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Tadeus Reichsten: Cortisone and Vitamin C

Coffee, cortisone, Vitamin C and the phytochemistry of ferns – such is the span of chemist, botanist and Nobel laureate Tadeus Reichstein’s work in the 99 years of his life.

Reichstein (1897–1996) was born in the Polish town of Wloclawek and grew up in Kiev before the family moved to Zurich in 1906, fleeing the violence against Jews in the Tsarist Empire. Reichstein studied chemistry at the ETH in Zurich. Having gained his doctorate, he worked for a producer of malt coffee, attempting to artificially recreate the aroma of roasted coffee. In 1930 he went back to the ETH to write his post-doctoral thesis in organic chemistry. It was in his basement laboratory at the ETH that he made the achievement he is best known for: the first total synthesis of L-ascorbic acid, also known as Vitamin C.

A pioneer of biotechnology

At the time, he was already combining chemical and biological methods, thus pioneering modern biotechnology. Be it chance or genius: Reichstein discovered that a strain of bacteria associated with the fruit fly was the missing link that allowed him to synthetically produce Vitamin C. The synthesis is known in chemistry today as the Reichstein process. He sold his patent to Hoffman-La Roche, kicking off the company’s era of large-scale vitamin production.

In 1938, Tadeus Reichstein accepted the chair of pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Basel, where he headed the Institute of Organic Chemistry from 1946 to 1960. Here, he focused on the study of hormones. It had been known since 1929 that the vital hormone cortisone was produced in the adrenal cortex. Research groups around the world were engaged in the incredibly difficult task of isolating and extracting this substance. Reichstein came out ahead, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for his efforts in 1950, together with American scientists E. C. Kendall and P. S. Hench.

A dedicated botanist

Reichstein devoted the later decades of his life to botanical research, concentrating his energy on the classification of ferns based on their chemical composition. Several species have been named after him. He once explained in an interview that the scientific literature in organic chemistry had become too vast for him in his old age. He preferred to restrict himself to the specialist field of ferns, in which he published research findings right up to his death at the advanced age of 99.


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