Reichstein, Tadeus

views updated May 17 2018


(b. Wloclawek, Poland, 20 July 1897; d. Basel, Switzerland, 1 August 1996), chemistry, chemical engineering, organic chemistry, pharmacy, corticosteroids, vitamin C.

Reichstein was amongst the leading scientists in organic chemistry in the twentieth century. With his synthesis of Vitamin C by using microorganisms he combined chemical and biological methods, and thus introduced patterns that became standard in modern biotechnology. In 1950 he received the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the chemical structure of the corticosteroids, opening up an avenue leading to the uses of cortisone and other hormones as pharmaceuticals.

Early Years Tadeus Reichstein was born on 20 July 1897 in Wloclawek (at that time in the Russian part of Poland) as the oldest of five sons of Jewish parents. His father’s name was Isidor Reichstein. His mother, Gustava Brochmann, was descended from a respected Wloclawek family.

Following studies at the Technical Institute in St. Petersburg, which was unusual for a Polish Jew in Tsaristic Russia, Isidor Reichstein moved to Kiev (Ukraine) with his parents where he set up his own business as an engineer specializing in sugar processing plants. In 1904 Reichstein’s youngest brother Paul was born, and the small flat in Kiev was becoming too crowded. As a result, Tadeus was sent to live with his aunt who was married to a pharmacist. Even though Tadeus was only eight years old, he took great interest in his uncle’s pharmacy. He was allowed to make pills and syrups, mix plasters, and assist in numerous other tasks in the pharmacy. Back in his parents’ flat, he converted his bedroom into a laboratory and tried, together with a friend, to transform iron shavings into gold by means of chemical reactions. This was his first (and last!) excursion into the realm of alchemy.

The year 1905 witnessed horrific pogroms against Russia’s Jewish population. Reichstein was never to forget this scene of terror. Having never seen blood before, he later remembered that, apart from being shocked, he was also very interested in the wounds and bodily functions that he had seen.

The recurrent eruptions of anti-Semitic violence persuaded Isidor Reichstein that the family had to leave Russia, and so they immigrated to Switzerland. On their way through Germany, the family left Tadeus in a residential school in Jena. Because it was a renowned boy’s boarding school, Isidor Reichstein hoped that an education there would secure a good future for his son. The flat in Zurich was too small in any case, all the more so as numerous relatives who were also fleeing from anti-Semitic violence had to be housed.

As Tadeus later said himself, the two years spent in the German boarding school were hell for him. He loathed the military atmosphere of the Prussian institution where flogging even for minor instances of disobedience was commonplace. Being small and thin for his age—the smallest boy in his class—he was understandably unable to keep up with the others during the daily outdoor hikes. Out of sheer exhaustion, he would often collapse, something that would trigger a fit of Teutonic rage in his teacher who would beat little Tadeus black and blue with a cane until the boy was unable to walk at all.

Tadeus did not tell his parents anything about all that. Although aged only ten, he did not want to burden them even more and decided to endure the hardship until there would be room in Zurich for him too. Fortunately, Isidor Reichstein was able to acquire a house in the countryside just outside Zurich in 1907, and Tadeus was able to return to his beloved family. He reflected later that it was from this moment on that his life was a happy one. Indeed, he was still a cheerful person even in old age.

For the next seven years, the Reichstein children were taught at home. Taking the greatest care, Isidor himself instructed them in mathematics and physics. Visitors taught other subjects, and a young scientist replaced Isidor whenever the latter had to travel to Kiev. It can safely be assumed that it was this excellent private education that led to his enormous thirst for knowledge and his childlike ability to marvel at the wonders of life and nature and especially plants, traits that were to accompany Reichstein throughout his long life.

At the age of seventeen Reichstein entered the upper secondary school in Zurich where he pursued his interest in science subjects with great eagerness. Having become naturalized Swiss citizens, along with his four brothers in 1914, he was conscripted for military service as early as the first month after the outbreak of World War I. The situation in Europe at the time was catastrophic. The family got into major financial difficulties. No longer able to travel to Kiev, Isidor lost his business, his capital, and his savings there. Worse still, his health deteriorated, he became bed-ridden, and was never to recover fully. He died in the year 1931. His wife converted the family’s home into a boarding house in order to earn money. One of the guests who stayed with the family was a young woman from the Netherlands, Louise van Ufford, whom Tadeus married in 1927. Their daughter Ruth was born in 1933.

Having been dismissed from the army in 1916, Reichstein was now able to complete his school education at the upper secondary school in Zurich. He then began studying chemistry at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETHZ). After four years, Reichstein passed his degree in chemical engineering with flying colors. Driven by the ardent wish finally to be able to support his family financially, he wanted to find a well-paying job. Having compiled a list of twenty chemical companies, he went all over Zurich and its surrounding areas, visiting one company after another, finally finding a temporary position in a small company in Rorschach. The objective was to improve batteries for flashlights, a problem Reichstein was able to solve and he was delighted to be well enough paid that he could contribute to the family budget.

Research In 1921 Reichstein began his doctorate under the supervision of Nobel Laureate Hermann Staudinger. He saw his supervisor as a brilliant teacher of organic chemistry who knew how to create a stimulating and entertaining atmosphere for his 200 students. Practical laboratory skills were not Staudinger’s forte, however. He is said to have had a predilection for strong reactions that were both fulminant and smelly.

At the same time, however, Reichstein was able to work with Leopold Ruzicka in the cellar laboratory at the ETHZ, and benefit from the great practical skills of this poorly paid assistant of Staudinger's. Although Ruzicka was less gifted as a teacher of theoretical subjects, he developed brilliant working methods for the analysis of natural materials. Reichstein’s connection with Ruzicka was to have a profound impact on his entire subsequent career. Whereas Reichstein had originally planned to embark on a career in chemical engineering and certainly did not want to become a university teacher, he increasingly turned his attention to research as a result of Ruzicka’s influence.

On the basis of a plan drawn up by Staudinger, Reichstein worked on the isolation of the volatile flavor components of roasted coffee for the German company Frank (Kathreiner’s malt coffee) in a small laboratory in Albisrieden, beginning in 1922. Together with his assistant and friend Joseph von Euw, he worked on this project for a total of nine years.

The connection with Joseph von Euw proved productive and developed into a collaboration and friendship that was to last for some fifty years. Von Euw was actually a precision mechanic by training, which meant that he first had to familiarize himself with the ins and outs of chemistry. But he soon grew accustomed to handling the sensitive substances and even constructed most devices and apparatuses himself. Chromatographic methods were still unknown at the time and the analysis of very small quantities of complex mixtures of unstable products posed major problems. However, by means of fractional distillation, isolation of the various pH values, and finally crystallization and derivatization, the required results were ultimately obtained. Although Staudinger used all these findings as part of his own patents, Reichstein was at least able to publish his newly found reactions of heterocyclic components (furans and pyrroles) under his own name in the journal Helvetica Chimica Acta.

The goal of the work was to find an artificial aroma of coffee. This was not possible because these natural products have too many components, but they succeeded in the end to find a mixture of about fifty compounds, which could be marketed as artificial coffee flavor. They held several patents on this. Based on this work the German company Haarmann & Reimer in Holzminden was able to produce and market an artificial coffee aroma in 1928.). Upon completion of the works in Albisrieden, Leopold Ruzicka succeeded in persuading Reichstein to become an assistant at the Institute of Organic Chemistry of the ETHZ and to seriously consider an academic career.

Vitamin C After two years of being a titular professor at the ETH, Reichstein was appointed associate professor. He assembled a group of doctoral and post-doctoral students and was then increasingly enabled to invest his enormous energy in his research. Because he was particularly interested in substances that both played an important role and had great potential in medicine, he chose vitamins as his field of specialization.

