In the present lecture, Reichstein gives a compact and easy-to-follow overview of the history of the discovery of the adrenal cortex hormones. Already by 1855 it had been established by the British physician Thomas Addison that the adrenal cortex is essential for survival. Addison had furthermore linked the adrenal cortex to a fatal disease called adrenal insufficiency, which is nowadays also known as Addison’s disease. Still, the chemical methods available at the time did not allow him to elucidate its precise cause, which was later established to be an underproduction of adrenal cortex hormones such as cortisol. A first hint was obtained in 1933, when it was shown that extracts obtained from the adrenal cortex could be used to treat Addison’s disease.
This was the starting point for the isolation of the individual adrenal cortex hormones by Reichstein. In the period from 1933 to 1945, as many as 29 individual compounds could be isolated from adrenal cortex extracts. Some of these compounds had previously been found elsewhere, however, most of them, including cortisone, cortisol, corticosteron and aldosterone, were new and it was soon found that Addison’s disease in fact can be treated with orally administered cortisol . Reichstein’s co-recipients, the Americans Edward Kendall and Philip Hench, further showed that the cortisol derivative cortisone may be used to treat rheumatic arthritis. To date, the use of cortisone has expanded even more and it is thought to have a beneficial effect on as many as 200 different conditions .
It may be mentioned that some of the scientific issues Reichstein mentions in his talk have been overcome in the meantime. He explains, for example, that it is difficult to determine the overall production of adrenal cortex hormones such as cortisol in a human body. Today we know that on average, a human body makes between 5 to 10 mg of cortisol per square meter body surface .
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