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Bülbring, Edithlocked


Edith Bülbring (1903–1990)

by Walter Bird

Godfrey Argent Studios / Royal Society

Bülbring, Edith (1903–1990), pharmacologist and physiologist, was born on 27 December 1903 in Bonn, Germany, the youngest of four children and third daughter of Karl Daniel Bülbring, professor of English at Bonn University, and his wife, Hortense Leonore Kann, a Dutch woman, daughter of a Jewish banker's family in The Hague. Edith's father died prematurely in 1917, and his eldest child, a son, was killed in action in 1918. Edith was educated at the Klostermann Lyzeum, Bonn. Her father's death and the hyper-inflation of the post-war years caused a financial strain, but her mother's brothers set up accounts for the three girls, giving each a modest income for life. After a period of private tuition she entered Bonn Gymnasium in 1922 to study chemistry, physics, and mathematics for the municipal examinations, which she passed at Easter 1923, entitling her to enter Bonn University, where she started preclinical studies for medicine.

Bülbring's decision to read medicine at university was a surprise and perhaps a disappointment to her mother, since she had early shown exceptional talent as a pianist; an accomplishment that gave her and her friends considerable pleasure in later life (she had two grand pianos in Oxford). Her clinical training was undertaken in Munich, Freiburg, and Bonn, and she qualified in May 1928. She then moved to Berlin, where she spent a year as house physician and two years as research assistant to Paul Trendelenburg, an eminent professor of pharmacology and an old family friend, who thought she was wasting her talents as a physician. Unfortunately, he died of tuberculosis before Edith had become sufficiently confident to decide on a research career, and she returned to medicine in 1931, as a paediatrician for a year in Jena (Germany). This seems to have been her first paid position. She then returned to Berlin, to the infectious disease unit of the Virchow Krankenhaus. This was during the rise of Adolf Hitler and national socialism, and, when citizens were required by law to declare their ancestry, the fact that she was half Jewish caused her dismissal. She returned home to Bonn in late 1933.

Intending to go to Holland to practise medicine, Edith Bülbring first joined a sister and a friend on a holiday in England. While there, she visited her old chief at the Virchow Krankenhaus, Ulrich Friedemann, from Berlin, a refugee working in Sir Henry Dale's laboratory in Hampstead. Dale assumed she also was looking for a job, and contacted J. H. Burn, who was setting up a biological standardization laboratory for the Pharmaceutical Society in Bloomsbury Square, London; he offered her a post. Thus began her scientific career. When Burn was appointed to the Oxford chair of pharmacology in 1937, she moved to Oxford, where she became successively a departmental demonstrator (1937), university demonstrator and lecturer (1946), ad hominem reader (1960), and finally, in 1967, ad hominem professor. She was elected to a professorial fellowship at Lady Margaret Hall in 1960. She had been naturalized in 1948. Initially Edith Bülbring worked in collaboration with Burn on the autonomic nervous system, and the effects of catecholamines and acetylcholine and their interactions. She acted as Burn's research assistant for some fifteen years, but in her early forties began more independent research. She decided to concentrate on trying to unravel the physiology of smooth muscle, a tissue that had previously always irritated her by its unpredictability. It was here that she made the greatest impact, and she will be remembered as one of the world's most influential scientists in this field. Under her influence, the study of smooth muscles became first respectable, and then increasingly important. She published Smooth Muscle in 1970. The techniques developed in her laboratory led to increasing knowledge of the physiology of smooth muscle, and the activities of the many scientists who spent time working with her spread her interest and enthusiasm for these tissues throughout the world. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1958, received honorary degrees from Groningen, Louvain, and Homburg (Saar), was awarded the Schmiedebert-Plakette of the Deutsche Pharmakologische Gesellschaft in 1974 and won the Wellcome gold medal in pharmacology in 1985.

Edith Bülbring never married, but in Oxford lived first with her younger sister, Maud, in Cumnor, and then finally built a house at 15 Northmoor Road, where after Maud's death she lived with her elder sister, Lucy. In appearance Edith was not distinguished, being of medium height and build. In early photographs she looked decidedly plain, and one would have guessed that she was quiet and unassuming, but she was remembered as vivacious. Later in life she became progressively more attractive and feminine in appearance. Her health was good and she continued active work well after her official retirement. Eventually atherosclerosis led to amputation of one leg below the knee when she was in her seventies. She did not allow this to handicap her, but she had progressive loss of circulation in her other leg, and could not tolerate the thought of a second amputation. Instead, she spent much of her last two years trying different treatments, culminating in her final operation, an attempt at a venous graft which she knew would be highly risky. The graft was probably a success, but there were multiple emboli which affected her heart and probably caused her minor strokes. She died three days later on 5 July 1990 in the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford.


  • T. B. Bolton and A. F. Brading, Memoirs FRS, 38 (1992), 67–95
  • The Times (10 Sept 1993)


  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning
  • Wellcome L., corresp.; notebooks


  • W. Bird, photograph, RS [see illus.]
  • photographs, repro. in Marren, The new naturalists

Wealth at Death

£690,136: The Times