The aim at the time was to find a way to synthesize the anti-scorbutic vitamin C artificially. It had been isolated in 1928 by Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, using Hungarian paprika. For artificial synthesis and as a starting material, a sugar, L-sorbose, was to be used. Although this substance was known, it was not available on the market. What to do? It was a known fact that there were strains of bacteria that could transform the readily available sugar alcohol sorbitol into L-sorbose. It was generally assumed that the bacteria in question were the slime-producing microorganisms found in mother of vinegar. Reichstein immediately came up with the idea of trying that route. However, many tests with mold cultures failed. No sor-bose was produced. Inspired by a nineteenth-century research dissertation, Reichstein devised a new experiment. Glasses containing a watery sorbitol solution, yeast, and a small quantity of vinegar (the pH value must be around 5 to ensure that no other bacteria grow) were put outdoors for a few days. When the glasses were taken back inside, three of them still contained sorbitol. However, three others contained a deposit of white crystals. As the analysis showed, the deposit consisted of the sugar so urgently needed: pure L-sorbose.

Responsible for the transformation was a strain of bacteria that was later to be called Acetobacter suboxydans. In one of the glasses, a dead fruit fly was floating in the liquid. On one of its legs, L-sorbose crystals had grown. Evidently, a colony of precisely this type of bacteria had been on the fly’s leg.

No time was lost in cultivating the bacteria, and after only a few days, a hundred grams of pure sorbose had been produced. The rest of the synthesis went according to plan. Together with his doctoral student R. Oppenauer, Reichstein was able to continue the process of synthesis, acetylation, and oxidation, until it was possible to produce synthetic vitamin C in a way that had great commercial potential.

What seems so simple and elegant in retrospect also involved a great deal of hard work, however. The heavy workload in the laboratory, the unavailability of methods for the analysis and control of intermediate steps that are taken for granted in the early twenty-first century (no chromatography, no spectrometry), and the competition from research teams who were working on the same problem in other countries all meant that Reichstein and his colleagues were under enormous pressure. Reichstein and the company that had supported him for the research, the foodstuff company Haco on Gümligen near Bern, now held the patent for the only commercially profitable method of producing vitamin C. The laboratory’s financial future was secure for the next few years because the patent, which Reichstein and Haco had made available to the company Hoffmann-La Roche, yielded substantial revenues, at least after an initial period of low sales.

The interface between chemistry, biology and medicine was Reichstein’s great passion. His original idea of including a microbiological component in organic synthesis meant that he was far ahead of his times, and he faced substantial resistance in the chemical company Hoffmann-La Roche to rely on a microbiological production step. But this resistance was overcome, and it is impressive to think that Reichstein’s ingenious synthesis technique has not changed to this day and that many thousands of tons of vitamin C are still produced by this method every year.

Basel and the Pharmaceutical Institute in the Totengässlein All of a sudden, there were insurmountable administrative obstacles at the ETH in Zurich stemming from the new research direction Reichstein had decided to take, namely, the elucidation of the structures of the hormones of the adrenal cortex. The laboratory director, Leopold Ruzicka, had a contract with the company CIBA, stipulating that the patent rights of research results on steroids in his laboratory had to be assigned to CIBA. Reichstein, having himself a contract with the Dutch company N.V. Organon in Oss, could not do this, as Organon had substantially supported his research on the adrenal cortical hormones.

So, Reichstein had to leave Ruzicka’s laboratory in Zurich, and faced the problem that in the late 1930s it was almost impossible for a Polish Jew to be appointed as full professor at a Swiss university despite that he was actually a Swiss citizen who had served in the Swiss army. The only exception, as he soon found out, was to be the University of Basel. There, the combination of a social democratic government and strong liberal forces within the parliament (called red Basel by outsiders and social

Basel by insiders) led to a prevailing mood of anti-Fascism and extreme skepticism with regard to the Third Reich, both among the population and in political circles. In part, this political climate was probably due to Basel’s geographical proximity to the German border and the news that came across daily. In addition, individual personalities shaped the world of Basel at the time, such as the director of Education, legendary social democrat Fritz Hauser, and the liberal president of the Grand Council (and editor in chief of the Basler Nachrichten), Albert Oeri-Preiswerk.

It was thanks to Hauser that Reichstein was offered the chair of Pharmacy at the University of Basel. He accepted and thus became head of the Pharmaceutical Institute of the University of Basel, a position he held from 1938 to 1950. He soon succeeded in his task of modernizing the Institute, located in idyllic Totengässlein in the middle of the old city, in order to bring it up to international standards. He was entirely wrapped up in his research and later reflected that the twelve years spent at the Pharmaceutical Institute were, despite the catastrophe

into which the whole of Europe plunged in this time, the most fruitful and the happiest years of his life.

