Manfred Eigen was born in Bochum on 9 May 1927, the son of the chamber musician Ernst Eigen and his wife Hedwig. He was an excellent pianist and gave the soloist in concert occasionally. Eigen received his schooling at the Bochum humanistic Gymnasium. In the autumn of 1945 he entered the Georg-August-University of Göttingen, studying physics and chemistry, and obtained his doctorate in natural science in 1951. After graduating, Eigen worked at the university’s Institute of Physical Chemistry until 1953, when he joined the Max Planck Institute, which had moved to Göttingen. He became director at the institute in 1964 and three years later its managing director.
Eigen began his work on fast chemical reactions in solution and over the next decade developed a series of new measuring techniques, which he called “relaxation spectrometry”. For this work he earned the 1967 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, together with his British colleagues Ronald Norrish and George Porter who had developed the method of “flash photolysis”. The award was cited as “for their studies of extremely fast chemical reactions, effected by disturbing the equilibrium by means of very short pulses of energy”. In fact, Eigen could extend the time range of studies down to nanoseconds. For this, a group of very able coworkers had built up, among which Leo De Maeyer, who had joined him in 1954 and later became a professor and colleague at the Max Planck Institute, turned out to be instrumental.
In the beginning Eigen was interested in proton reactions: He and De Maeyer were the first to determine the neutralization rate and to study the kinetic behaviour of protons in ice. The development of the theory of multi stage relaxation processes was followed by studies on metal complexes, in which the fast reactions of a large number of metal ions were investigated. Around 1960 the emphasis shifted towards physical-organic chemistry and biochemical problems, ranging from hydrogen bridges and replication kinetics in nucleic acids, through enzymic processes and to their regulation and control. From the early nineteen sixties on Eigen received quite a number of awards and honorary degrees worldwide. His family included two children: Gerald (born in 1952) and Angela (born in 1960). Manfred Eigen is in his second marriage with Ruthild Oswatitsch-Eigen.
During the last forty years, Manfred Eigen (now emeritus Professor) focused on the “self-organization of matter and the evolution of biological macromolecules”. In 1992 he was awarded the Paul Ehrlich Prize for this work and its farreaching consequences in biology. More recently his interest has shifted to the technological utilization of these ideas establishing a new “evolutionary biotechnology”. Manfred Eigen is ranked as one of the leading internationally renowned scientists studying the molecular mechanisms of biological evolution.
This text and the picture of the Nobel Laureate were taken from the book: "NOBELS. Nobel Laureates photographed by Peter Badge" (WILEY-VCH, 2008).
Picture: © Peter Badge/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings