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Richard Willstätter

Richard WillstätterAKA Richard Martin Willstätter

Born: 13-Aug-1872
Birthplace: Karlsruhe, Germany
Died: 3-Aug-1942
Location of death: Locarno, Switzerland
Cause of death: Heart Failure

Gender: Male
Religion: Jewish
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Chemist

Nationality: Germany
Executive summary: Plant pigments

German chemist Richard Willstätter studied the structure of alkaloids (colorless, complex, and bitter organic compounds), anthocyanins (red, blue, and violet plant pigments), and chlorophyll (the green, light-absorbing catalyst in plants). He also corrected mistakes in the scientific understanding of cocaine's atomic structure and synthesized that drug, and pioneered the technique of chromatography ("color-writing"), invented by Mikhail Semenovich Tsvett (1872-1919) in 1906 and developed independently by Willstätter and his student Arthur Stoll (1887-1971) in the 1920s.

He was Jewish, and bristled and refused the 1902 suggestion of Adolf von Baeyer that Willstätter should be baptized into the Christian faith to remove career obstacles caused by Germany's increasing anti-Semitism. Instead Willstätter accepted a professorship outside of Germany, in Zürich, but he returned to Germany in the build-up to World War I. He won the Iron Cross (Second Class) for his work designing a charcoal-and-urotropin gas mask used to protect German soldiers from WWI chemical warfare attacks, and won the 1915 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his studies revealing the chemical composition of chlorophyll and other plant pigments (though he was not allowed to accept the honor until the end of World War I).

Willstätter also studied how carbonic acids are assimilated in plants and the chemical composition of enzymes. In his own time much of his fame came from his experiment showing that certain active enzymes show no trace of protein, a finding disputed and finally disproven by John H. Northrop in 1930. In protest of growing restrictions on Jews in Germany he resigned his post at the University of Munich and retired in 1924. With the help of his former student Stoll he fled the country in 1938, resettling in Switzerland, where he died in 1942.

Father: Maxwell Willstätter (textile merchant)
Mother: Sophie Ulmann Willstätter
Wife: Sophie Leser (m. 1903, d. 1908 appendicitis, one son, one daughter)
Son: Ludwig (b. 1904, d. 1915)
Daughter: Ida Margarete (b. 1906)

    High School: Nuremberg Gymnasium, Nuremberg, Germany
    University: BS Chemistry, University of Munich (1893)
    University: PhD Chemistry, University of Munich (1894)
    Professor: Chemistry, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zürich (1905-11)
    Professor: Chemistry, University of Berlin (1911-16)
    Professor: Chemistry, University of Munich (1916-24)

    Nobel Prize for Chemistry 1915
    Iron Cross 1916 (Second Class)
    Davy Medal 1932
    Willard Gibbs Medal 1933
    American Chemical Society 1927 (Foreign member)
    German Chemical Society 1927 (Honorary member)
    Royal Society 1933 (Foreign member)
    German Ancestry

Author of books:
Untersuchungen über Chlorophyll (Investigations on Chlorophyll) (1913)
Aus meinem Leben (From My Life) (1949, memoir)


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