Reichstein had taken his closest research assistant, Joseph von Euw, to Basel with him, and he soon assembled a small group of students and assistants. The new fields of activity were adrenal cortical hormones. Reichstein had begun to study these substances as early as 1934, when he was still at the ETHZ. Together with his new group, Reichstein isolated about thirty chemically similar corticosteroids that were, however, different in terms of their biological effects. The team even succeeded in producing crystalline forms of most of the corticosteroids. The so-called Substance E—-universally known as cortisone in the early 2000s—-was one of them. These substances perform a wide range of biological functions: they control sugar metabolism, they play an important role in the development of nerve and heart muscle cells, they are sexual hormones, and they influence the entire immune system. It is hardly surprising, then, that their isolation and identification was an extremely important undertaking. Only those experienced in the chemistry of natural products can fully appreciate how incredibly difficult it can be to separate substances of high chemical affinity that exist only in small quantities among a great multitude of organic materials. From more than a ton of slaughter waste (bovine adrenal glands), these substances were eventually extracted in quantities of milligrams.

If it is borne in mind that these substances readily form mixed crystals and is remembered that modern chromatographic methods for their isolation and identification did not exist as yet, one begins to wonder why Reichstein did not despair at the task. Other groups abroad were working on the same problem, and this led to a race against time. However, the aims were achieved: The substances were isolated and the results published. Together with his American rivals (Hench und Kendall), Reichstein was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1950. In his speech given on the occasion of the award ceremony, Reichstein expressed his gratitude to his rivals (and co-Laureates) for their mutual support. He said that he owed his Nobel Prize entirely to them, because it was only due to their work that the biological significance of these substances became known and had received —-all the public attention that this significance entailed worldwide.

Once again, the possibility of (semi-)synthetic production—-of cortisone in particular—-was the result of his research. The starting materials were bile pigments and plant material from Africa (so-called Strophantus types). As early as 1947 Reichstein had sent two of his assistants on an expedition to Africa for months on end to look for suitable starting materials, for already during the war, a race for the potential botanic sources of steroids had begun. It was hoped that industrial production of this new substance class would not only yield huge financial profits but, for a while, even that it might help win the war. There was the hope that steroids could be used to increase the performance of soldiers by reducing their need to sleep. This was most interesting in respect of the lack of pilots in the late years of World War II.

The Institute of Organic Chemistry In 1948 the head of the Institute of Organic Chemistry at the University of Basel died unexpectedly, and Reichstein was asked whether he would like to take up the position. He did not want to turn down the offer and as a result, he was, for four years, in charge of both institutes at the same time. However, as he later said, he would have much preferred to stay in his old institution in the Totengässlein to continue with his research projects. The chemical institute had to be substantially extended and modernized. For two years, Reichstein had to work particularly hard in order to convince the Grand Council of Basel of the importance and adequacy of the project. He succeeded. His strong conviction that the entire city of Basel would ultimately benefit from the fruits of chemical research eventually prevailed and has, from the point of view of the early twenty-first century, undoubtedly been confirmed.

The Institute of Organic Chemistry was rebuilt from the ground up. It was Reichstein’s vision, as well as his energy and effectiveness, that ensured the success of the complete reconstruction and reorganization of the institute. Unlike many of his academic colleagues, he did not shy away from administrative tasks and was determined to create an outstanding teaching and research institution.

Reichstein was far ahead of his time in more than one respect. Thus, he accepted women as scientists and colleagues as a matter of course and without any reservations. His leadership style as the head of both the academic and administrative units was characterized not by dictatorial authority but rather by his great ability to motivate others. His enthusiasm for new possibilities and methods, his curiosity for the processes of nature, and also his cheerful personality were all contagious qualities. He was not only a brilliant teacher but showed great psychological skills as head of his institute and great empathy in his interactions with his subordinates.

