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Hans Kosterlitz

27 April 1903
26 October 1996 (age 93)

Hans Kosterlitz was a German-born British pharmacologist who discovered enkephalins, the body's natural painkillers that occur in the brain.

Kosterlitz was born in Berlin, Germany in 1903. Following in his father's scientific interests he studied medicine at the University of Berlin. When he graduated he became an assistant working in biochemical research. However, tensions in Germany escalated after the takeover by the Nazi Party and Kosterlitz emigrated to Scotland in 1934. At the University of Aberdeen he went on to become a Professor of Pharmacology and Chemistry and later Director of the university's drug research unit.

Kosterlitz's early research was varied, including work on blood sugars, liver failure and nutrition. His work on diet led him to look at the sympathetic nervous system which control's the body's fight-or-flight response, and subsequently the nervous system. Kosterlitz was the first to show that morphine decreased pain by inhibiting the sensory signals from being transmitted.

At the age of 65, Kosterlitz was obliged to retire due to his age. He left the university but didn’t stop his research, and went on to establish the Unit for Research on Addictive Drugs, which became the leading institution for opioid research for the next 15 years. There, his research led him to discover potentially his biggest contribution to science – enkephalins. Enkephalins are potent but naturally occurring opioids, chemicals that relieve pain by acting on the brain to decrease the intensity of pain signals.

Similar substances include drugs like codeine, morphine and heroin, all derived from the opium poppy plant. While derivatives like heroin are illegal for use, others like morphine are widely used as medication to reduce physical distress. The discovery of enkephalins spurred on major new fields of research in neuroscience, physiology, pharmacology and endocrinology.

A man who not only did science well, but loved science well, and loved the fun of communicating science.

Dr R Alan North, in memoriam

In 1969 Kosterlitz established the International Narcotics Research Club (now Conference) with the mission of disseminating knowledge within the research community and communicating science to the public. For his work he went on to receive numerous awards, including the Wellcome Gold Medal of the British Pharmacological Society, the Royal Medal of the Royal Society and the Albert Lasker award. He was an honorary member of the British Pharmacological Society and the Physiological Society, a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and a foreign member of the US National Academy of Sciences.