Stunning tale of gay Jewish scientist in Nazi Germany

by Len Lear
Posted 1/13/22

Wyndmoor professor and author Sam Apple discovered an astonishing story that had not previously been widely told and proceeded to write a remarkably compelling book about it.

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Stunning tale of gay Jewish scientist in Nazi Germany


Truth is stranger than fiction. You would think that 76 years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust and with the billions of words written about both cataclysmic events, all of the fascinating stories about them would have already been told. But Wyndmoor professor and author Sam Apple discovered an astonishing story that had not previously been widely told and proceeded to write a remarkably compelling book about it.

“When I found out about this man and what he did, I knew right away that I had to write a book about it,” Apple told us in a Zoom interview about his new book, “Ravenous: Otto Warburg, the Nazis and the Search for the Cancer-Diet Connection” (Liveright Publishers). Apple, who teaches creative writing at Penn and scientific writing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, tells the extraordinary story of a Nazi-era scientific genius, Otto Warburg, who discovered how cancer cells eat - and what it means for how we should eat. 

And perhaps most remarkable of all, the highest Nazi officials knew Warburg (1883-1970) was Jewish and homosexual, but they left him and his partner completely alone because Warburg's groundbreaking cancer research was so important to them.

Warburg, a cousin of the famous Warburg financial family, was widely regarded in his day as one of the most important biochemists of the 20th century, a man whose research was integral to humanity’s understanding of cancer. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1931. He was also among the most despised figures in Nazi Germany. As a Jewish homosexual living openly with his male partner, Warburg represented all that the Third Reich abhorred. Yet Hitler and his top advisors dreaded cancer, which was the second leading killer of Germans at the time (after heart disease), and they protected Warburg in the hope that he could cure it.

“Hitler's mother died of cancer,” said Apple, “and he was obsessed with it. I'm so repulsed by Nazis, and I hate to say it, but they did make progress in cancer research, and their cancer rates went down. Several years ago I was writing science, health and nutrition articles, and I came across Warburg's name in a metabolism article. I Googled his name and was amazed at what I found. I became fascinated with him and his tale of survival. He and his male partner did not hide that they were gay, so they certainly had as much to fear as anyone.”

According to exhaustive research by Stanford University economist Petra Moser, “By 1944, more than 133,000 German Jewish émigrés had moved to America, many of them highly skilled and educated. Some were even Nobel Prize winners and renowned intellectuals like Albert Einstein in physics and Otto Loewi and Max Bergmann in chemistry.”

Yet, while almost all Jewish scientists fled Germany in the years before World War II, Warburg remained in Berlin, according to “Ravenous,” working under the watchful eye of the Nazis. With the Nazi army ravaging one European country after another, systematically rounding up and murdering millions of Jews, journalists, intellectuals and professors, Warburg awoke each morning in an elegant, antiques-filled home and rode horses with his partner, Jacob Heiss, before delving into his research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Society.

Hitler and other Nazi leaders, Apple writes, viewed cancer as an existential threat, but ironically, they viewed Warburg as Germany’s best chance of survival. Setting Warburg’s work against an absorbing history of cancer science, Apple follows him as he arrives at his central belief that cancer is a problem of metabolism. Though Warburg’s metabolic approach to cancer was considered groundbreaking, his work was soon eclipsed in the early postwar era, after the discovery of the DNA structure ignited a search for the genetic origins of cancer.

According to Apple, Warburg’s theory has undergone a resurgence in our own time as scientists have begun to investigate the dangers of sugar and the link between obesity and cancer, finding that the way we eat can influence how cancer cells take up nutrients and grow. Based on Apple's dozens of interviews with today’s leading cancer authorities, he explains how Warburg’s research may well hold the secret to why cancer became so common in the modern world and how we can reverse the trend. 

Apple, whose father Max Apple of Lower Merion is a well known novelist, grew up in Houston and attended the University of Michigan for his BA and Columbia University for an MA in English and Creative Writing. He spent more than five years researching and writing “Ravenous.”

“I could never have finished the book if I had to learn German,” said Apple. “I was somewhat hesitant because so much of the research material was in German, and my German was not good, and I also needed a knowledge of biochemistry. I did a lot of studying up on that and had help from translators, but my advice to other writers would be: Don't write a book about a German biochemist.”

For more info, visit Len Lear can be reached at