Retirement Years: Plants and Butterflies Throughout his life Reichstein had a great passion for plants. On a practical level he loved cultivating plants, especially ferns, but here too his interests ranged widely. He himself repeatedly said that he had inherited his aptitude for gardening from his mother. His garden on Weissensteinstrasse in the Bruderholz area in Basel is still vividly remembered by many as a botanical paradise as is his garden in Agarone in the Ticino region where he owned a summer cottage. Reichstein combined an emotional attachment to the world of plants with a scientific approach to understanding plant development.

Plant substances always interested Reichstein. Apart from his works on the flavoring substances in coffee, his wine analyses, and his research on vitamins, this interest manifested itself in his botanical and phytochemical work on plant substances, which was to contribute to a semi-synthetic production of corticosteroids, as mentioned above. There were many other subjects to which Reichstein turned his attention, however, for example steroid glycosides that have cardiotonic properties. It was this interest that later led him to an entirely new field of activity, namely the isolation of steroid glycosides from insects. That these substances are found in insects was not known at all until the 1960s. Together with Miriam Rothschild, Reichstein published a series of articles about more than twenty cardenolides that were not only found in the famous monarch butterflies, but also in grasshoppers and many other insects.

Already in the late 1950s, Reichstein began to take an interest in ferns. Following his retirement in 1967, his scientific work, which he was to continue to the end of his life, increasingly focused on this subject. At the age of seventy-five, he said that he wanted to abandon his research in organic chemistry in order to dedicate himself entirely to ferns. He explained that the scientific literature in the field of organic chemistry had become too vast for him, so that he hardly had time to read even the titles of all the publications anymore. He added that he preferred to work with live material only in future.

The systematics, chemotaxonomy, cytology, and micromorphology of ferns: Those were now to become the subjects of his scientific work. Reichstein soon built up yet another international network of scientists and specialists. It was very lucky that Reichstein had found such an ideal field of work for his long retirement. After all, he worked longer as a scientist after he retired than many of his colleagues did all their lives. On the one hand, he had his work in the garden and greenhouse, and on the other hand he had his scientific work. After his retirement, he published more than 100 works on the subject of ferns.

Reichstein died in 1996 at the age of ninety-nine. Also advanced in years, his beloved wife Louise had died a few years before him. When he was ninety-five, he once said that he had the impression of having lived too long already. He also pointed out, however, that he needed at least three more years in order to complete his botanical publications.

In the course of his life, Reichstein worked on many different subjects. He became an internationally renowned authority in all his various fields. Apart from the Nobel Prize and the Copley Medal, Reichstein received more than fifty honors and prizes, not in one, but in many different fields.

Evidently, it was not only his intellectual capacity and the effectiveness of his scientific approach that led to the astonishing diversity of his work. Reichstein was also an extraordinary human being. He had the ability to immerse himself deeply in a subject without narrowing his horizon in the process. This ability not only gave him rare cognitive powers, but it was also a precondition for his development into a non-fanatic yet highly motivated scientist, as well as a great human being.


Many personal notes were given to the author by Tadeus Reichstein and Dorothee Ammann.

Bächi, Beat. “‘Rein schweizerisches’ Vitamin C aus Basel. Zur Kulturgeschichte einer soziotechnischen Innovation.” Basler Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Altertumskunde 105 (2005): 79–113.

Hürlimann, H. “Prof. Dr. T. Reichstein zum 90. Geburtstag.” Bauhinia 8/4. (1987): 173.

Rasbach, Helga. “Der Pteridologe Tadeus Reichstein—-eine persönliche Würdigung.” Basel, Germany. Bauhinia 11/4. (1996): 211–219.

Reichstein, Tadeus, and Hermann Staudinger. “Das Aroma des gerösteten Kaffees.” Experientia VI/7. (1950): 280.

Rothschild, Miriam. “Tadeus Reichstein, 20 July 1897–1 August 1996.” Biographical Memoirs Fell. Royal Society London 45 (1999): 449–467.

Schneller, J. “Prof. Dr. Tadeus Reichstein (20. Juli 1897–1. August 1996).” Botanica Helvetica 107 (1997): 143–145.

Michael Kessler

Tadeus Reichstein

views updated Jun 11 2018

Tadeus Reichstein

The Polish-Swiss organic chemist Tadeus Reichstein (1897-1996) shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries relating to the hormones of the adrenal cortex.

