Adolf Windaus, German chemist, won the 1928 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his research on substances, notably vitamin D, that have important biological roles. His research career began in 1901 and spanned 30 years. His initial work was on cholesterol, about which almost nothing was known. Windaus proved that it was involved somehow with the activity of vitamins. Eventually, the sterol ring structure was discovered (1932), which made it possible to determine the structure of many other biologically important sterols, such as male and female sex hormones, adrenocortical hormones, saponins, and glycosides.
Windaus was born on December 25, 1876, in Berlin, Germany. His father was a descendant of weavers and clothing manufacturers, and his mother came from a family of artisans and craftsmen. Windaus obtained his early education at the French Gymnasium in Berlin, where in his final year he became acquainted with the work of bacteriologists Robert Koch (1843-1910) and Louis Pasteur (1822-1895). Their lives and work inspired Windaus to select medicine as his career.
Windaus began his medical studies in 1895 at the University of Berlin. In 1897, he passed the preliminary medical examination; however, after attending lectures on chemistry given at the university by Emil Fischer (1852-1919), Windaus began to question whether he wanted to become a physician.
Windaus left Berlin to attend the University of Freiburg, where he continued his medical studies. However, he soon changed his focus to chemistry, and in 1899, he earned a PhD degree in chemistry with his dissertation on the cardiac toxicity of the digitalis plant.
After Windaus received his doctoral degree, he spent a year in military service in Berlin. He returned to Freiburg to become professor of chemistry, a position he held until his appointment as professor of medical chemistry at Innsbruck University in Austria in 1913. In 1915, he succeeded Otto Wallach (1847-1931) as head of the Chemical Institute at the University of Göttingen (Germany). Windaus remained at the Chemical Institute until he retired in 1944. His active research career stopped in 1938, and he lived in Göttingen for the rest of his life.
Windaus’ work on cholesterol established its chemical structure and was part of a study of complex alcohols known as sterols. In 1907, he synthesized histamine, a compound with important physiological properties, and in 1919, he prepared cholanic acid from cholesterol, proving a close relationship between cholesterol and bile acid. Earlier, the 1927 Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Wieland (1877-1957) had isolated cholanic acid during his work with bile acids. About the same time (1919), Windaus became interested in vitamin research and produced vitamin D2 (calciferol) by irradiating ergosterol with ultraviolet light. In the process, he discovered a chemical precursor of the vitamin, 7-dehydrocholesterol. In 1932, Windaus located a sulfur atom in the molecule of vitamin B1 (thiamine), an important step in determining the structure of that important compound. His later research focused on the structural components of anti-rachitic and antineuritic vitamins. He also studied drugs used in cancer therapy and contributed to the understanding of the stereochemistry of ring structures.
Windaus died in Göttingen on June 9, 1959, at the age of 82 years. He was honored on 2 stamps issued in 1995, one by the island of St Vincent and the other by Uganda.
© 2001 Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.