute Georg-Speyer-Haus were connected. Additionally, the Ferdinand-Blum-Institut, which still exists today, was integrated within this complex of buildings.
From 1935 until 1948 Richard Otto was director of both institutes. Profound changes came over the Georg-Speyer-Haus during the time of the Nazi regime. Having been founded by a Jewish family and being the workplace of many Jewish employees in managing positions the Georg-Speyer-Haus became a victim of Aryanization. Following the goal to remove all Jewish people from the institute, all Jewish employees were made redundant, all writings of Paul Ehrlich were removed from the institute’s library, and the institute was renamed Research Institute of Chemotherapy. During WWII chemotherapy in the area of tuberculosis, leprosy, and typhus was developed. Furthermore, tumour research was pursued. Beside these studies work related to warfare had to be done, i.e. the development of synthetic rubber, a vaccine against typhus, and of sera against toxic gas and gas gangrene. The Georg-Speyer-Haus was hardly touched during the bombings of 1944, whereas the National Institute for Experimental Therapy was extensively destroyed and later on partly moved to Marburg.
After 1945 measures of Aryanization were revoked. In 1947 Günter K. Schwerin, grandson of Paul Ehrlich and part of the military administration, achieved, that the former Royal and meanwhile National Institute for Experimental Therapy was allowed to bear the name of its first director: Paul-Ehrlich-Institut National Institute for Experimental Therapy.
When Richard Prigge became director of both institutes in 1949, the budget of the Georg-Speyer-Haus foundation, which had been around 10 million German Marks prior to the monetary reform, declined to 130,000 German Marks. The Salvarsan licences had expired and therefore no revenue could be generated from that source. In 1950 the financial situation of the Georg-Speyer-Haus was improved by its joining the Königssteiner convention, which envisioned common funding of bigger research institutes by the federal states.
From 1962 on Günther Heymann managed the Georg-Speyer-Haus as well as the Paul-Ehrlich-Institut on a temporary basis until Niels Kaj Jerne, the later Nobel prize winner, became director in 1966. However, Jerne soon accepted a call and left the institute to take over the management of the Institute of Immunology in Basel. Again Günther Heymann took over as the institute’s director on a temporary basis. During his term the Paul-Ehrlich-Institut became an independent institution because of the ‘act of the establishment of a federal office for sera and vaccines’.
In 1974 Hans Dieter Brede was called to be director of both institutes. He introduced research on immune therapeutics to the Georg-Speyper-Haus. During his term the union between the Paul-Ehrlich-Institut and the Georg-Speyer-Haus was dissolved and in 1987 the spatial separation of the two institutes began. The separation was complete in May 1990 by the opening of the new Paul-Ehrlich-Institut in Langen.
In 1987 Helga Rübsamen-Schaeff became director of the Georg-Speyer-Haus. By the time of the first HIV infection in Germany she intensified immunological research at the institute. Thanks to productive cooperations with the university hospital a German research institute was able to isolate HIV strains out of patients and to characterize them for the first time. Those discoveries paved the way to diagnostic tests and, consequently, brought income from royalties tot he institute for many years. In 1993 Helga Rübsamen-Schaeff went to Bayer as director of virology and later also infectiology.
Hans Dieter Brede again became director of the Georg-Speyer-Haus on a temporary basis. He held this office until his death. His goals were to advance research, modernize the institute as well as to stabilize its economic situtation. He accomplished all of this. From 1995 to 1997 the entire complex of buildings was refurbished and modernized from public money (Federal Ministry of Health and Hessian Ministry of Science and Art).
Since 1998, under the directorship of Bernd Groner, research on tumour biology was emphasized and connections to the Goethe-University Frankfurt, the University Hospitals and other local and national research institutions were intensified. Interdisciplinary collaborations were supported, and new junior research groups were established at the Georg-Speyer-Haus. Junior group leaders were given the chance to establish themselves in science. Lately, important achievements at the institute have been the clinical testing of new cancer drugs and the first successful application of gene therapy in Europe to treat an inherited immune defect in adult patients.
In the year 2012 Bernd Groner retired as director and Winfried Wels took over the directorship on a temporary basis.
Since August 2013 Florian Greten is director of the institute. The aim of the institute’s research is focused exclusively on tumor biology, a fact that also is reflected in the new name of the institute, namely Georg Speyer Haus- Institute for Tumor Biology and Experimental Therapy.
Note: For easy reading we did not mention academic and other titles. The historical facts are mainly taken from the biography ‘Paul Ehrlich – Forscher für das Leben’ written by Ernst Bäumler.