Traube, Moritz

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(b. Ratibor, Silesia [now Racibórz, Poland], 12 February 1826; d. Berlin, Germany, 28 June 1894)

Physiological chemistry.

Traube was the son of a Jewish wine merchant. His elder brother was Ludwig (1818-1876), a specialist in internal medicine at Berlin, became famous through his work in experimental pathology. His father and brother quickly recognized the scientific abilities of young Moritz, who at the age of sixteen completed his Gymnasium studies with outstanding grades in the humanities.

Traube began his scientific education in Berlin but soon transferred to Giessen, where he studied under Liebig. At twenty-one he earned the doctorate with a work on chromium compounds. He founded a physical society with his brother Ludwig, who also encouraged him to study medicine. In 1849, however, Traube had to abandon his medical studies because of family obligations: his younger brother died unexpectedly, and his father asked him to take over the management of the large family business.

Traube’s decision to comply with his father’s wishes undoubtedly was a difficult one, and he subsquently led a double existence as a businessman and a researcher. With modest means he fitted out a private laboratory, where he spent his free hours. The first was in an attic room in Ratibor; later he built another in Breslau, where he transferred the wine business in order to facilitate his research; and the third was Berlin. In Breslau, Traube worked in the laboratory of the physiologist Rudolf Heidenhain but later used his own facilities and engaged two assistants. Despite the great care with which he conducted his research and the originality of his ideas, Traube encountered considerable prejudice because he held no established academic post. Eventually, however, he achieved recognition, and in 1867 the University of Halle granted him an honorary doctorate.

Traube had two sons and three daughters. One of his sons, Hermann, became professor of mineralogy at the University of Berlin. In the last years of his life, which he spent in Berlin. Traube devoted himself entirely to scientific work until he succumbed to diabetes in 1894. He had begun to investigate the biochemical process of diabetes mellitus in man in 1852 and had distinguished two forms of the disease.

Traube’s experiments extended over much of physiological chemistry but proved of great importance for general chemistry as well. In his Handbuch zur Geschichte der Naturwissenschaft und der Technik (1908), Darmstaedter draws attention to three of Traube’s discoveries: oxygen-carrying ferments, or as they are now called, enzymes (1858); semipermeable membranes (1867); and artificial models of the cell (1875). Traube’s most interesting studies were on the source of the energy for muscle contraction, on the nature of the action of ferments, and on the formation of precipitation membranes.

Traube maintained that the energy source of muscle activity was the combustion of nitrogen-free substances. In 1861 he proposed that the organized portion of the muscle is not destroyed during work, urea is not a measurement of the production of muscle force, and albminous substances (now called proteins) are not decomposed through muscle activity. This hypothesis, which contradicted Liebig’s views, was sharply criticized by Georg Meissner in Bericht über die Fortschritte der Anatomie und Physiologie (1861-1863). Traube’s position was not vindicated until Pettenkofer and Voit published results showing that carbohydrates could be interpreted as a source of energy. In this area Traube appears even to have anticipated the Bohr effect.

In his investigation of the action of ferments, Traubel distinguished two types of “dialysis,” one involving reduction and the other oxidation. In the reduction process the ferment removes oxygen from a substance and releases it either to another substance or to the air: whereas in the oxidation, the ferment takes oxygen from the air and releases it to an oxidizable substance. In Traube’s view, the effectiveness of the ferment derives solely from the transfer of oxygen (Platzwechsel, or “transposition”). He found a simple model for such a process in finely divided platinum (platinum sponge), which decomposes hydrogen peroxide without limit (reduction) and recombines unlimited amounts of hydrogen and oxygen into water (oxidation). According to Traube, biological oxidation takes place in two steps. First, a substance A, together with oxygen and water, forms hydrogen peroxide in the presence of an oxidase; then a substance B is oxidized with the assistance of the hydrogen peroxide thus formed. This scheme can be represented by means of the following equation:

A+O2+2H2O A(OH)2 + H2O2


If this oxidation of B is viewed as the dehydrogenation of a substance RH2, then the re-formation of A can be understood by means of an extension of this scheme:

RH2 R+2H

A(OH)2+2H A+2H2O

(see W. Bladergroen, Physikalische Chemie in Medizin und Biologie [Basel, 1949], 623-624). Traube believed that ferments were specific substances, similar to proteins, that could not be obtained in pure form because of the ease with which they decompose.

