Professor Robert Schwyzer, one of the most famous peptide chemists of the third epoch of peptide science (according to Theodor Wieland, 1981), passed away on September 29, 2015, about three weeks after the death of his wife Rosa Schwyzer-Nägeli. He was born on December 8, 1920 and, after emigration of his parents to the USA in 1924, he spent his youth in Minnesota where his father served as country doctor and surgeon. After the return of the family to Switzerland in 1933, Robert Schwyzer attended grammar school in Zurich, served as air-defense officer in the Swiss army during world war II and then studied chemistry at the University of Zurich. In 1947 he took his PhD on vitamins and antivitamins with Paul Karrer (Nobel laureate in 1937). A year later, he got married to Rosa (Rösli) Nägeli; they had three children born in the first half of the 1950s. In 1951 Schwyzer got the title of ‘Privatdozent’ (~assistant professor). However, already around 1950 he developed a strong interest for the new field of peptide chemistry and biology which however was difficult to pursue at the University of Zurich.
In 1952 Schwyzer joined Ciba AG in Basel who had offered to him to establish a modern and rapidly growing peptide group. The four pharmaceutical companies in Basel (Ciba, Geigy, Sandoz and Roche) were much more interested in the new field of peptide science in the early 1950s than the academic world at Swiss universities. Robert Schwyzer’s group had an excellent start and was to become one of the most successful and innovative pharmaceutical peptide divisions which continued to be a leading unit also when – years later – Schwyzer was elected professor at the ETH in Zurich.
Robert Schwyzer and his collaborators at Ciba had a decisive impact on the development and refinement of the so-called classical or solution-phase peptide synthesis: They worked out intelligent strategies and tactics for assembling long peptide chains by designing optimal intermediary protected peptide fragments. This made it possible to produce peptides at the industrial scale. Selected examples of successful syntheses by Schwyzer and colleagues in the 1950s and early 1960s include gramicidin S (1956), [Ile5]angiotensin II (1957), ACTH1-24 (1961), α-MSH (1963), β-MSH (1963), and ACTH1-39 (1963/65). The latter represented a milestone for peptide chemistry in the 1960s as it was the longest single peptide chain assembled by chemical synthesis at that time; it was produced in high purity in decagram amounts and exhibited full biological activity.
In 1963 the ETH in Zurich offered Robert Schwyzer to become the founding director of the new Institute of Molecular Biology and Biophysics on the new ETH site Zurich-Hönggerberg. The ETH and the University of Zurich integrated all their activities in molecular biology in the same joint building. Professors Robert Schwyzer, Josef Rudinger, Herbert Zuber and Kurt Wüthrich (Nobel laureate in 2002) focused on peptide and protein research whereas the professors of the University of Zurich (Charles Weissmann, Martin Billeter and colleagues) carried out research on RNA, DNA and (much later) on prions. Numerous highly cited publications emerged from the research of these groups collaborating in the joint building.
The research studies of Robert Schwyzer at the ETH (1963-1988) were truly at the interface between bioorganic chemistry and biology. He spent much of his time on the elucidation of the mechanism of peptide hormone action, on conformational aspects of peptides and their interaction with receptors, on the organization of the information in peptides, and on the interaction of peptides with artificial and cell membranes. He was also a pioneer in the study of peptide-protein conjugates, currently called peptide-nanobodies, initiating this topic already in the 1970s. Robert Schwyzer received several prizes and awards, and he was also elected as member of the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. He retired in 1988.
Robert Schwyzer will be remembered as a charming person, an excellent lecturer, a sportive colleague, a person welcome and highly respected wherever he went in Europe, the United States or China and Japan. The scientific community will keep an excellent memory of Robert Schwyzer, a great peptide scientist.
See also presentation below about Robert Schwyzer.
…contributed by Alex N. Eberle