The Swiss chemist Paul Karrer made important contributions to the study of vitamins. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1937 along with W.N. Haworth.
Paul Karrer was born in Moscow on 21 April, 1889. His parent returned to their native Switzerland in 1892, where Paul started schooling. He matriculated from the Grammar School in Lenzburg, Aarau in 1908. He went to the University of Zurich to study for a Ph.D. in chemistry under Prof. Alfred Werner. There he studied the chemistry of complex metal compounds, but his attention shifted to organic chemistry after he earned his degree in 1911.
He spent six years from 1912-1918 working with the famous German drug chemist Paul Ehrlich at Frankfurt-am-Main. He returned to Zurich when he was elected a Reader, and in 1919 he became the Director of the University’s Chemical Institute.
Karrer was very interested in plant pigments. One class he was especially interested in were the carotenoids, which are richly present in carrots (from which the name). As he investigated their properties and structure, he came to realize that one of them, beta carotene, was very similar to Vitamin A. Vitamin A, also called retinal, is present in the retina of the eye and is important for vision. Lack of vitamin A causes night blindness. By 1930, he had established that beta carotene is indeed converted to vitamin A in animal bodies, and also deduced its structure. This was the first time that the structure of any vitamin had been deduced.
His attention then turned to other vitamins, and he provided substantial proof for the structure of Vitamin C. His lifetime’s research also covered the Vitamin B complex, and Vitamin E. In his career he published over a 1000 research papers concerning vitamins A, B2, C, E and K, co-enzymes, carotenoids and other plant pigments, alkaloids, amino acids, carbohydrates and organo-arsenic compounds. He wrote a textbook on organic chemistry that became very popular and was translated into 7 languages.
Dr. Karrer was given honorary degrees by universities in Basel, Breslau, Lausanne, Zurich, Lyons, Paris, Sofia, London, Turin, Brussels, Rio de Janeiro, Madrid and Strasbourg. Alongside his Nobel Prize, he also won the Marcel Benoist Prize and the Cannizzaro Prize, which are important prizes in Chemistry.
Karrer established that beta carotene is converted to vitamin A in animal bodies, and also deduced its structure.