Viktor Hamburger was one of the most important and influential embryologists of the 20th century. Born on July 9, 1900, in Landeshut, Silesia (then part of Germany; now within Poland) to Max Hamburger and Else Gradenwitz, he was educated in Germany under Hans Spemann at the University of Freiburg. Following post-doctorates in Göttingham and Berlin-Dahlem, Hamburger accepted a Rockefeller Fellowship to study in Frank Lillie’s lab at Chicago.
Due to political changes in his homeland, Hamburger began a nearly 50-year tenure at Washington University in St. Louis in 1935, including 25 years as chairman of the Zoology Department. His Manual of Experimental Embryology, first published in 1942, demystified accessing and manipulating early embryos for several generations of students. Hamburger retired from his professor position in 1969 and continued researching until the 1980s.
Best known for his work in experimental embryology and neuroembryology, Hamburger’s publication topics range from color changes in fish during their mating season to the geology of Silesia, from mechanistic explanations of human birth defects (in the 1930s) to analyses of the influence of vitalism on early embryologists. The Heritage of Experimental Embryology: Hans Spemann and the Organizer (1988) brings to the current generations a sense of the excitement and uncertainties present during this early period of discovery, illuminating the personalities and conceptual perspectives of key researchers involved. Viktor Hamburger died on June 12, 2001.