Butenandt, Adolf

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Adolf Butenandt

Called "one of the outstanding biochemists of the century over which his long life extended" by a London Times contributor, Adolf Butenandt (1903-1995) spent his life researching the biochemical reactions of the human body. He was best known for his isolation and analysis of sex hormones, such as oestrone, androsterone, and progesterone. Living during a time of turbulent politics, Butenandt, together with colleague Leopold Ruzicka, won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1939, but the Nazi government forced him to refuse it. He finally received the award in 1949 for his discovery and isolation of the hormones estrogen and androsterone, among others. His work led to the ability of pharmaceutical companies to create drugs to help with a variety of ailments, including estrogen deficiency and arthritis and led to a greater understanding of the way the chemicals that animals secrete affect growth and behavior.

Butenandt was born on March 24, 1903, in Lehe (now Wesermünde), a suburb of Bremerhaven, Germany. He was the son of business man Otto Louis Max Butenandt and Wilhelmina Thomfohrde Butenandt. As a boy Butenandt attended the Oberrealschule, the public school in Bremerhaven. After his graduation in 1921 he moved on to study chemistry and biology, first at the University of Marburg and then later at the University of Göttingen, where he graduated in 1927 with a doctorate in chemistry. Although Butenandt did his dissertation on a compound used in insecticides, while at Göttingen he had studied under the noted chemist Adolf Windaus, a man famous for his studies of the natural chemicals of the body. Windaus was also known for his work with sterols, unsaturated solid alcohols in the steroid group that, like cholesterol, are located in the fatty tissues. Windaus was researching sterols' associations with vitamins, and his work helped inspire in Butenandt the interest in body chemicals and steroids that would lead the young chemist to his later discoveries.

Isolated Oestrone and Androsterone

After graduation, Butenandt was offered the position of scientific assistant at the Institute of Chemistry in Göttingen. There his work "was mainly in the field of steroid hormones. In the twenties and thirties he and his colleagues took a decisive part in isolating male and female sex hormones and determining their constitution," according to Carsten Reinhardt on the Zeitzeugen Website. In 1929, while he was at the Institute of Chemistry, Butenandt managed to isolate oestrone in pure, crystalline form, at nearly the exact time that E.A. Doisy accomplished the same task in the United States. Oestrone is related to estrogen and can be used in the treatment of estrogen deficiency, among other things. Butenandt first called the hormone folliculin because it is located in the lining of the follicles of the ovaries in which it is secreted. It was renamed oestrone because of the fact that it is an estrogen hormone and one that controls several of the female processes. This discovery served as a major step toward the understanding of the way hormones work.

Butenandt stayed at the Institute of Chemistry until 1930 when he moved on to become the privatdozent for the Department of Biological Chemistry at the University of Göttingen. There he also took on the position of head of the laboratories for organic and inorganic chemistry. While he was filling these positions Butenandt also worked to gain his qualifications to become a lecturer, a task he completed in 1931. At this same time, he discovered the process to isolating androsterone in pure, crystalline form. Androsterone, which is secreted in urine, is a steroid hormone that helps to develop and maintain masculine characteristics. Along with his earlier discovery of oestrone, this discovery enabled scientists to more thoroughly examine how body chemicals affect human sexuality. At the same time, Butenandt confirmed the existence of another female sex hormone, estriol. Estriol, the hormone that is found in the urine during pregnancy and which enables doctors to tell very early on if a women is indeed pregnant, had been discovered earlier by G. F. Merrian, but had never been confirmed. On a personal note, while he was involved in some of his earlier research, Butenandt met Erika von Ziegner, a woman who aided him with his examinations. In 1931 he married von Ziegner and the pair eventually had seven children: two sons, Otfrid and Eckart, and five daughters, Ina, Heide, Anke, Imme, and Maike.

Isolated Progesterone and Testosterone

Because privatdozent was an unpaid position, it was with much relief that Butenandt accepted the position of professor ordinarius at the Institute of Technology in Danzig, a feat made possible because of his recently earned lecturer degree. He also became the director of the Institute for Organic Chemistry, watching over the experiments undertaken in the facility's laboratories. The chemist had been offered a position at Harvard University, but the Nazi party, which was quickly gaining power in Germany, coerced him into declining the offer. Butenandt later stated that he felt that he should stay behind anyway because of the students. Times were chaotic and he felt that some sort of stable presence was good for those who wished to learn; therefore he remained at Danzig until 1936. It was while he was in this position that Butenandt and chemistry colleague Leopold Ruzicka made what collectively added up to significant break-throughs in sex-hormone research. In 1934 Butenandt, working independently, managed to isolate a small sample of progesterone, the female sex hormone responsible for helping to prepare the uterus to receive the egg and which maintains the uterus during pregnancy. By 1935 Butenandt had also made significant inroads into the study of testosterone, the male sex hormone. He managed to take a sample from the testes obtained by Ernst Laquer in 1934 and isolate testosterone from it. It was the first time anything like that had been done.

