Adolf Butenandt came from an old Hamburg family; he was born the son of merchant Otto Butenandt in Bremerhaven-Lehe on 24 March 1903. Butenandt studied chemistry, physics and biology in Marburg and Göttingen from 1921 to 1927. He obtained his doctorate in chemistry under Adolf Windaus in Göttingen in 1927, where he subsequently worked as his assistant from 1927 to 1931. He also earned his postdoctoral lecturing qualification in organic and biological chemistry there in 1931 and became an unsalaried lecturer. From 1933 to 1936 he was full professor at the Technical University of Danzig and Director of the Organic Chemistry Institute in Danzig-Langfuhr. Having taken up a residency in America funded by the Rockefeller Foundation in 1935 and subsequently turning down an appointment at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts, he became an Institute Director at the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in 1936.
Butenandt became famous for his work to isolate, structurally elucidate and synthesise sex hormones. For this research he received the 1939 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (for his work on sex hormones, shared with Leopold Ružička), which he had to turn down on the instructions of the government. Hitler had issued a decree forbidding Germans from accepting any Nobel Prizes in 1937, after Carl von Ossietzky had won the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize. This was Hitler’s reply to the fact that Ossietzky was interned in a German concentration camp at the time because of his pacifist activities. Butenandt was able to accept the Prize – the certificate and medal – but not the prize money at the Swedish Consulate in Frankfurt am Main in 1949. Both objects are now kept in the Archive of the Max Planck Society. After the war, his institute produced some groundbreaking work on the way genes work and the active agents in the insect kingdom. The Virus Research Department, which he particularly supported at the institute, eventually became the Max Planck Institute for Virus Research in Tübingen.
Butenandt had patriotic sentiments, was a member of the "Turnerschaft Philippina" fencing fraternity while a student in Marburg and, from 1925 to 1933, a member of the Young German Order, which was anti-Semitic but not nationalist reactionary and was dissolved in 1933. Butenandt joined the Nazi Party in 1936 but never made his mark in the party actively.
He was not only an outstanding scientist, he was also a brilliant scientific organiser and, as such, an engine of research, working with colleagues in Germany and abroad and developing research networks from an early age.