Willstaetter, Richard

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WILLSTAETTER, RICHARD (1872–1942), German organic chemist and Nobel laureate. Willstaetter, who was born in Karlsruhe, became professor at Munich in 1902, and three years later professor at the Technische Hochschule in Zurich. His research showed that chlorophyll, the essential agent for plants to absorb sunlight and carbon dioxide for synthesis, has two components, contains magnesium, is closely analogous to the red pigment of blood, and contains phytol. He was awarded the 1915 Nobel Prize in chemistry "for his researches on plant pigments, especially chlorophyll." In 1912 he became director of a new Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft zur Foerderung der Wissenschaften in Berlin-Dahlem, and studied other plant pigments, the carotenes, and the anthocyanins. In World War i he was awarded the civilian Iron Cross for work on gas masks. In 1915 he became director of the State Chemical Laboratory. At a time when enzymes were still considered to be mysterious agents specific to life processes, he emphasized the view that they are chemical substances.

When by 1924 suitable Jewish candidates were being rejected for positions in the university, Willstaetter reacted to this manifestation of antisemitism by resigning his chair at the University of Munich. He devoted himself to scientific organizations, publications, special lectures, and industrial consultations. In March 1939 the Gestapo ransacked his house and ordered him to leave Germany. He went to Locarno, Switzerland, where he died. His autobiography, Aus meinem Leben, appeared in 1949.


E. Farber (ed.), Great Chemists (1961), 1367–74; Robinson, in: Journal of the Chemical Society, pt. 1 (1953), 999–1026; idem, in: Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, 22 (1953), 609–34; T.N. Levitan, Laureates: Jewish Winners of the Nobel Prize (1960), 36–38.

[Samuel Aaron Miller]