Obituary for Professor Irmgard Merfort

Irmgard Gabriele Merfort, retired Professor of Pharmaceutical Biology, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, died far too early March 21 at the age of 69.

We have lost an excellent scientist, a motivating and reliable doctoral supervisor, committed teacher and a reliable friend of great integrity.

Born on May 18, 1952 in Vechta (Germany), Irmgard Merfort studied pharmacy at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster and received her approbation in 1977. Her scientific career started at the Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf with a PhD thesis on the lipophilic compounds from the fruits and leaves of Symphoricarpus albus under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Günter Willuhn (Pharmaceutical Biology). After her thesis defence in 1980 she was appointed as “Akademische Rätin” and habilitated in 1991 in Pharmaceutical Biology with a comprehensive thesis on the flavonoids of the genus Arnica. In 1995, she was appointed as C-3 Professor of Pharmaceutical Biology at the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg and hold this position until her retirement.

The scientific, academic and personal life’s work of Irmgard Merfort deserves special appreciation.

Starting as a classical phytochemist in Düsseldorf, she developed during her habilitation to a recognised expert on flavonoids and other polyphenols. The “Freiburg period” showed an impressive and rocket-like scientific development. Her publications on the anti-inflammatory activity of sesquiterpene lactones by targeting different molecular signalling pathways are still milestones in the field. Prof. Merfort not only experienced the birth of modern molecular phytochemistry in Germany, but also catalysed and shaped it by integrating molecular pharmacological tools, beyond descriptive methods, into the toolbox of a phytochemist. Over 40 years, more than 200 scientific articles testify impressively her excellent scientific reputation and interdisciplinary in the fields of pharmacology and phytochemistry.

Being an avowed pharmacist, both, the pharmaceutical students and the high quality of the pharmaceutical studies always had a special importance for Prof. Merfort. Each practical and theoretical course was prepared very carefully. She also organized many exciting botanical excursions for graduate and undergraduate students crowned by cheerful joint hut evenings, which are still a pleasure to remember. As dean of studies at the Institute of Pharmacy in Freiburg she was always prepared to listen the students concerns. In all university and national committees in which she was active, Irmgard Merfort always advocated a high quality, balance and modernity of the teaching content.

Irmgard Merfort has also inspired many people through her personality. As supervisor (we often called her “unsere Doktormutter”, also because we couldn’t hide anything), she was so familiar with the progress of the doctoral theses and so well-prepared that every conversation was a motivational boost, even if the results were not encouraging. Scientific accuracy, attention to detail and diligence were not only conveyed but also practiced and if one has to point out further personal virtues, her sense of justice and reliability has to be mentioned.

During her academic career, she had a wisdom ready for herself and for those around her as a tongue-in-cheek-reminder of modesty: “Everyone is replaceable”! This testifies her profound sense of humour as well as her excellent knowledge of human nature.

The thoughts of us all go to her family. Irmgard Merfort will unforgettably stay in our minds and in our hearts.

On behalf of former Phd students, colleagues and coworkers of the Merfort group

Jörg Heilmann, Universität Regensburg