Lavoslav Ružička – an extraordinary scientist

There is no way Lavoslav Ruzicka’s life can be described ordinarily. Not only did his chemistry discoveries earn him a Nobel Prize, they also transformed the way chemists and the world look at organic compounds. Born in 1887, Ruzicka attended a classics school with a burning desire of becoming a priest but later shifted his interest to chemistry. The decision signified a journey that was to be characterized by unequaled success in the years that followed.

Though he was embracing chemistry with prospects of getting employment in a newly opened sugar refinery in his area, political and social strife drove Ruzicka to Germany where he enrolled with Technical University. In 1910, he obtained an engineering Diploma and a Ph.D. His doctorate accolade was achieved only in four years, an amazing feat by any chemistry and science standards.

Thereafter he dedicated his time to academic research under the tutelage of Hermann Staudinger who was his professor. Two years later, Staudinger-in the company of Ruzicka- moved to Zurich. The duo’s stint at the Federal Polytechnic Institute (FPI) defined a new chapter in the study of natural chemicals used in insecticides as they dedicated their time to research in this particular field. However, Ruzicka’s urge for more freedom and breakthroughs saw him establishing his own research program in 1916 with funding from a perfume company.

After attaining the Swiss citizenship, he was involved in research for a Swiss chemical business before moving into academics as professor at the University of Utrecht in Holland. He returned to Switzerland three years later and worked as director at FPI. Ruzicka’s major breakthrough spanned a period of 17 years. His research on terpenes started in 1921 when he launched a journey towards finding the truth behind the structure of numerous natural compounds. Terpenes are organic compounds that are released by trees, mostly in warm weather and are used in the production of perfumes and fragrances, food flavor additives. In addition, they are also used as substitute medicines that use aromatic plant materials to adjust a person’s mind and health.

Ruzicka discovered that terpenes consisted of rings of carbon atoms but that there was need for large rings to maintain the stability of their compounds. Prior to his discovery, chemists had thought that there was no way an organic compound would have more than eight rings. However, Ruzicka researched on muscone which he obtained from male deers and civet cats. His findings proved that organic compounds can have as many as seventeen carbons. His understanding of this structure helped him to produce terpenes artificially.

His accomplishments earned him a Nobel Prize in Chemistry award in 1939. Much of his research career was bankrolled by the Rockefeller Foundation. Besides the Nobel recognition, other stakeholders in science and chemistry fields also took notice of Ruzicka’s achievements. Other credits during his life time included a whooping 24 honorary memberships in biochemical, chemical and scientific societies, eight honorary doctorate degrees in medicine, science and law. In addition he also received a range of other prizes and medals in recognition for his contribution to the world of science. A life that started in Croatia on September 13 1887 came to an end on September 26, 1976. For 89 years the world had witnessed a life that continues to impact lives to this age in regards to chemistry.