Oskar Minkowski was born in Alexoten, near Kaunas, now in Lithuania, on 13 January 1858. In 1872, antisemitic measures adopted by the tsarist government forced the family to emigrate to Königsberg in Prussia, where Max, Minkowski’s older brother, later took over the family business and became prosperous as a middleman, trading in grain. Hermann, his younger brother, went on to become a world-famous professor of mathematics and also found a place in history as Einstein’s teacher.
Oskar completed his medical studies at the University of Königsberg and in 1888 he followed his chief, Bernhard Naunyn, to Strasbourg when the latter took up the university chair of internal medicine. He worked in Strasbourg until 1904, moved to the Augusta Hospital in Cologne and went on to become Chair of Internal Medicine in Greifswald in 1905. From 1909 to 1926 he served as Chair of Internal Medicine in Breslau (now known as Wroclaw).
Oskar Minkowski was legendary for his manual dexterity, and performed the world’s first successful hepatectomy (successful in that the creature did not expire immediately), upon a goose, in 1888. One day in 1889 he was looking for some journals in the library of another institute when he ran into Josef von Mering. They discussed the role of Lipanin, a commercial preparation of pancreatic enzymes. Minkowski questioned von Mering’s assertion that pancreatic enzymes were needed to break down fatty acids in the gut. The best way of finding out would be to remove the pancreas, but this would pose a real challenge for the surgeon, for Claude Bernard had said that pancreatectomy would be impossible. Minkowski attempted the procedure that same afternoon. The experiment famously showed pancreatic diabetes following pancreatectomy in dogs. It is to Minkowski’s credit that he made the mental connection between the polyuria resulting from the operation and diabetes, leading him to test the urine for glucose.
The European Association for the Study of Diabetes has, since 1966, awarded the Minkowski Prize for outstanding contributions to the advancement of knowledge in the field of diabetes mellitus.
In Breslau, Minkowski became one of the leading German internists; he chaired the German Association of Internal Medicine and was consulted by famous persons, including V. I. Lenin. The world was, however, changing around him. When accused of suppressing the credit due to the Aryan von Mering, he did not defend himself openly but wrote a letter in 1926 describing the events surrounding the discovery and deposited it in the archives in Breslau in case “at some future time a student of the history of diabetes may be interested in the true facts”. Two professors, dismissed following the Nazi takeover in 1933, rescued the letter from the archives before leaving. Minkowski died in Fürstenberg, Mecklenburg on 18 June 1931. His remains, together with those of his equally famous brother Hermann, are buried in the cemetery situated on Heerstrasse, Berlin, and protected by the city of Berlin as a historical monument.
Minkowski married Marie Johanna Siegel in 1894. In 1938, their daughter, Laure Minkowski, with her husband and two sons, was forced by the horrible policies of the Nazi government to emigrate from Germany. They settled in Buenos Aires, where Laure struggled to organize the emigration of her mother. On the last day of 1940, with the help of the Banting Society, Marie Siegel was able to leave Germany. She died in Buenos Aires in 1983.
Minkowski’s son, Rudolph Minkowski, earned his PhD in physics and went on to become an astrophysicist; he left his homeland to take up a post at the Mount Wilson Observatory in 1935, where he became well known as a radio-astronomer and had a galaxy named after him. The Minkowski family played an outstanding role in European science. They stand for innovative ideas followed by well-designed experiments and precise observation of unexpected results and their interpretation.