The son of Isidor Reichstein, an engineer, Tadeus Reichstein was born in Wloclawek, Poland, on July 20, 1897. In 1914, shortly after his family moved to Zurich, he became a naturalized Swiss citizen. He began the study of chemistry at the State Technical College at Zurich in 1916, qualified in 1920, and in 1922 graduated as a doctor of philosophy in chemistry. For some years thereafter he investigated the cause of the flavor of coffee. In 1929 he became lecturer in organic and pharmaceutical chemistry at the Zurich Technical College, where in 1934 he was appointed titular professor, and in 1937 associate professor, of organic chemistry. In 1933 he synthesized ascorbic acid, independently of (Sir) Norman Haworth and by a different process.

In 1938 Reichstein was appointed professor of pharmaceutical chemistry, and in 1946 also of organic chemistry, in the University of Basel. From 1948 to 1952 he supervised the design of the new Institute of Organic Chemistry at Basel, of which, having meanwhile relinquished the chair of pharmaceutical chemistry (1950), he was director until 1960.

Chemistry of the Adrenal Cortex

In 1929 a long-standing rheumatoid arthritic was, because of an acute attack of jaundice, referred to Philip Showalter Hench of the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota. Within a few days most rheumatoid symptoms disappeared. During the next five years Hench saw 16 further cases, all of which were improved by the intercurrent jaundice. He concluded that the beneficial effect might be due to excess of a normal bile constituent or to an abnormal substance present in jaundice. He and his co-workers therefore administered bile and bile salts to rheumatoid arthritics, but no beneficial effects were observed. In 1931 Hench noted that female arthritics sometimes improved during pregnancy, and over several years he and his co-workers confirmed this fact. Hench now assumed that the improvement was due to the presence of a substance X, which was the same in jaundiced cases as in pregnant women. About 1938 he concluded that substance X was probably not derived from the bile but was a hormone found in both males and females.

About 1929 scientists first prepared extracts of the adrenal cortex which checked the symptoms following removal of the adrenals in animals and also those of Addison's disease in human patients. These extracts were named "cortin," and it seemed desirable to elucidate its composition and to prepare it in a pure state.

In 1934 E. C. Kendall, of the University of Minnesota, found that an extract thought to be pure cortin was really a mixture. In 1934 also Reichstein entered this field, and he and Kendall soon isolated about ten compounds from the adrenal cortex. Their detailed chemical investigation was mainly due to Reichstein. He soon proved that all such substances are steroids, and he continued to isolate new steroids from the cortex. By 1950, 29 were known.

The steroids were characterized by the presence of a complex nucleus, consisting of four rings bound together in a certain order to form a chain. This nucleus contained 17 carbon atoms, each bound to one or two hydrogen atoms. The nature of a particular steroid was determined by the nature of any substituent groups attached to carbon atoms in the nucleus. Of the 29 steroids isolated from the cortex by 1950, six were biologically active and not found in any other organ. They all contained 21 carbon atoms, that is, four additional to the 17 contained in the nucleus. The biological activity was dependent on the presence of a double bond. These cortical steroids were shown to influence the fluid balance of the body, the storage of sugar, and the metabolism of carbohydrates and proteins.

In 1934 both Reichstein and Kendall became interested in four of the active steroids, which Kendall called compounds A, B, E, and F. Compound E was isolated by Kendall in 1935 and about the same time by Reichstein. It was found to be 11-dehydro-17-hydroxycorticosterone. It was also found that it did not prolong the life of adrenalectomized animals but that it restored the power of their muscles to contract.

These substances were present in the adrenals in such minute amounts that to obtain enough for clinical purposes it was necessary to synthesize them. In 1937 Reichstein, starting with a bile acid, synthesized the simplest member of the group, deoxycorticosterone. Deoxycorticosterone acetate (DOCA) was soon available on an industrial scale and was satisfactorily used in treating Addison's disease.