Traube’s discoveries of the formation of precipitation membranes (1864, 1867) were especially significant. He produced homogeneous membranes in the forms of closed cells by placing gelatin in tannic acid solution. The sphere became covered with a membrane and gradually increased considerably in volume through absorption of water; the contents remained clear, transparent glue, however, and no tannic acid entered. Open glass tubes were closed off by metalliferous membranes formed from cupric ferrocyanide and Prussian blue. According to Traube, the endosmotic process occurring in the case of such homogeneous membranes is the result of the attraction of the solute for the solvent (endosmotische Kraft). The most diffusible substances cannot penetrate certain membranes if the molecular interstices of the latter are smaller than the entering molecules. These findings permitted the development of a technique for measuring the magnitude of the attraction of various substances for water. Further, Traube’s discovery of the semipermeable membrane provided the basis for Pfeffer’s measurement of osmotic pressure and for van’t Hoff’s far-reaching theoretical interpretation of osmosis.

In the last years of his life Traube worked on problems pertaining to uric acid synthesis and to autoxidation, as well as on developing a process for producing sterile water.


I. Original Works. Traube’s papers on general chemistry appeared mainly in Poggendorff’s Annalen der Chemie and in Berichte der Deutschen Chemischen Gesellschaft, and those on physiology in Virchows Archiv and in Archiv für Anatomie und Physiologie, as well as in Zentralblatt für die medicinischen Wissenschaften. Detailed reports on Traube’s earlier works are in the Bericht that Henle and Meissner prepared for Fortschritte der Anatomie und Physiologie, Some of Traube’s studies on ferment chemistry were reviewed in Leo Maly’s Jahresbericht für Thierchemie by Nathan Zuntz, among others.

Traube published a monograph entitled Theorie der Fermentwirkungen (Berlin, 1858). His scattered papers were posthumously edited by H. and W. Traube as Gesammelte Abhandlungen von Moritz Traube (Berlin, 1899).

Traube’s papers include “Ueber die Beziehung der Respiration zur Muskelthätigkeit und die Bedeutung der Respiration überhaupt,” in Virchows Archiv, 21 (1861), 386-414; “Experimente zur Theorie der Zellenbildung,” in Medizinische-Zentralblatt, no. 39 (1864); “Experimente zur Theorie der Zellenbildung und Endosmose,” in Archiv für Anatomie und Phyisiologie (1867), 87-165; “Ueber das Verhlaten der Alkoholhefe in sauerstoffgasfreien Medien,” in Berichte der Deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft, 10 (1877), 510-513; “Zur Lehre von der Autoxydation,” ibid., 22 (1889), 1496-1514; and “Einfaches Verfahren, Wasser in grossen Mengen Keimfrei zu machen,” in Zeitschrift für Hygiene, 16 (1894), 149-150.

II. Secondary Literature. See G. Bodländer, “Nekrolog auf M. Traube,” in Berichte der Deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft, 28 (1894), 1085; E. von Meyer, “Moritz Traube,” in Handwörterbuch der Naturwissenschaften, X (Jena, 1915), 43-44; and K. Müller, “Moritz Traube (1826-1894) und seine Theorie der Fermente” (M. D. diss., Zurich, 1970).

Further information on Traube’s life and works is in W. Bladergroen, Physikalische Chemie in Medizin und Biologie (Basel, 1949), 623-624; L. Darmstaedter, Handbuch zur Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften und der Technik (Berlin, 1908), 585, 664, 734; F. Lieben, Geschichte der physiologischen Chemie (Leipzig–Vienna, 1935; repr. Hildesheim-New York, 1970), 117, 237-239; and Poggendorff, II, 1126; III, 1363; and IV, 1519.

G. Rudolph

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Traube, Moritz

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