Herman M. Kalckar, a world-renowned biochemist, died from pneumonia May 17 at Mt. Auburn Hospital. He was 83 years old.
Until shortly before his death, Kalckar was active as a distinguished research professor in the department of chemistry at Boston University. He had retired as professor of biological chemistry at Harvard Medical School and chief of the biomedical research department at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1979.
A pioneer in the study of biological energy production, genetic metabolic diseases, and the effect of nuclear fallout on human development, Kalckar was "one of the great men in biochemistry," said Boston University Associate Professor of Chemistry Scott C. Mohr.
In an autobiographical article last year, Kalckar dubbed himself a "nomadic biochemist," citing his extensive research and collaboration with colleagues in many parts of the world, including the Soviet Union, Greenland, Iceland and Egypt.
He had "friends literally all over the world," said Professor Mohr.
Kalckar's greatest discovery came in the late 1930s in his study of intermediary metabolism, the complex set of reactions in the body by which food is broken down for energy and materials. With Fritz Lippmann, who received a Nobel Prize for the work, Kalckar presented the first evidence for the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) as a result of biological oxidation.
ATP is the universal energy-carrying molecule, present in the living cells of all organisms. Kalckar's discovery formed the basis for understanding energy exchanges in biological systems.
Kalckar premiered work in identifying the biochemical causes of disease. In one of the earliest cases in which the biochemistry of a disorder was analyzed, the researcher discovered the enzyme whose absence causes galactosemia, a genetic disorder which leads to severe mental handicaps and is characterized by an inability to use the sugar galactose.
After identifying the cause of the disease, Kalckar, working with Kurt Isselbacher, developed a test to detect the illness in the early development of infants. Their work provided a model that has led to the discovery and greater understanding of hundreds of genetic diseases.