Yester Year Nobel Laureates - Leopold Ruzicka
Veena Patwardhan - Special Correspondent
Ruzicka maintained an enormous interest in chemical processes of nature. He was awarded the Nobel for his work on polymethylenes and terpenes. His life and times are presented here.
of his was colour photography. His great fondness for paintings and photography seems quite interesting considering he was severely colour-blind, finding it difficult to distinguish the colour red. They say his friends would joke about this shortcoming suggesting that it explained his leftist political views.
A return to chemistry
> Ruzicka was also an ardent gardener, devoting a lot of time to tending to his plants. Another hobby of his was colour photography. His great fondness for paintings and photography seems quite interesting considering he was severely colour-blind, finding it difficult to distinguish the colour red. They say his friends would joke about this shortcoming suggesting that it explained his leftist political views.
Towards the beginning of the 1950s, there were important changes in Ruzicka’s personal and professional life. In 1950, he and his first wife Anna, whom he had married in 1912, got divorced after a childless marriage. The following year, at the age of 64, he married Gertrud Acklin, the mother of a grown-up son.
Around this same time, he returned to the field of chemistry after a break of a few years, to find that the methods and techniques for studying molecular structures had fundamentally changed by now. Researching by purely chemical methods had been replaced by physical methods like molecular spectroscopy and X-ray crystallographic analysis. Realising the advantages of adopting these modern methods, he acquired the necessary instruments and equipment and saw to it that trained people were available for taking care of and maintaining them.
Also, Ruzicka’s interest had now shifted to biochemistry, particularly to the biogenesis of terpenes and steroids, substances on which he had carried out pioneering chemical research in the past. This phase in his professional life marked another major achievement on his part. While researching terpenes earlier, he had extensively applied the then in use ‘Isoprene Rule’. Now, over a decade later, in 1953, he proposed his own ‘Biogenetic Isoprene Rule’ that replaced the former rule and soon received universal acceptance.
Till this time, biochemistry was being taught in Switzerland mostly as a preliminary and ancillary discipline. Ruzicka vigorously campaigned for the establishment of a separate Chair and laboratory of biochemistry at ETH. His efforts finally met with success in 1956, just before he retired.
Awards and recognitions
As a tribute to Ruzicka, when he retired in 1957 at the age of 70, the Swiss chemical industry contributed towards establishing the Ruzicka Prize at ETH. Each year, this prize is awarded for outstanding work done by young Swiss chemists or chemists working in Switzerland.
In 1974, Ruzicka’s native Yugoslavia honoured him with the Order of the Yugoslav Flag with Golden Wreath. In his home town Vukovar, the house where he was born has been converted into a modest-size Ruzicka Museum.
Apart from the Nobel Prize, some of the other major honours conferred on him include the Marcel Benoist Prize—Switzerland’s highest scientific award, eight Honorary Doctorates, and Honorary Fellowships of a number of reputed societies. He was also an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
A prolific writer, he continued writing even in his old age, his 583 publications spanning a period of sixty years. Most of these however were published between 1930 and 1950.
Leopold Ruzicka died on 26 September, 1976 at the age of 89 in Mammern in Switzerland, a village on Lake Constance. He succumbed to the after-effects of a surgery he had undergone.
When America’s Harvard University awarded Ruzicka an honorary doctorate in 1936, Dr. James B. Conant, Harvard’s President, had aptly lauded him as, “A chemist daring in his attack, brilliant in his methods, successful in his interpretations of the architecture of nature’s baffling compounds.” It was a worthy tribute to one of the great men of science.
1. NobelPrize.org: Leopold Ruzicka – Biographical – Nobel Media AB 2014, https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/ chemistry/laureates/1939/ruzicka-bio.html
2. Soylent Communications: Leopold Ruzicka – http://www.
3. University of Zurich: Leopold Ruzicka - Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1939 – http://www.uzh.ch/en/about/portrait/nobelprize/ruzicka.html
4. Michigan State University, Department of Chemistry: Leopold Ruzicka – https://www.chemistry.msu.edu/faculty-research/portraits/leopold-ruzicka/
5. Vladimir Prelog, Oskar Jeger: Leopold Ruzicka, 13 September 1887 - 26 September 1976 – Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 26, 411-502, 1980
6. Albert Eschenmoser: Leopold Ruzicka - From the Isoprene Rule to the Question of Life’s Origin – Chimia44 (1990) Nr. 1-2 ( January-February).