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Richard Willstätter

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Richard Willstätter
Richard Martin Willstätter

13 August 1872
Died3 August 1942(1942-08-03) (aged 69)
Alma materUniversity of Munich
Known forOrganic chemistry
Spouse(s)Sophie Leser (1903–1908; her death; 2 children)[2]
AwardsNobel Prize for Chemistry (1915)
Faraday Lectureship Prize (1927)
Davy Medal (1932)
Willard Gibbs Award (1933)
Fellow of the Royal Society[1]
Scientific career
FieldsPhysical chemistry
InstitutionsUniversity of Munich
ETH Zürich
University of Berlin
Kaiser Wilhelm Institute
Doctoral advisorAlfred Einhorn, Adolf von Baeyer[citation needed]
Doctoral studentsJean Piccard

Richard Martin Willstätter FRS(For) HFRSE[1] (German pronunciation: [ˈʁɪçaʁt ˈvɪlˌʃtɛtɐ] , 13 August 1872 – 3 August 1942) was a German organic chemist whose study of the structure of plant pigments, chlorophyll included, won him the 1915 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.


Willstätter was born into a Jewish family in Karlsruhe.[3] He was the son of Maxwell (Max) Willstätter, a textile merchant, and his wife, Sophie Ulmann.

He went to school at the Karlsruhe Gymnasium and, when his family moved to Nuremberg, he attended the Technical School there. At age 18 he entered the University of Munich to study science and stayed for the next fifteen years. He was in the Department of Chemistry, first as a student of Alfred Einhorn—he received his doctorate in 1894[citation needed] – then as a faculty member. His doctoral thesis was on the structure of cocaine. Willstätter continued his research into other alkaloids and synthesized several of them. In 1896 he was named Lecturer and in 1902 Professor extraordinarius (professor without a chair).

In 1905 he left Munich to become professor at the ETH Zürich and there he worked on the plant pigment chlorophyll. He first determined its empirical formula.

In 1912 he became professor of chemistry at the University of Berlin and director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, studying the structure of pigments of flowers and fruits. It was here that Willstätter showed that chlorophyll was a mixture of two compounds, chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b.[4] He lived in the Dahlem neighborhood near other scientists.

In 1915 his friend Fritz Haber asked him to join in the development of poison gases.[5] Willstätter would not work on poisons but agreed to work on protection. He and his coworkers developed a three layer filter that absorbed all of the enemy's gases. Thirty million were manufactured by 1917 and Willstätter was awarded the Iron Cross Second Class.[6]

In 1916 he returned to Munich as the successor to his mentor Baeyer. During the 1920s Willstätter investigated the mechanisms of enzyme reactions and did much to establish that enzymes are chemical substances, not biological organisms. However, to the end of his life he refused to accept that enzymes were proteins.

In 1924 Willstätter's career came to "a tragic end when, as a gesture against increasing antisemitism, he announced his retirement."[2] According to his Nobel biography:[7] "Expressions of confidence by the Faculty, by his students and by the Minister failed to shake the fifty-three year old scientist in his decision to resign. He lived on in retirement in Munich....Dazzling offers both at home and abroad were alike rejected by him."[2] His only research was with assistants who telephoned their results. Despite pleas for him to move to Jerusalem or to Switzerland earlier in the 1930s, Willstätter did not flee from Germany until 1939.

In 1933, the Centralverein (Central Union of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith) created a publication project entitled Juden im deutschen Kulturbereich: ein Sammelwerk or 'Jews in the Realm of German Culture' --pathetic only in retrospect—of Jewish 'achievements' and Jewish 'achievers,' which included Jewish luminaries in literature and the arts, in Jewish as well as Christian theology, in politics, warfare, industry, and the natural sciences. "It was a vast, meticulously detailed encyclopedia of Jewish contributions to German life and culture during the past two centuries." The oversized book ran to 1,060 pages and comprised thousands of entries and names. Willstätter wrote the introduction.[8] However, not surprisingly, in December 1934 the (Nazi) Berlin State Police confiscated all the copies that had already been printed.[9]

In 1939 Willstätter emigrated to Switzerland. He spent the last three years of his life there in Muralto near Locarno writing his autobiography. He died of a heart attack in 1942.

Willstätter's autobiography, Aus meinem Leben, was not published in German until 1949. It was translated into English as From My Life in 1965.[10]


In 1903, he married Sophie Leser, who died in 1908.[11] They had two children.


In 1965, the school in Nuremberg he had attended named itself Willstätter-Gymnasium, in his honour.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Robinson, R. (1953). "Richard Willstätter. 1872–1942". Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society. 8 (22): 609–626. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1953.0021. JSTOR 769233.
  2. ^ a b c From Nobel Lectures, Chemistry 1901–1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1966 (https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/1915/willstatter/biographical/)
  3. ^ Stoltzenberg, Dietrich (2004). Fritz Haber: chemist, Nobel Laureate, German, Jew. Chemical Heritage Foundation. p. 203. ISBN 978-0-941901-24-6.
  4. ^ Motilva, Maria-José (2008), "Chlorophylls – from functionality in food to health relevance", 5th Pigments in Food congress- for quality and health, University of Helsinki, ISBN 978-952-10-4846-3
  5. ^ L.F.Haber (1986). The Poisonous Cloud: Chemical Warfare in the First World War, Clarendon Press
  6. ^ Van der Kloot, W. (2004). April 1915: Five future Nobel prize-winners inaugurate weapons of mass destruction and the academic-industrial-military complex. Notes Rec. R. Soc. Lond. 58: 149–160, 2004/
  7. ^ Richard Willstätter – Biography at nobelprize.org
  8. ^ Elon, Amos (2003). The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743–1933. Macmillan. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-312-42281-3.

    The prominence of German Jews and the contributions they made became fully apparent only after they were gone. In 1933, in a lastminute attempt to counter the Nazi threat, the traumatized leaders of the Centralverein (Central Union of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith), the most representative organization of assimilated German Jews, commissioned the compilation of a list of Jewish "achievers" and "achievements" in all fields. The project, pathetic only in retrospect, included Jewish luminaries in literature and the arts, in Jewish as well as Christian theology, in politics, warfare, industry, and the natural sciences.  The result, entitled Jews in the Realm of German Culture, was a vast, meticulously detailed encyclopedia of Jewish contributions to German life and culture during the past two centuries. The task was executed with overwhelming thoroughness by a committee of experts headed by Siegmund Kaznelson, well known during the Weimar period as an editor and publisher. The oversized book ran to 1,060 pages and comprised thousands of entries and names. Richard Willstätter, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, wrote the introduction. To avoid possible misunderstandings, the book even included an appendix on "non-Jews widely regarded as Jews."

    Kaznelson, Siegmund (1959). Juden im deutschen Kulturbereich: ein Sammelwerk (in German). Jüdischer Verlag.

  9. ^ "Juden im deutschen Kulturbereich (1934/1962)". Jüdisches Museum Berlin (in German). Retrieved 2 November 2022.
  10. ^ Richard Willstätter: Aus meinem Leben, edited by A. Stoll, Verlag Chemie, Weinheim, 1949; English edition: From My Life, Benjamin, New York, 1965.
  11. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 978-0-902198-84-5.
  12. ^ School Homepage (in German) The Meaning of our School's Name – Richard Willstätter and his Legacy, accessed 3 May 2020

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