Nobel Prize Winner
On Steroids

Awarded 1939

Chemist
(1887 - 1976)

A scientist is a person who can solve problems, not just a person crammed with information. --anonymous

Beautiful Blue Danube Delivery

A little east of where the Drava River joins the Danube in what used to be the Austria-Hungarian Empire, is the little Croatian town of Vukovar. Stjepan Ruzicka, a barrel maker who used to live there, acquired his Czech name from his grandparents, along with some infusion of northern Austrian blood. Though most of his ancestors were not scholars --as some others had worked the land, and again others had crafted with their hands --many of them had been provided education. He married a girl from Wurtemburg, Ljubica Sever, who had several Croatian relatives.

On September 3, 1887 they had a son they named Leopold (Lavoslav) Stephan Ruzicka. Four years later, tragedy arrived at their door far too early. The death of the little boy's father impelled his mother to bring Leopold to her childhood home in Osijek --a bit further west.

School: Do the Math

In his mother's hometown, he was raised with Croatians in school and was all-around a decent pupil. More providently, he excelled in mathematics and physics, but was not particularly enthused about the other sciences. Besides, he had to study chemistry on his own, as it was not even offered.

Neu Schule

His self-tutoring of chemistry was not really his major problem while he pursued his higher education. He had originally coveted the excellent education at Switzerland's Zurich Polytechnic Institute. However, he found out that they required an additional Descriptive Geometry portion for their entrance examinations, and his relatively neglected discipline in that proved to be an insurmountable impediment. Germany, however, accepted secondary school graduates without the preliminary tests for their Universities and Technical Institutes, and in 1906 he finally chose the somewhat new (1878) Technische Hochschule at Karlsruhe. This University of Applied Sciences (which still exists near the Black Forest) provided more liberty than the strict Zurich regimen. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, and this opportunity had mixed blessings.

While he was able to spend more practical time in the laboratory, he might have stunted his expertise in other kinds of chemistry and physics because he neglected most lectures. Nevertheless, those hands-on courses he finished in just under two years, and he joined the young, (albeit six years his senior), Professor Staundinger, in the study of ketones for his doctoral studies. He received his doctorate at Karlsruhe Technical University in 1910.

Alicylic Alliance

By 1911 with a couple of years solid research behind him, Doctor Staudinger appointed Ruzicker his assistant. It was at this time they entered the new territory (a discipline-wide frontier) of the exploration of pyrethrins. These organic chemicals were the noxious ingredients in Chrysanthemums, which had historically been observed repelling insects. These poisons were expensive ingredients. They were used in Dalmation insect powders of which they were familiar, and other varieties globally, basically from ground-up flowers. (One can still find in contemporary 'organically safe' pyrethrins touted in insecticides.) Their studies eventually were perfected upon by others to allow further isolation and synthesis of these less deadly to pets and humans pesticides. This was the branch of chemistry called alicyclic chemistry. The term is derived from the combination of aliphatic --which means from oil, and cyclic -- which refers to the arrangement of the compound's atoms in a closed or ring formation. These kinds of studies would become his specialty as his career progressed.

Big Swiss Cheese

When in 1912 Dr. Staudinger replaced Dr. Willstatter at the renamed Eidengössische Technische Hochschul (or more commonly known, even today, as ETH.), Ruzicker came with him. 1912 was additionally the time when he married his first wife, Anna Hausmann. Not much mention of her can be found except that they never left any children. The two scientists continued for the next four years studying and isolating the pyrethrins, while Leopold had come to love his new home, not just for its tranquil beauty, but for the environment where also he could work without distraction. An assistant until 1916, now, he was on his own, and he had only one teaching responsiblity that left him 167 hours a week to toil in his lab, and he joyfully did often, from dusk til dawn. So happy in his life, he even applied and received Swiss citizenship in 1917.

These years he was in the Habilitation process trying to become a Privatedocent (Privatdozent), which meant he had to find funding. Fortunately at this time, he received finances from the oldest parfumeries: Haarman and Reimer of Holzminden, Germany (existing today as a subsidiary of Bayer {they developed asprin out of willow bark}, exporting ethyl valerate, aromatizing and other chemicals). Working with Staudinger, the synthesis of fenchone was accomplished out of Tiemann formula droning, and he coined the examined extended molecular alignment: Wagner rearrangement. By 1917 he was the the first senior lecturer for the Federal Institute of Technology. Now Ciba (now with Geigy) of Basle, Switzerland contracted him and a group to continue his endeavors with quinine similar compounds. They artificially created b-colodine and linalool, and partially synthesized pinene. The beginnings of his expertise in terpenes began here with delving into monoterpenes.