Butenandt then investigated the interrelationships of the female and male sex hormones, noting how closely they were associated. He also studied the potential for some of these hormones to cause cancer. One of the most important things Butenandt discovered was the exact location of male sex hormone activity, which takes place in the nucleus of the carbon atoms. This discovery was seen as an incredible contribution to the study of human biochemistry. Just this one discovery allowed researchers to create medicines to deal with a plethora of diseases. One product that was created out of this research was Cortisone, a synthetic invention related to some of the hormones Butenandt and Ruzicka had independently studied. Cortisone is prescribed by doctors to treat arthritis symptoms, with great success, and it was just one of the products that scientists were able to create because of Butenandt and Ruzicka's hormone research.

Nobel Prize in Chemistry

In 1936 Butenandt, due to his good work at the Institute of Technology, was offered a professorship at the University of Berlin, which he quickly accepted. He was also offered the position of director of the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry, where he continued his research. Three years later, in 1939, he and Ruzicka were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on sex hormones. At the time it was awarded the Nazi party forced Butenandt to refuse the award. German Chancellor Adolf Hitler was irritated that the Nobel Prize committee had, in 1933, given the Nobel peace prize to Karl von Ossietzky, a man who opposed Hitler's fascist policies. Von Ossietzky had subsequently been moved into a concentration camp; now it was the Nobel committee's turn for punishment. In an interview Butenandt did with Carsten Reinhardt in 1993, the chemist recalled: "The award gave me great pleasure. It's a painful memory for me that I had to turn it down." Fortunately, Butenandt was finally able to accept his Nobel Prize in 1949, after World War II was over and the Nazi regime had fallen.

During the 1940s Butenandt did research into the eye-color defects characteristic of certain insects. His research proved that certain genes controlled the blending of enzymes necessary for the different metabolic processes, and that changes in those genes could result in metabolic defects. Metabolism refers to the physical and chemical processes that take place inside a living organism and that are necessary for the continuance of life. The idea that certain genes caused these processes was a new one and one that revolutionized scientific thought. During the course of this research, in 1945 Butenandt moved to Tübingen to teach at the Physiological Chemistry department at the university there.

Isolated Pheromones

In 1956 Butenandt moved to Münich where he taught at the department of physiological chemistry at the prestigious University of Münich. At that same time he took on the role of director of the university's Institute of Physiological Chemistry, a position he held until 1960. In 1959 Butenandt and his fellow researchers managed to isolate the hormone that produces sexual attractants in the silkworm moth. This was the first recorded observation of what would later be known as pheromones, the important chemicals that not only cause physical attraction between animals, but also influences the actions or development of other animals of the same species. At around the same time Butenandt became the first scientist to crystallize the insect hormone ecdysone. Ecdysone is a steroid hormone that supports growth in insects and crustaceans and manages the process of shedding and molting characteristic of insects and crustaceans. In 1960 Butenandt moved on to become the president of the Max Planck Society at Münich. He held this position for two terms, leaving in 1972 at the time of his retirement.

Over the course of his career Butenandt garnered several awards along with his Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He was awarded several medals and prizes from England, Germany, France, and Sweden, and he was awarded the Grand Cross for Federal Services with Star in 1959. He also was awarded honorary doctorates from the universities of Münich, Graz, Leeds, Madrid and Tübingen, as well as from Cambridge University. Butenandt was also honored with the appointment of Freeman of the city of Bremerhaven, a title that involved him in the politics of his birthplace. He was a corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences at Göttingen, and an honorary life member of the New York Academy of Sciences. In recognition of his many scientific accomplishments, he was also made an honorary member of the Japanese Biochemical Society, the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina, Halle, and the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Alongside these many honors, Butenandt held membership in the Pour le Mérite order for science and the arts in Germany, and received the Adolf von Harnack gold medal from the Max Planck Association for the Advancement of Science.

Butenandt died on January 18, 1995, in Münich-Obermenzing. In commemoration of a long and successful life in chemistry, the University of Münich named their molecular biology unit after the chemist; that facility is now called the Adolf-Butenandt-Institut Molekularbiologie. Much of the scientific community's understanding of sex hormones can be traced back to Butenandt and his research.


Farber, Eduard, Nobel Prize Winners in Chemistry: 1901-1961, Abelard-Schuman, 1963.

Notable Scientists: From 1900 to the Present, Gale Group, 2001.

World of Scientific Discovery, 2nd edition, Gale Group, 1999.


New York Times, January 19, 1995.

Times (London, England), February 13, 1995.


"Adolf Butenandt - Biography," Nobel Prize Website,http://nobelprize.org/chemistry/laureates/1939/butenandt-bio.html. Adolf-Butenandt-Institut Molekularbiologie Website,http://molekularbiologie.web.med.uni-muenchen.de/ (2005).

Reinhardt, Carsten, "In conversation with Adolf Butenandt," Zeitzeugen, http://www.deutsches-museum-bonn.de/zeitzeugen/butenandt/butenandt–e.html (September 30, 1993).

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