For a long time other corticosteroids eluded synthesis. Manufacturers were not interested, as there were few patients with Addison's disease. In 1941 Hench and Kendall considered that Hench's substance X was probably Kendall's compound E, and they decided to administer compound E to rheumatoid patients as soon as a supply was available. In 1941 also the National Research Council of the United States, believing that the corticosteroids might be valuable in war, urged that attempts be made to synthesize compound A preparatory to the synthesis of compound E.

In 1943 Reichstein synthesized compound A from deoxycholic acid. His method could not be applied on a large scale, but in 1944 Kendall synthesized it by a more practical method. In 1947 Lewis H. Sarett, of the Merck Laboratories, synthesized a very small quantity of compound E from compound A. In August 1948 Hench, still searching for the hypothetical substance X, reaffirmed his decision to try Kendall's compound E on arthritics, and on September 4 he formally asked the firm of Merck for a supply sufficient for clinical trials. The small amount prepared was sent to Hench, and on September 21 his co-worker Charles H. Slocumb began to administer it to a rheumatoid arthritic. The excellent results led rapidly to the treatment of many other patients by Hench, Slocumb, and Howard F. Polley at the Mayo Clinic, and at the end of 1948 the name of compound E was changed to "cortisone." In February 1949 these workers obtained a small supply of the pituitary adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), and this was also used successfully in treating rheumatoid arthritis, alone and in association with cortisone. Good results were also obtained in acute rheumatism, asthma, and the collagen diseases. The first report on the new treatment, by Hench, Kendall, Slocumb, and Polley, was presented on April 20, 1949. By the end of 1950 several thousand patients in many parts of the world had been successfully treated. In 1950 Reichstein shared with Kendall and Hench the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in this field.

Later Life

After 1950 Reichstein discovered many other cortical steroids, including aldosterone, a hormone that regulates the salt balance of the body. He also worked on plant glycosides, especially the aglycones of the digitalis and strophanthus groups. His published work was entirely in the form of scientific papers.

In 1947 Reichstein became an Honorary Doctor of the University of Paris, and in 1951 he was awarded the Cameron Prize of the University of Edinburgh. In 1952 he was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society, and in 1968 he was awarded its highest honor, the Copley Medal.

By the late 1960s Reichstein had been hard at work for 45 years and the time had come to slow down. He stepped down from his post at the University of Basel, but had no intention of being completely idle. He continued to work in his laboratory until 1987, when his ninetieth year began. Then, his name appeared in print just once more before he died in 1996. Along with 62 other Nobel laureates in 1992, he signed an appeal to the worlds' governments to end the fighting in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Further Reading

There was a biography of Reichstein in Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine, 1942-1962 (1964), which also included his Nobel Lecture, as well as those of Kendall and Hench. For an account of the earlier work see R. D. H. Heard, The Hormones, vol. 1 (1948). For related aspects of the corticosteroids see A. White, P. Handler, and E. L. Smith, Principles of Biochemistry (3d ed. 1964). Also see New York Times August 6, 1996. □

Reichstein, Tadeus

views updated Jun 27 2018


REICHSTEIN, TADEUS (1897–1996), Swiss organic chemist, endocrinologist, and 1950 Nobel laureate. Reichstein was born in Wloclawek, Poland, and his family moved to Zurich in 1908. He became professor of organic chemistry at Zurich in 1934 and in 1938 joined Basle University as head of the Institute of Pharmacy. In 1933 he succeeded in the synthesis of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), the first total synthesis of a vitamin. He worked on other aspects of organic chemistry, and in 1934 began the isolation of the hormones of the adrenal cortex. He separated and characterized some 30 different steroids from adrenal glands, the most outstandingly important being corticosterone, cortisone, and cortisol, which are among the therapeutics used for sufferers from arthritis. In 1950 he, together with the Americans E.C. Kendall and P. Hench, was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine "for their discoveries relating to the hormones of the adrenal cortex, their structure and biological effects." Reichstein used his Nobel prize money for other research work at the University of Basle.


T.N. Levitan, Laureates: Jewish Winners of the Nobel Prize (1960), 161–3; L.G. Stevenson; Nobel Prize Winners in Medicine and Physiology, 19011950 (1953), 272–83; Chimia, 11 (1957), 205; Chemiker Zeitung, 81 (1957), 506.

[Samuel Aaron Miller]