Sidebar on Terpenes

These are a wide differing family being derivatives of isoprene, a volatile (pass easily into the air) oily compound. From green plants, in this family are steroids and carotenoids. Mevalonic acid turned into phosphorylated isoprene, then polymerized gives different numbers and positions of double bonds that will be fixed leading to linear isoprenoids. Some are in common, and yet other terpenes are aligned with specific plants like either lower plants or higher flora.

Steroids, are triterpenes that have thirty carbon atoms and occur in gymnosperms and angiosperms.

Carotenoids, all tetraterpenes (40 C atoms) are found in the animal kingdom, too. We are, of course, familiar with the orangish beta-carotene and its vitamin A (as in carrots), and its cousin, xanthophylls or lutein (oxygen carrying ones) help in photosynthesis, often in lieu of the absence of the green cholorphyll. Red color of fruits comes from the excess of them with a linear molecule, lycopene. Crocetin, another xanophyll, gives saffron its distinctive color. Lutein has been found ocularly helpful for prevention of macular degeneration. These methyl groups of the tetraterpenes and differing lengths of bonds and chains were focused upon in Ruzicker's deliberations.

Laboratory of the Rings

Before Ruzicka's continued navigation of these complex smelly substances, rings with more than eight atoms had not been discovered, and in fact, scientists did not think them possible because of stablity issues.

Ruzicka moved to the University of Zurich in 1921 and was given a professorship there several years later. The Geneva, Switzerland perfume makers, Chuit, Naef and Firmenich, which had admired his work now asked for his assistance, and he worked for them for a year and a half. They had a common interest in synthesizing these plant chemical aromatics. He made nerolidol, farnesol, and structured jasmone, as well as reformulating the irone recipe of Tiemann.

More importantly his schematics of the perfume industry's muskone and civetone had showed that heretofore unknown existence of fifteen and seventeen atoms in these almost circular bands of atoms. (Notice the interest in musk and jasmine, still sometimes in vogue today.) Common to rubber plants and turpentine, he showed that these carbon compound skeletons were from multiple units of isoprene. The team then worked the whole gamut of alicyclic ketones from the nine to thirty carbon atom-carrying 'rounded' bands.

Dutch Treat

He took the position of professor of organic chemistry in Holland's University of Utrecht in 1926 where he stayed for three years. Though not miserable in the Netherlands, nevertheless in 1929 he happily accepted the invitation to return to Zurich and ETH, as he had known their strength and therefore their potential opportunity for his career. This institution emphasized learning and practical cooperation with industry.

Oh, You Sexy Thing

Ciba, maybe wanting to tap into the 'stuff' that makes the world go round (dizzingly), signed Ruzicker back on in 1930. His investigations there led to analyses of testosterone. (He might have been the original "Incredible Hulk.") A highlight in this period was when Harvard, the USA's oldest University, bestowed an honorary Doctorate on him during their Tercentenary Celebration in 1936. One thing that distinguished this gentleman was his continued insistance on sharing the credit with his co-laborers. Getting a no-strings- attached Rockefeller Foundation Grant in 1937, he continued his study in this path, one area of concentration was steroids. He became professor emiritus in 1957 the year he departed from them.

Ach! Stockholm's Hot This Time of the Decade

Though Ruzicka, notified by telegram, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1939 in chemistry, the ceremony could not take place in its normal location in Stockholm, Sweden that tenth of December: the Nazi's had occupied next door Finland. How fitting it was, that he was given his award the following January in the Great Hall of his Zurich school where he had done the study on polymethylenes and polyterpenes (especially the sex hormones) which was the reason for the accolade.

Free Time

When not receiving four honorary doctorates in science, two in medicine, one in natural sciences, and another in Law, with seven other prizes; and an honorary member of 24 chemical/scientific socities, and an honored member of 18 international scientific schools, he collected art. He especially liked old Dutch and Flemish oil paintings. Not surprisingly he loved plants, and likewise took up the challenge of Alpine gardening. He remarried again in 1951 to Gertrude Acklin, and again there were no offspring. Living pleasantly, productively in Zurich, he did so until 89 years of life had passed and finished in 1976.

Another writer must have read his mind:

We are not sent into this world to do anything into which we cannot put our whole hearts. We have certain things to do for our bread, and that is to be done strenuously; other work to do for our delight, and that is to be done heartily; neither is to be done by halves or shifts, but with a will, and what is not worth this effort is not to be done at all. --John Ruskin


Sources:
Technology in Western Civilization, ed. M.Kranzberg, C.W. Pursell, Jr.; Oxford, 1967.
http://www.biography.com
http://www.nobel.se/chemistry/laureates/1939/ruzicka-bio.html
http://www.britannica.com/nobel/micro/514_80.html
http://www.chemhelper.com
http://www.botanik.uni-hamburg.de
http://www.biologie.uni-hamburg.de
Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences online.

Science is nothing but trained and organized common sense. --anonymous

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