First Person: Tadeus Reichstein

Tadeus Reichstein in Basel. John D. Roberts Slide Collection, CHF Collections.

Tadeus Reichstein in Basel. John D. Roberts Slide Collection, CHF Collections.

In 1985, at 88 years old, Dr. Tadeus Reichstein participated in a CHF oral history interview at his office in Basel, Switzerland. When asked for his secret to longevity, Reichstein replied, “There's no secret, but I think that as long as you are interested in life, and you can work, this is probably the best you can do for yourself.” Reichstein was living evidence of that credo; even after his “official” retirement at 70, the Nobel laureate turned his love of plants into a specialty.

Throughout his career, Reichstein had been a dedicated organic chemist, verging on the biological. Although it is not the work that would win him a Nobel Prize, Reichstein became best known for his process to synthesize vitamin C – only 11 years after earning his Ph.D. at ETH Zurich. At the time, many chemists were working towards efficient processes, but it was Reichstein who, in 1933, offered pharmaceutical giant Roche a simple 4-step synthesis beginning with the commonplace material dextrose. The Reichstein process, as it’s now known, has been used to synthesize vitamin C ever since, making the essential nutrient easier to add to foods and juices.

In his oral history, Reichstein stressed that finding and taking opportunities wherever they appeared was crucial in scientific work. He devoted much of his career to studying the hormones of the adrenal gland. Reichstein explained, “I thought [originally] that [the hormones] could not be steroids because steroids were always insoluble in water, but soluble in ether, and so on. That was the only thing which was known about them…. The funny thing is that after a few months when I had the first pure compounds, I immediately saw that they were steroids, but of a different kind.” Reichstein isolated the hormone cortisone, and worked to isolate other adrenal cortex hormones and observe their biological activity. In 1950 he was jointly awarded (with sometimes competitors Philip S. Hench and Edward C. Kendall) the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his years of research.

Speaking again on his long life, he reflected, “If you stop working….I think you must have an interest in some activity and a focus.” These weren’t empty words: after retirement Reichstein began to pursue another of his interests: botany. He continued to work and publish, becoming known as a botanist and fern specialist. This vast curiosity and devotion to the pursuit of science helped keep him active in multiple scientific communities throughout his life: by the time of his 1985 interview, he had published over 700 scientific papers.

Reichstein died in 1996, at the time the longest-lived Nobel laureate in history.

Hilary Domush is a program associate in oral history at CHF. "First Person” appears the third Friday of each month.

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Posted In: History

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