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Willstätter, Richard

chlorophyll munich chemistry resigned

[ vil shteter] (1872–1942) German organic chemist: discovered the structure of chlorophyll.

Willstätter was 11 when his father left Germany for New York to establish a clothing factory, following the successful example of his brothers-in-law. An expected short separation lengthened to 17 years as success came to him slowly; and it was his wife and her family who brought up his two sons. Richard’s interest in chemistry was prompted by visits to his uncle’s factory for the production of carbon for batteries.

He graduated at the University of Munich, studied under and gained his PhD in 1894 for work on alkaloids. He obtained a professorship at the University of Zürich (1905–12) and worked on plant pigments, quinones and the chemistry of chlorophyll. Using the chromatographic technique developed by he worked out the structure of both the a and b form of chlorophyll. He showed that chlorophyll contains a single atom of magnesium in its molecule, rather as haemoglobin contains a single iron atom. His work on cocaine derivatives, begun in Munich, led to the synthesis of new medicinals and the chemical curiosity cyclooctatetraene. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1915 for his work on plant pigments.

He returned in 1912 to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute at Berlin–Dahlem where he worked on the carotenes and anthocyanins. During the First World War Willstätter worked on gas masks and devised a filling of hexamethylenetetramine to absorb phosgene; layered with active carbon it was effective against the gases of the time. In 1916 he succeeded Baeyer to the chair in Munich and worked on photosynthesis, with A Stoll (1887–?), and on enzymes, notably catalase and peroxidase.

In 1925 he resigned his professorship in Munich in protest against increasing anti-semitism, in particular his faculty’s rejection of the appointment of , the geochemist, because he was Jewish. Willstätter had resigned his post at 53 without a pension, and losing the house, the status and the protection that went with it.

He was now alone – his wife had died many years before after only 5 years of marriage, shortly to be followed by the death of a small son. His daughter had married and was living in the USA. Despite many offers of posts in other countries he wished to stay in his own country. The next few years were spent in travelling, lecturing and continuing what research he could, with the help of Margarete Rohdewald who was allowed space in the laboratory and who reported her findings by telephone.

It was she who in November 1938 heard that members of the National Socialist party had been requested to volunteer for the arrest of Jews and warned Willstätter. He was able to avoid an immediate journey to Dachau, but he then knew he had to leave Germany to survive. He was determined to emigrate to Switzerland in a proper manner, but his patience and dignity were to be tested in the following months while he was gradually stripped of his possessions in return for his passport. With help from his former student Stoll and influential friends in Switzerland he crossed the border in March 1939.

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