Richard Willstätter (1872–1942)

Professor of general chemistry

Richard Willstätter was born in Karlsruhe on 13 August 1872 and died in Muralto (Ticino) on 3 August 1942.

He went to school in Nuremberg and studied chemistry at the University of Munich, where he was appointed as an associate professor of chemistry in 1902. Only three years later, he moved to ETH Zurich, where he held a chair of general chemistry until 1912.

He then continued his research and teaching activities in Berlin and, from 1916, back in Munich.

Interest in biochemistry

From an early stage, Willstätter's main interest was problems of general scientific importance, i.e. vital processes or biochemistry – still a relevant topic to this day. Using – by today's standards – simple methods, he addressed problems that constituted unchartered territory at the time. His research was successful because he planned the experiments clearly and took the view that nature should be researched using gentle, near-natural methods.

Study on chlorophyll and photosynthesis

The fact that he made epochal discoveries in classical organic chemistry and tackled complicated novel problems – such as his studies on chlorophyll, photosynthesis and enzymes – is crucial when taking stock of Willstätter's scientific achievements.   

Nobel Prize for Chemistry  

In 1915 he won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his studies on pigments in the plant kingdom, especially chlorophyll. In 1924 Willstätter resigned and became a freelancer in the chemical industry. In 1939 he fled from the Gestapo to Switzerland, spending the last three years of his life in Locarno.   


Brief von Richard Willstätter

Letter from Richard Willstätter to the President of the ETH Board, Robert Gnehm, from 27 September 1915.
(ETH-Bibliothek, ETH Zurich University Archives, SR3:1945)

In the letter, he thanks Gnehm for his congratulations on the Nobel Prize and gratefully recalls his years at ETH Zurich, where he carried out the majority of his work on plant pigments in its laboratories.


The ETH Zurich University Archives contain documents by Richard Willstätter belonging to the Stoll family. The main items in these personal papers are manuscripts by Willstätter, his pupil and assistant Arthur Stoll and their private correspondence, along with publications by and about Richard Willstätter. The personal paper index (external link) can be viewed online.

Moreover, the biographical dossier in the ETH Zurich University Archives provides additional details on the life and work of Richard Willstätter and the School Board Archives contain extensive information on his activities as a professor at ETH Zurich.