Adolf Butenandt

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A. Butenandt in 1921 as a member of the Philippina Gymnastics Association

Adolf Friedrich Johann Butenandt (born March 24, 1903 in Lehe ; † January 18, 1995 in Munich ) was a German biochemist and university professor . In 1939 he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in recognition of his work in the field of steroid hormones .


Butenandt grew up in Lehe (now part of Bremerhaven ), where he graduated from the Leher Oberrealschule - the Lessing School  - in 1921. He then studied chemistry and biology at the Philipps University in Marburg . From then until his death he was a member of the student union Turnerschaft Philippina . In 1924 he moved to the University of Göttingen . In 1927 Butenandt received his doctorate from Adolf Windaus in Göttingen on the chemical constitution of Rotenone , the physiologically active component of Derris elliptica . In 1929 he isolated and determined the structure of the female sex hormone estrogen . After his habilitation in 1931 with studies on the female sex hormone , he became head of the organic and biochemical department of the General Chemical University Laboratory in Göttingen. In 1933 he followed a call as a full professor at the Technical University of Danzig . On November 11, 1933, he signed the German professors' confession of Adolf Hitler . From 1933, Butenandt worked with Alfred Kühn on research into active genetic substances. Wolfhard Weidel, Butenandt's doctoral candidate (from 1957 director of the Max Planck Institute for Biology in Tübingen), researched the gene chain of eye pigmentation in flour moths. In 1934 Butenandt was elected a member of the Leopoldina . In 1935 he completed a study visit to the USA at the invitation of the Rockefeller Foundation and turned down a call to Harvard University . After he was admitted to the NSDAP on May 1, 1936, despite being blocked from membership (party member number 3716562) and joined the German Labor Front and the Nazi teachers' association , he went to Berlin-Dahlem as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biochemistry . From 1938 to 1944 he was honorary professor for biochemistry at the University of Berlin .

In 1939 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (together with Leopold Ružička ). Because Adolf Hitler had forbidden Germans to accept the Nobel Prize after Carl von Ossietzky was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Butenandt was only able to receive the medal and the certificate in 1949.

Butenandt's role in the “ Third Reich ” is controversial. He is said to have considered testing the antibiotic effects of mold on human livers . In April 2006, however, the Spiegel overwritten a report about Butenandt with the words acquittal for Butenandt . Accordingly, the immunochemist Norbert Hilschmann , whose work is based on old institute documents and personal letters from Butenandt, established that none of these allegations were true.

Robert N. Proctor , visiting scholar in the research program History of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society under National Socialism , in turn states in his essay Adolf Butenandt - Nobel Prize Winner, National Socialist and MPG President :

“It can be proven that Butenandt worked more closely than previously assumed with scientists who were involved in such research. New sources show that he was involved in medical-military research projects, u. a. at the Air Force Research Station in Rechlin . The sources show that Butenandt destroyed all the institute's documents that were marked with the note Secret Reichssache . The inevitable conclusion seems to be that Butenandt's estate, although the most extensive in the Max Planck Society's archives with 80 meters of shelves, cannot convey a complete and balanced picture of his activities, especially during the National Socialist era. So far no evidence of Butenandt's anti-Semitic stance has been found; on the contrary, there is multiple evidence that he helped individual Jews in the 1930s. However, it can also be proven several times that after the war Butenandt helped to wash away colleagues from accusations of Nazism. Butenandt helped popularize a new conception of science, according to which science is a priori to be equated with political innocence. In this sense, he helped to thwart the efforts of the post-war period to investigate the complicity of science in the crimes of the Hitler era, to prosecute it and to make 'reparations'. "

It is now certain that from 1939 Butenandt worked as a specialist in biochemistry for the journal Der Biologe , which had been taken over by the SS-Ahnenerbe . In 1942 he was a corresponding member of the German Academy of Aviation Research and worked together with Theodor Benzinger and Erich Hippke on secret air force research projects . In the same year he became senator of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society and worked in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology , where he was also informed about the experiments on epileptic children by his assistant Gerhard Ruhenstroth-Bauer . Since 1944 Butenandt was a member of the scientific advisory board of the General Commissioner for Sanitary and Health Care Karl Brandt .

After the Second World War , the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biochemistry was renamed the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in 1948 and relocated first to Tübingen , then in 1956 to the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich . As the successor to Nobel Prize winner Otto Hahn , Butenandt was President of the Max Planck Society from 1960 to 1972 . In 1951 and 1952 he was chairman of the Society of German Natural Scientists and Doctors .

Butenandt married Erika von Ziegner (1906–1995), daughter of Colonel Siegfried von Ziegner (August 31, 1866 - June 26, 1935) and Marie Luise Eschenburg (October 22, 1878 - December 26, 1954) in Göttingen on February 28, 1931 ). He had seven children, including the pediatrician Otfried Butenandt .


