Adolf Windaus was born on Christmas Day, 1876 to Margarete Elster and Adolf Windaus. He was born into a family that had mostly been tradesmen and artisans—his father was a drapery manufacturer. However, as a child, he attended the prestigious Französisches Gymnasium in Berlin. Although he had been interested in literature and the humanities as a child, he became interested in medicine as a young man and studied it in Berlin before passing his medical examinations in 1897. While in Berlin, Windaus had attended lectures by the chemist Emil Fischer and these inspired him to study chemistry as well as medicine at Freiburg im Breisgau. He also studied zoology, as his interest in the subject had been sparked by August Weismann, Professor of zoology at Freiburg and one of the most important evolutionary biologists of the nineteenth century. Windaus received his doctorate in 1900 for his study of the digitalis poison. This work was conducted under the Freiburg professor Heinrich Kiliani, who had also researched the chemical makeup of digitalis, a compound found naturally in the foxglove plant.
After receiving his doctorate, Adolf Windaus returned to Berlin, where he spent a short period studying with Emil Fischer. Here, he met Otto Diels, a man who became a lifelong friend and also won a Nobel Prize in chemistry. However, only a year after receiving his doctorate, Windaus returned to Freiburg to begin his work on sterols and cholesterols at the suggestion of Kiliani. Not much was known about these compounds at the time, and it was therefore likely that the results of his study would be groundbreaking. In 1915, Windaus accepted the position of Professor of chemistry at the University of Göttingen, which he held for the rest of his life.
During his lifetime, Adolf Windaus contributed to chemistry in many significant ways. He studied the structure of sterols, specifically cholesterol, which are precursors to other bodily chemicals. He demonstrated this by turning cholesterol into cholanic acid, a chemical derived from bile acids, showing that sterols and bile acids are closely related. His work on cholesterol led A. F. Hess of New York to ask for his help studying what is now called vitamin D. Previously, in addition to Windaus’ team, two groups of scientists, one in Britain and one in the Netherlands, had been able to form Vitamin D by irradiating ergosterol. However, ergosterol is not present in animals, so it wasn’t known how the body could produce Vitamin D by itself. The answer wasn’t discovered until 1937, nine years after Windaus’s Nobel Prize. Windaus and his associate, Bock, discovered a compound they called 7-dehydrocholesterol that becomes what we call Vitamin D when irradiated (as with UV light) and is present in human and animal skin.
The impact of these discoveries on everyday life is significant. Windaus’ study of sterols is important to our current knowledge of biology, health and nutrition. It is vital to have a good understanding of sterol chemistry, since sterols are precursors to such substances as estrogen, testosterone and cholesterol. However, the study that Windaus did on Vitamin D was also extremely important. The impetus for the study of this compound was rickets, a disease that causes the softening of bones, resulting in the bending or twisting of limbs. In the early nineteenth century, scientists conjectured that a lack of sunlight was the cause of rickets, but it wasn’t until the studies of Windaus and his associates that it was known why sunlight prevented rickets.
Windaus married Elisabeth Resau in 1915, the same year he moved to Göttingen. They had three children: Günter, Gustav and Margarete. Windaus seems to have been at least somewhat pacifistic throughout his life, for he refused to work on the development of poison gases and chemical weapons even during the First World War. He was also strongly against the Nazi party and their policies; he denounced anti-Jewish rallies and actively tried to protect his Jewish students. His position on this may have had something to do with his cessation of scientific research in 1938, six years before his retirement in 1944. He died on June 9, 1959.