Childhood & Early Life
He was born on September 16, 1853, in Rostock, Germany, to Albrecht Karl Ludwig Enoch Kossel and Clara Jeppe Kossel as their eldest son. His father was a Prussian consul and merchant.
He completed his secondary education at the Gymnasium at Rostock and showed great interest in botany and chemistry.
In the autumn of 1872, he joined the newly established ‘University of Strassburg’ and studied medicine there. He came under the guidance of the Head of Department of Biochemistry, Felix Hoppe-Seyle and was highly influenced by the lectures and practical lessons of the latter as also other professors such as Waldeyer, Anton de Bary, Baeyer and August Kundt.
He finished his studies in his hometown at the ‘University of Rostock’ and in 1877 cleared the German medical licence exam.
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In 1877, he began working as research assistant to his former professor Felix Hoppe-Seyler at the ‘University of Strassburg’. Earlier in 1869, Friedrich Miescher, a former student of Felix Hoppe-Seyler, researched in the latter’s laboratory at the ‘University of Tübingen’, Germany, and discovered nucleins that he isolated chemically from pus cells. Miescher validated that nucleins were more acidic and phosphate-rich substances, which differed chemically from protein.
Kossel manifested that the substance called nuclein, present in the nucleus of a cell, consisted of protein and non-protein constituents. This substance contains generic information of living cells and is presently known as nucleic acid.
He made contributions to early publications of the journal ‘Zeitschrift für Physiologische Chemie’ (Journal of Physiological Chemistry), which was founded in 1877 by Felix Hoppe-Seyler. Following the death of Hoppe-Seyler in 1895, Kossel became the editor of the journal and remained so until his death.
He earned his degree of ‘Doctor of Medicine’ in 1878.
Kossel left Strassburg in 1883 to join the ‘University of Berlin’ as Director of the Chemistry Division of the university’s ‘Physiological Institute’, succeeding Eugen Baumann. His work was supervised by Emil du Bois-Reymond, upon whose call he joined the ‘University of Berlin’.
He furthered his research on nucleic acid and during the period, 1885-1901, he successfully examined and isolated its five components. He named the five organic compounds as thymine, cytosine, adenine, guanine and uracil, which are now collectively called nucleobases. These nucleobases are essential in providing the molecular structures required in formation of stable molecules of the two nucleic acid types, DNA and RNA.
He relocated to the town of Marburg in the central German state of Hessen in April 1895, where he served as Ordinary Professor of Physiology and Director of the ‘Institute of Physiology’ at the ‘University of Marburg’.
During this time he started examining the chemical composition of proteins, the changes in proteins during transformation into peptone, the simplest proteins, cells’ peptide components, the effects of a phenetol diet on urine and made many such investigations.
He discovered α-amino acid, histidine, used in the biosynthesis of proteins. He further worked out the procedure to quantitatively separate the hexone bases (the α-amino acids namely lysine, histidine and arginine).
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The methylxanthine therapeutic drug, Theophylline, which is applied for respiratory diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), was first isolated by Kossel. The drug is inherently found in cocoa beans and tea.
He joined the ‘Heidelberg University’ in 1901 with a similar post as at the ‘University of Marburg’ and served as Director of ‘Heidelberg Institute for Protein Investigation’. The discovery of the protein molecule’s polypeptide nature was highlighted in his research.
During his tenure at the ‘Heidelberg University’, Kossel along with his noted English student Henry Drysdale Dakin examined the ferment, arginase that hydrolyses arginine into ornithine and urea. He also discovered agmatine in the roe of herring fish and came up with a procedure of preparing it.
The last few years of his life saw him carrying on significant investigations into the composition of the protein types namely histones and protamines. During this period he also discovered flavianic acid.
In 1923, he was named the representative of Germany in the Eleventh Physiological Congress in Edinburgh, Scotland. He received an ovation from the scientists gathered at the congress that went on for several minutes. The ‘University of Edinburgh’ bestowed upon him an honorary degree at the venue.
He became a professor emeritus in 1924, yet continued to give lectures at the ‘Heidelberg University’.
He visited England in April 1927 to attend the Lister Centenary Celebration.
He was a member of several academies, institutes and societies including ‘Royal Society of Sciences of Uppsala’ and ‘Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’.
He received honorary doctorates from a number of universities including Cambridge, Ghent, St. Andrews and Dublin.
Some of his noted works are ‘Untersuchungen über die Nukleine und ihre Spaltungsprodukte’ (‘Investigations into the nucleins and their cleavage products’) in 1881; ‘Leitfaden für medizinisch-chemische Kurse’ (‘Textbook for medical-chemical courses’) in 1888; ‘Die Gewebe des menschlichen Körpers und ihre mikroskopische Untersuchung’ (‘The tissues in the human body and their microscopic investigation) from 1889 to 1891; and ‘Die Beziehungen der Chemie zur Physiologie’ (‘The relationships between chemistry and physiology’) in 1913.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Luise Holtzman in 1886. She was the daughter of Adolf Holtzmann, a noted philologist and Professor at the ‘University of Heidelberg’.
The couple had three children of whom son Walther (born: 1888) and daughter Gertrude (born: 1889) survived to maturity.
His son Walther Kossel was a noted physicist, who worked as a professor of Theoretical Physics and Director of ‘Physics Institute’ at the ‘University of Tübingen’. Walther Kossel was best known for the discovery of the ‘Sommerfeld–Kossel displacement law’.
Albrecht Kossel succumbed to recurring attack of angina pectoris on July 5, 1927. He was buried in Heidelberg, Germany.