The Austrian chemist of Hungarian origin was born in Vienna, and developed an interest in chemistry at a very early age. His academic career began at the Medical Faculty of the University of Vienna, but soon moved on to the Technical University of Vienna, and in 1887 to the University of Munich in order to study organic chemistry.
Having received his Ph.D. in 1889, he started to work as the assistant to a physics professor in Berlin. During this period, he conducted his most notable research on the chemistry of colloids, in particular gold hydrosols. He established that the colour of gold hydrosol depended on the degree of dispersity. He worked out methods to produce colloid solutions, and he also studied the nature of the gold hydrosol widely known as the purple of Cassius. He conducted investigations on coloured glasses as colloidal systems in Jena, where he made substantial contribution to solving the problem of colouring the material of glass and porcelain.
In 1903 in joint collaboration with H. Siedentopf, Zsigmondy created the ultramicroscope, which is a form of microscope that uses the Tyndall effect to reveal the presence of particles as bright specks on the dark background, thus making it easier to notice them.
In 1925 Zsigmondy received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his demonstration of the heterogeneous nature of colloid solutions and for the invention of the ultramicroscope.
In his works Zsigmondy studied the production methods of sols, the structure and stability of micelles, and the nature of gels and the so-called protective colloids. His work affected almost every field of colloid chemistry. He also invented two types of filters, a membrane filter and an ultra-fine filter, which were designed to separate bacteria-size particles. His scientific career continued with being a professor in Göttingen (1907-1929), where he later died a few years after his retirement. The crater Zsigmondy on the Moon is named in his honour.