Sex hormones

Structure of estrone

In 1929, Adolf Butenandt isolated one of the female sex hormones with estrone . Two years later he isolated a male sex hormone called androsterone . In 1934 he discovered the female hormone progesterone . Through his research, it has been shown that the sex hormones are closely related to the steroids. His research into sex hormones enabled the synthesis of cortisone and other steroids , which eventually led to the development of contraceptives .

Insect pheromones

500,000 odor glands of the female silk moth ( Bombyx mori ) were needed to elucidate the molecular structure of the bombykol.

Adolf Butenandt started a project to identify insect pheromones in the 1940s . After almost 20 years of work, the final extraction and purification of a substance from more than 500,000 silk spinners , which he called bombykol , succeeded. He synthesized the four possible stereoisomers and tested them for their biological activity . Since only one isomer showed the same activity as the extract, he provided evidence that communication among insects takes place on a material basis.

Awards and honors


  • Adolf Butenandt: Reflections on human dignity. (Adolf Butenandt celebrated his 80th birthday on March 24, 1983. The lectures given on this occasion on May 14, 1983 in honor of Adolf Butenandt are reproduced in this issue. The issue was published as a private print to commemorate this day).
  • Ernst Klee: Eyes from Auschwitz. In: The time . No. 5, 2000.
  • Ernst Klee: Adolf Butenandt. In: German medicine in the Third Reich. Frankfurt am Main 2001, pp. 350-355.
  • Angelika Ebbinghaus , Karl-Heinz Roth : From the Rockefeller Foundation to the Kaiser Wilhelm / Max Planck Society: Adolf Butenandt as a biochemist and science politician of the 20th century. In: Journal of History. Volume 50, No. 5, 2002, pp. 389-419.
  • Sven Kinas: Adolf Butenandt and his school. In: Eckart Henning , Marion Kazemi (ed.): Publications from the Max Planck Society. Volume 18. 2004.
  • Wolfgang Schieder , Achim Trunk (ed.): Adolf Butenandt and the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. Science, industry and politics in the “Third Reich”. Wallstein, Göttingen 2004.
  • Christian Simon : Adolf Butenandt for Basel? History of a failed appointment 1946–1949. In: Basler Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Altertumskunde . Volume 109, 2009, p. 9.

Web links

Commons : Adolf Butenandt  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Life data, publications and academic family tree of Adolf Friedrich Johann Butenandt at, accessed on January 22, 2018.
  2. Helga Satzinger: Adolf Butenandt, hormones and gender. In: Wolfgang Schieder, Achim Trunk: Adolf Butenandt and the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. Wallsteinverlag, 2004 p. 102, ISBN 978-3-89244-752-8 ; see. Schering (2) in the Sybodo Museum, Innsbruck.
  3. ^ Medical communications, Schering. Issue 8, November 1933, p. 209: cf. Schering (4) in the Sybodo Museum, Innsbruck.
  4. a b c d Ernst Klee : The dictionary of persons on the Third Reich. Who was what before and after 1945. Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Second updated edition, Frankfurt am Main 2005, p. 88.
  5. ^ Ernst Klee: German Medicine in the Third Reich. Careers before and after 1945. S. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 2001, ISBN 3-10-039310-4 , pp. 356 and 388.
  6. Information from the Nobel Foundation on the award ceremony
  7. Butenandt's acquittal . In: Der Spiegel . No. 14 , 2006, p. 164 ( online ).
  8. ^ A b Robert N. Proctor: Adolf Butenandt - Nobel Prize Winner, National Socialist and MPG President. Research program “History of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society under National Socialism”, Berlin 2000, (PDF; 165 kB).
  9. A. Butenandt: About the chemical investigation of the sex hormones. In: Journal for Applied Chemistry. 44, 1931, pp. 905-908, doi: 10.1002 / anie.19310444602 .
  10. Albert Gossauer: Structure and reactivity of biomolecules. Helvetica Chimica Acta, Zurich 2006, p. 134, ISBN 978-3-906390-29-1 .
  11. Adolf Butenandt, Erich Hecker, Manfred Hopp, Wolfgang Koch: About the sex attractant of the silk spinner, IV. The synthesis of bombycol and the cis-trans isomers hexadecadiene- (10.12) -ole- (1). In: Justus Liebig's Annals of Chemistry. 658, 1962, pp. 39-64, doi: 10.1002 / jlac.19626580105 .
  12. Holger Krahnke: The members of the Academy of Sciences in Göttingen 1751-2001 (= Treatises of the Academy of Sciences in Göttingen, Philological-Historical Class. Volume 3, Vol. 246 = Treatises of the Academy of Sciences in Göttingen, Mathematical-Physical Class. Episode 3, vol. 50). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2001, ISBN 3-525-82516-1 , p. 54.
  13. ^ List of members since 1666: Letter B. Académie des sciences, accessed on September 30, 2019 (French).
  14. List of all decorations awarded by the Federal President for services to the Republic of Austria from 1952 (PDF; 6.9 MB).