Fritz Pregl was born in Ljubljana, Austria-Hungary (now Slovenia) to Raimund Pregl and Fredericke b. Schlaker. After finishing local grammar school, he proceeded to study medicine at the University of Graz and received M.D. in 1894. Even before the graduation, he became assistant lecturer for physiology and histology with professor Alexander Rollett, and took over the chair when Rollett died in 1903.
In 1904 he left for Germany, where he studied for short periods under Gustav v. Hüfner in Tübingen, Wilhelm Ostwald in Leipzig and Emil Fischer in Berlin. After he returned to Graz in 1905, Pregl worked at the Medico-Chemical Institute under K.B. Hofmann and was appointed forensic chemist for the Graz circuit in 1907. At that time he started investigating the components of albuminous bodies and the analysis of bile acids. His work, however, was handicapped by the lack of sufficient starting materials and this fact impelled him to look for methods requiring smaller amounts when making quantitative analyses of elements in compounds.
Pregl therefore resorted to develop the method of quantitative organic micro-analysis and devoted to its development most of the years 1910-1913, which he spent as a professor at Innsbruck University. Pregl continued with this work when he returned to the Graz University in 1913; he was appointed Dean of the Medical Faculty for the year 1916-1917 and Vice-Chancellor of Graz University for 1920-1921.
Pregl's scientific interest has switched from mainly physiology and physiological chemistry in his early years to the study of the constitution of chemical compounds, in particular the investigation of bile acids. By 1912 he was able, by using his own methods of quantitative micro-analysis, to make measurements of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulphur, and halogen, using only 5-13 mg of starting materials with results as accurate as those obtained by macro-analysis. Later he perfected his techniques so that as little as 3-5 mg were adequate. Pregl also contributed a number of micromethods for measuring atomic groups and developed a series of apparatus, including a sensitive microbalance, necessary for his work.
Recognition for his work was first accorded with the Lieben Prize for Chemistry from the Imperial Academy of Science in Vienna (1914), an honorary doctorate in philosophy from the University of Göttingen (1920); in 1921 he was elected Corresponding Member by the Academy of Sciences in Vienna. The greatest and most unexpected honour was the award of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry by the Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1923. O. Hammarsten, the Chairman of the Nobel Committee at the time, pointed out that it was not for a discovery, but for modifying and improving existing methods that Pregl was awarded the prize.
Pregl had avoided publishing individual reports on his experiments in the early stages of his investigations, and instead waited to see that his methods worked in laboratories other than his own. In 1917, however, he set down his findings in a monograph entitled Die quantitative Microanlalyse (published by J. Springer, Berlin). The monograph saw two further editions (1923 and 1930)) before his death, while later editions were revised by Dr. H. Roth.
Pregl never married, and died after a short illness at the age of 61 at Graz. Shortly before his death he put a considerable amount of money at the disposal of the Austrian Academy of Sciences for the promotion of micro-chemical research, stipulating that the interest from this fund was to be used each year to award a prize for outstanding work to Austrian micro-chemists. Since then, the Vienna Academy of Sciences has awarded this prize as the Fritz Pregl Prize.