Horst Bickel was a pioneer in the treatment of PKU (phenylketonuria), an inborn error of metabolism. He was born in Hamburg, Germany, the son of Ernst Bickel, a parson. He attended the Grunewald-Gymnasium and the Franzosische Gymnasium in Berlin and went on to study medicine at the universities of Berlin, Lausanne, Freiburg, Innsbruck, Greifswald and Vienna, where he gained his MD in 1942.
From 1943 to 1945 he was a doctor in the German Navy. After the war, he began to specialise in paediatrics, first in Hamburg and then in Zurich, Switzerland, under Guido Fanconi. From 1949 to 1954 he worked as a research fellow at Birmingham Children’s Hospital under Sir Leonard Parsons [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV, p.588], James Smellie [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.382] and John Squire [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.412].
In 1954 he returned to Germany, as associate professor at the children’s hospital in Marburg. In 1967 he was appointed chairman and director of the children’s hospital in Heidelberg, where he stayed until his official retirement in 1987.
His major research focus was on the detection, analysis and treatment of inborn errors of metabolism, including PKU, cystinosis, maple syrup urine disease and homocystinuria. At Birmingham he built up an amino acid and carbohydrate research unit and was in charge of the metabolic ward. It was here, in collaboration with John Gerrard [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] and Evelyn Hickmans, that he developed a dietary treatment for PKU. PKU, a genetic disease, had been associated with brain damage as a consequence of the toxic effects of high levels of the amino acid phenylalanine. Bickel, Gerrard and Hickmans developed the first sustainable diet which was low in phenylalanine, thereby preventing neurological damage. For their work on PKU Bickel, Gerrard and Hickmans received the prestigious John Scott medal in 1962.
In 1964, in Marburg, Bickel started the first European screening and treatment programme for PKU with the neonatal heel prick (or Guthrie) blood test. Testing newborns for PKU has now become standard practice worldwide.
In 1994, with Helmut Brehl, he initiated the Horst Bickel award, which aims to recognise progress in the area of research into inborn errors of metabolism.
Bickel was president of the European Society for Paediatric Research, the European Society for Paediatric Nephrology and of the Society for the Study of Inborn Errors of Metabolism. From 1988 to 1991 he was president of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Kinder und Jugendmedizin (DGKJ), the German paediatrics society.
Outside medicine, he enjoyed sailing, skiing, music, literature and travelling. In 1977 he married Barbara Erika Koloseike, the daughter of sculptor. They had three children.
[The World of PKU www.pkuworld.org/home/historyProfile.asp?s=3 – accessed 27 September 2016; Chemical Heritage Foundation. On the Scent: The Discovery of PKU www.chemheritage.org/distillations/magazine/on-the-scent-the-discovery-of-pku – accessed 27 September 2016]