Reichstein, Tadeus (1897-1996) was a Polish-born Swiss chemist who shared the 1950 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his research on hormones of the cortex (outer cover) of the adrenal glands. In 1936, he isolated cortisone, one of an important group of hormones made in the cortex of the adrenal glands. These compounds, called corticosteroids, are essential for life, playing an important part in regulating salt and sugar balances in the body. Corticosteroids help the body adjust to environmental changes and other kinds of stress. Reichstein shared the Nobel Prize with Americans Edward Calvin Kendall and Philip Showalter Hench of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, “for their discoveries relating to the hormones of the adrenal cortex, their structure, and biological effects.”
Reichstein was born July 20, 1897, in Włocławek, Poland, the oldest of five sons of Isidor Reichstein, an engineer, and Gustava Brockmann Reichstein. After living in Kiev, Ukraine, where his father worked, Reichstein went to boarding school in Jena, Germany. The family moved to Berlin, Germany, and later to Zurich, Switzerland, where Reichstein attended a technical junior college and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Reichstein and his parents became Swiss citizens in 1914. After receiving a degree in 1920, he continued at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and received a Ph.D. degree in 1922.
After working as a chemist, in 1929 Reichstein became an instructor in chemistry at the Federal Institute of Technology. In 1933, he synthesized ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, and a method he developed is still used commercially today to make vitamin C. He became professor of pharmaceutical chemistry and director of the Pharmaceutical Institute at the University of Basel in Switzerland in 1938.
Reichstein began his research to isolate and identify the hormones of the adrenal glands in the 1930's. Human hormones can mainly be divided into two groups. One group, called steroids, consists of the sex hormones and the hormones of the adrenal cortex. Most other human hormones contain some form of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.
Each adrenal gland is a small, pyramid-shaped organ that secretes many important hormones. The body has two adrenal glands, one on top of each kidney. The adrenals, also called supra-renals. measure about 2 inches (5 centimeters) each in diameter. Each adrenal gland consists of a medulla (inner core) and a cortex (outer shell).
Reichstein discovered that the adrenal gland cortex contains many different steroids. He studied the relationship of the chemical structure of these compounds to their biological activity. Called corticosteroids, these hormones belong to three main groups—(1) glucocorticoids, (2) miner-alocorticoids, and (3) sex hormones. Glucocorticoids regulate the use of digested foods and help the body adapt to stress. The most important glucocorticoid is cortisol, also called hydrocortisone. The secretion of the glucocorticoids is controlled by adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH is produced by the pituitary gland, a small organ near the base of the brain. Mineralocorticoids regulate the excretion of sodium and potassium by the kidneys. Aldosterone is the most important mineralocorticoid. Renin, a hormone secreted by the kidneys, controls the production of aldos-terone. Overproduction of aldosterone causes high blood pressure in some people.
The adrenal glands produce only small amounts of sex hormones, chiefly the male sex hormones called androgens. The adrenal androgens help regulate the development of pubic hair and other early sexual characteristics in both males and females during the period just prior to puberty. In 1943, Reichstein was granted a patent on a method for synthesizing one of the sex hormones.
By 1946, Reichstein and his assistants had isolated a total of 29 steroids produced by the adrenal glands. They used a method to synthesize cortisone and cortisol from a naturally occurring form available from the bile ducts of cattle.
Seeking inexpensive ways to produce adrenal corticosteroids, Reichstein later researched the biological properties of certain African plants.
Kendall had also announced the isolation of cortisone, originally called compound E, in 1936. The compound was first tested on humans in 1948.
At the University of Basel, Reichstein directed the construction of a new Institute of Organic Chemistry. In 1960, he was appointed director of the institute. He retired from the university in 1967, becoming a professor emeritus and continuing his research into the 1990's.
Reichstein received many honorary university degrees. He was elected to membership in the Royal Society of London in 1952 and awarded the society's Copley Medal in 1968.
Reichstein died Aug. 1, 1996, at his home in Basel, Switzerland.
Today, doctors commonly use adrenal steroids and synthetic compounds that resemble them to reduce inflammation (redness and swelling) and to provide treatment for arthritis, allergies, and other diseases. Doctors treat Addison's disease, a disorder that gradually destroys the adrenal glands, by prescribing drugs such as hydrocortisone to replace the missing hormones. Without functioning adrenal glands, a person will die unless treated with steroids.