Obituary: Professor Tadeus Reichstein

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The Independent Online
Tadeus Reichstein was one of the century's great masters of organic chemistry.

In 1933 he made his first great contribution to organic chemistry by the invention of the first practical synthesis of Vitamin C. This involved, as the key steps, the reduction of glucose to sorbitol followed by the microbiological oxidation of the latter to L-sorbose. Thus, long before the present emphasis on enzymatic methods in organic synthesis, Reichstein carried out a remarkably efficient oxidation of this kind. What is even more remarkable is that the modern synthesis of Vitamin C, carried out all over the world on a scale of many thousands of tons per annum, still uses the Reichstein procedure. There can be few sophisticated syntheses which have stood the test of time so well.

Reichstein was born in Wloclawek, in Poland, in 1897. In his early years, he lived in Kiev in Ukraine, and in 1905, with other family members, moved to Berlin and then to Zurich. Swiss citizenship was granted to his family in 1914.

He graduated from the prestigious Eidgenossische Technische Hochshule (ETH) in 1920 with a degree in chemical engineering. After a short spell in industry, he returned to the ETH and completed a PhD in organic chemistry in 1925 under the guidance of Hermann Staudinger, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1953.

Together Staudinger and Reichstein investigated the odiferous constituents of coffee. When Staudinger moved to Freiburg in 1925, Reichstein continued this research and his work became the basis for the production of the modern, powdered extracts of coffee.

In 1930, he became an Instructor at the ETH; in 1934 was appointed Assistant Professor; and in 1937 Associate Professor. From 1933 onwards, he became interested in the structure and synthesis of carbohydrates. He would wait patiently for years for crystallisation to take place.

Another important interest now came to the forefront in his work on the isolation of the hormones of the adrenal cortex. Reichstein isolated all of the hormones, numbering 27 in total, and obtained all of them in crystalline form. Among these he named corticosterone. Parallel work was being undertaken by Professor Edward C. Kendall in the United States, and not surprisingly, in 1950, Reichstein and Kendall, as well as the clinician Dr Philip C. Hench, were jointly awarded a Nobel Prize for Medicine. Hench had postulated that corticosterone might be effective in the treatment of arthritis; it is now known to us as cortisone.

In the meantime, Reichstein had moved to Basel University as Professor and Head of the Department of Pharmacy from 1938. There was still another chapter to come in the chemistry of the adrenal cortical hormones. From the so-called non-crystalline fraction, Reichstein and his colleagues, in collaboration with the Swiss chemical company CIBA, isolated the life- supporting hormone aldosterone. Since the natural product was available in only minute amounts and was difficult to synthesise by the known chemistry of the day, there resulted a huge international academic-industrial effort to provide aldosterone for clinical work.

Involved in this work myself, I devised a new reaction which solved the problem. Reichstein took a different approach and went off to Africa to look for natural steroids of the cardiac glycoside family which might have the right functionality. In this quest, he did not obtain any precursor of aldosterone, but he made another important contribution to the chemistry of the cardiac glycosides.

The expedition to Africa brought out another side of his scientific talent - his expertise in botanical classification. I remember well an expedition that Reichstein and I made in 1964 to the Takeda Botanical Gardens, near Kyoto, in Japan, on the occasion of a symposium held by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. All the plants were given their correct botanical names in the Asiatic section, but in the European section Reichstein found two plants which were incorrectly named. I was afraid that the director of the gardens, who was our guide, would commit hara-kiri on the spot, but he restrained himself and agreed to make the appropriate changes.

At the age of 70, Reichstein retired from his chair of chemistry; he continued his work in chemistry for another five years and then, at the age of 75, announced that he planned to become a botanist. It was in this subject, as an expert in the classification of ferns, that he continued an active career for nearly 25 years. At 90 years of age, he was still speaking at least four languages with the same facility as when he was 40.

Several years ago I was in Pakistan at a luncheon, seated next to a university vice- chancellor. I found out that he was also an expert in the classification of ferns. The vice-chancellor had no idea of Reichstein's age or the fact that he had gained a Nobel Prize, and thought that Reichstein was about 40 years old - a young botanist. In fact, Reichstein published about 40 papers in properly refereed botanical journals during the last stage of his career.

D. H. R. Barton

Tadeus Reichstein, chemist and botanist: born Wloclawek, Poland 20 July 1897; Professor of Organic Chemistry, Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule, Zurich 1930-38; Professor of Pharmacy, University of Basle 1938-46, Professor of Organic Chemistry 1946-67 (Emeritus); Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology 1950; Royal Society Copley Medal 1968; married 1927 Louise von Ufford (one daughter); died Basle, Switzerland 1 August 1996.