A life for science
Professor Heinz Bielka died in Berlin on December 1, 2020. He was one of the great researchers of the former institutes of the Academy of Sciences in Berlin-Buch, and he was a dedicated and committed supporter of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC). “Heinz Bielka made significant contributions to the MDC in his role as both a scientist and a science historian. The MDC and the Buch campus owe a great deal to him,” says Professor Thomas Sommer, interim Scientific Director of the MDC.
An expert chronologist, Heinz Bielka left his mark on cell biology and cancer research and documented the history of medical research at the Berlin-Buch campus in numerous publications and books, making this knowledge available to a wide readership. “The scientific work and legacy of Heinz Bielka and his publications on the history of Berlin-Buch are indispensable for anyone who wants to understand the significance of the scientific city of Buch. The MDC and the Berlin-Buch campus can build on this great tradition as they continue to write history,” says Professor Detlev Ganten, the founding director of the MDC. “Heinz Bielka was not only a role model and a source of inspiration for us at the MDC; he was also a good friend. We are going to miss him.”
Pioneer of cancer research
When Heinz Bielka set off in 1953 to study in Berlin, he certainly had no idea that he would find his place in life here in Buch, on the outskirts of Berlin: a place where he would shine scientifically and that would not only shape him but which he would also shape and change. Bielka, 24 years old at the time, had grown up near Görlitz. After the war he had begun studying in Dresden and Leipzig. Chemistry, biology, and biochemistry were his subjects, although he was also attracted by other disciplines. After Bielka’s beloved grandmother died of cancer, it was clear to him that he would go into cancer medicine. That’s why he moved from Leipzig to Buch, to study under Professor Arnold Graffi, who was already a famous cancer researcher at the time. He wanted to do his thesis with him.
Graffi gladly accepted the determined young man, and for Bielka it was the beginning of his great and successful career in science. Within a few years the student became an influential biologist: he completed his degree in biology in 1954, earned his doctorate in experimental cancer research in 1956, qualified as a professor and was appointed Graffi’s deputy in 1961. In 1959 the two men jointly wrote a standard work entitled “Problems of Experimental Cancer Research.” In 1965 Bielka became director of the Academy of Sciences Institute for Cell Physiology in Buch, a position he held until 1981. From 1982 to 1991, Bielka served as deputy director of the Central Institute of Molecular Biology at the Academy of Sciences of the GDR. In 1968, Humboldt-University zu Berlin also appointed him Professor of Biochemistry. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification, Bielka continued his work at the newly founded Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC).
First international textbook on molecular biology
In all these years, Heinz Bielka had never stopped working on his topic: cancer. He investigated the development of metastases under the influence of steroid hormones, the interaction between energy metabolism and tumor growth, as well as the role of viruses in the development of cancer. Bielka published more than 150 scientific papers in the years up to his retirement. His most important work was undoubtedly the first international textbook on “Molecular Biology of the Cell.”
Bielka received numerous honors for his work, including the Rudolf Virchow Prize (1974), the National Prize of the GDR (1979), and the Gerhard Domagk Prize (1993). In 1976 he was elected corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences of the GDR, and in 1978 a full member. In 1996 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Humboldt-University zu Berlin. Bielka was a member of the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.
A close network
The student-professor relationship between Graffi and Bielka quickly turned into a real friendship: Graffi and Bielka did research together, they wrote together, and they played music together ‒ Graffi on the piano and Bielka on the violin. Buch and the campus had soon become Bielka’s home. The scientific community was “a big family for us. We felt at home,” Bielka once said in a long interview. Like most of the people working on campus at that time, Bielka lived in Buch. In the evenings they met on the park bench, worked together in the garden, played skat, celebrated, or exchanged ideas, and also went on excursions. Clinical practice and research, the various professions and disciplines, place of residence and workplace, private and professional life ‒ everything was then more closely linked and interwoven than it is today. And Bielka was an integral part of this close-knit group of scientists.
It may have played a role that the researchers of the GDR were more dependent on one another due to the lack of international exchange, the chronic shortage of materials, and the restrictions on free scientific work. Bielka, a renowned researcher, was part of the travel cadre who could take trips to the West, but after a short initial phase as a member he ceased to belong to the party upon his resignation in 1953. However, Bielka slept through the great upheaval of 1989, the night of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, as he himself confessed.
The histories of Buch
Bielka played a prominent role in the newly founded MDC. In addition to his research, Bielka was interested in cultivating the scientific tradition. He made sure that the newcomers also got to know the history of the campus and the research carried out here. He was a chronicler of this slice of scientific history: his medical history books and literary forays ‒ “Die Medizinisch-Biologischen Institutes Berlin-Buch ‒ Beiträge zur Geschichte,” “Streifzüge durch die Orts- und Medizingeschichte von Berlin-Buch” and “Siedlungs- und Kulturgeschichte von Berlin-Buch” ‒ which he wrote after retiring in 1995, testify to his enthusiasm for research and to his love of Buch.
And so it should come as no surprise that Bielka was prominently involved in the reconstruction of the baroque Schlosskirche in Buch, which was destroyed during the war. For example, together with his wife, the pianist and professor Galina Iwanzowa-Bielka, and many other committed citizens, he organized benefit concerts at the MDC.C Conference Center to support the reconstruction efforts.
The funeral of Heinz Bielka will take place on Thursday, December 10, at the baroque church he loved so much.
Text: Jutta Kramm
Erhard Geißler: 66 years of Heinz Bielka and me (German only)
A conversation with Heinz Bielka – A contemporary witness video (German only)