Ernest Beutler: his life and contribution to medical science
Steven Beutler1and Bruce Beutler2
1Redlands Community Hospital, Redlands, CA, and2Department of Genetics, The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA, USA
Correspondence: Bruce Beutler, Department of Genetics, The Scripps Research Institute, 10550 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla, CA 92037, USA.
Ernest Beutler was one of the preeminent haematologists of the
last half of the 20th and the early 21st century. In a career that
spanned six decades, his research interests included such
diverse areas as red cell metabolism, blood preservation,
glycolipid storage diseases, leukaemias and iron metabolism.
Indeed, he was quite different from most of his contemporaries
in that his knowledge encompassed not only haematology and
not only the medical sciences, but the biological sciences as a
whole. He was among the first to describe X chromosome
inactivation, and he established the critical link between
glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency and drug-
induced haemolysis. He was a skilled and innovative clinician,
and an early advocate of bone marrow transplantation for the
treatment of acute leukaemia. He was a prolific author, with
over 800 publications; a long time member of the Editorial
Board of Blood; founder of the journal Blood Cells Molecules
and Diseases; and an editor of Williams Haematology from the
time of its inception. He bequeathed $1 million to the
American Society of Haematology to recognise and reward
outstanding basic research and its clinical application: a
pursuit to which he had committed his life. Indeed, he became
an extraordinary exemplar of the bench-to-bedside ethos,
which holds that even today, an MD researcher, working with
limited means and independent of pharmaceutical companies,
can have a great impact on the practice of medicine.
Keywords: X chromosome inactivation, glucocerebrosidase,
Gaucher’s disease, haemochromatosis, glucose-6-phosphate
Ernest Beutler (Fig 1) was born on September 30, 1928, in
Berlin, Germany. Ultimately, he became one of the largest
figures in academic haematology. But many years would pass
before that became a reality, and although he didn’t know it at
the time, his physical survival was threatened in his early years.
His parents were both physicians and both Jews in a society
where anti-Semitism was rampant. His mother, Kaethe Beutler
ne ´e Italiener, then 31 years old, was a paediatrician at the
Charite ´. Early in her career, she helped to develop infant
formulas: a pressing need in a world where wet nurses were the
only alternative to maternal breast feeding. His father, Alfred
Beutler, several years older, was an internist with an interest in
electrocardiography, who had written at least one paper on
‘chlorosis’ (iron deficiency anaemia). But neither parent had a
particular passion for basic biomedical research. Both delivered
patient care. Kaethe Beutler later recalled the children (by first
marriage) of Magda Goebbels ne ´e Quandt as some of her most
noteworthy patients. ‘That was before Magda met Joseph
Goebbels’, she told us many years later, recounting that she
had believed that these children had been poisoned by Magda
in the bunker beneath Berlin at the end of the war, but learned
later that they had been spurned by Joseph, which ultimately
saved their lives.
The second of three children, Ernest (named Ernst) was
preceded by an older brother, Frederick, born in 1926, who
later became a professor of mathematics at the University of
Michigan, and is alive today. He was followed by a younger
sister, Ruth, born in 1932, who attended the University of
Chicago, became a clinical psychologist, and died of compli-
cations of multiple sclerosis in 1993. The entire family was
musical, and music was a lifelong passion of Ernest. As a child,
he even received several violin lessons from Szymon Goldberg,
the concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, who
was a friend of the family. Goldberg was forced to leave his
position with the orchestra in 1934 along with other Jewish
In spite of the rise of Nazism, his childhood memories were
pleasant though not particularly detailed. He was admonished
not to express any politically sensitive opinions publicly, but
we know that at the age of 5, while on holiday in the
Sudetenland, he felt an illusion of safety (knowing he was in a
foreign country) and opined in a public dining room that
‘Hitler should be shot’! Many German-speaking people were
within hearing distance, and this was obviously the cause of
some anxiety. He also recalled playing with his brother around
a public telephone, whereon he was threatened with a beating
by a German policeman. Because of the atmosphere of fear and
gradual abridgment of the rights of Jews, the family emigrated
to the US in 1935, after briefly considering a move to Palestine.
The family settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
First published online 17 January 2011
ª 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd, British Journal of Haematology, 152, 543–550
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ª 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd, British Journal of Haematology, 152, 543–550