skip to primary navigationskip to content

The Sir William Dunn Institute of Biochemistry 1924-1945

Following the opening of the new building Hopkins invited the Hungarian physiologist Albert Szent-Györgyi to Cambridge in 1926 and he received a Ph.D. in 1927. He was to win the 1937 Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of vitamin C and for his work on the citric acid cycle. Szent-Györgyi returned to Hungary to work with the resistance movement during the war and afterwards entered politics. In 1927 the Dunn Nutritional Laboratory, now the MRC Mitochondrial Biology Unit, was set up as off-shoot of Biochemistry.

From the early 1920s John Desmond Bernal had been working with Sir William Bragg developing X-ray crystallography. During his time in Cambridge he had close links with Hopkins’s laboratory, working on the structures of vitamin B1, vitamin D2, sterols and tobacco mosaic virus. With Dorothy Hodgkin in 1934 he generated the first X-ray pictures of hydrated protein crystals. Bernal was, of course, prominent in political life, a sometime member of the Communist Party and active in the Association of Scientific Workers. Dorothy Hodgkin took part in 1933 Armistice Day march (with Joseph Needham) to protest against war and militarisation of research. They were reported by the London Evening Standard as “hooligans” after having eggs thrown at them by members of the Cambridge University Conservative Association. 

In 1931 Malcolm Dixon, David Keilin (who succeeded Nuttall as Professor and Director of the Molteno Institute) and Robin Hill obtained the first absorbance spectrum of isolated cytochrome c. Much later, in 1960, Robin Hill was to describe the energy profile of photosynthesis in the form of his Z scheme.

Although presiding over the development of his department, Hopkins’s breadth of view extended far beyond science and he was acutely aware of the political events that were changing the world. This perception led him in 1933 to establish the Academic Assistance Council (later Society for Protection of Science and Learning) that found places for refugees from Germany. In 1932 Hans Krebs and Kurt Henseleit had published their papers describing the urea cycle and Hopkins had described this completely novel work to the Royal Society in that year. At that time Krebs was working in the medical clinic of the University of Freiburg. Following the election of the National Socialists in 1933 Jews were forbidden to teach in universities or practice in University hospitals. In April 1933 Krebs was placed on leave of absence and then dismissed at end of June 1933. However, by early April FGH had written to Krebs offering him shelter. Krebs left Freiburg for Cambridge in June 1933. In 1934 he was appointed a University Demonstrator and he remained in Cambridge until 1945 when he became Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Sheffield.

Hans KrebsKrebs was the first in a long line of extraordinarily gifted scientists who fled Europe for Cambridge under Hopkins’s auspices that included Friedman, Lemberg, Chain, Weil-Malherbe, Bach and Lehmann. The last named of these, Hermann Lehmann, worked in the department from 1936 to 1940, initially on carbohydrate metabolism. In May 1940 he was interned at Huyton together with a number of other luminaries including Max Perutz. Using his contacts FGH managed to get him released in October, whereupon Lehmann started work in the Emergency Medical Service. In 1943, with the support of Sir Charles Sherrington, he received a commission in the RAMC, was posted to India, became Assistant Director of Pathology and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. After the war he became the leading authority on abnormal haemoglobins and was University Biochemist at Addenbrooke’s from 1963 and Professor of Clinical Biochemistry from 1967.

The academic year 1934-35 saw the introduction of Part I Biochemistry and in 1938 Robert Alexander McCance became the first Reader in Clinical Biochemistry. McCance was a founder member of the Nutrition Society, serving on the Editorial Board. From 1938 to 1941 Richard Synge worked in the department as an International Wool Secretariat Research Student: after moving to Leeds he shared with A.J.P.Martin, also a former member of the department, the 1952 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the invention of partition chromatography. During the Second World War Malcolm Dixon became Head of extramural research, working primarily on poison gases and antidotes. This continued into his post-war study of enzyme inhibition. In 1943 Peter Mitchell joined Dixon’s team and for his subsequent formulation of the chemiosmotic theory he won the 1978 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

With a prescience remarkable even by Hopkins’s standards, back in the 1920s he had persuaded a young student to give up medicine to work in biochemistry. The student was Joseph Needham and by 1931 he had published his three-volume work Chemical Embryology. In 1924 Needham married Dorothy Moyle who had been recruited by Hopkins in 1919 to work on muscle biochemistry and substrate-level phosphorylation. When she was elected an FRS in 1948 they became the first husband and wife to be so honoured, Needham having been elected in 1941. When three Chinese scientists came to work with Needham in 1937 he fell in love with one of them, Lu Gwei-djen, which event prompted him to master Classical Chinese to the extent that from 1942 to 1946 he was Director of the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office in Chongqing. Needham essentially devoted the rest of his life to revealing the history of Chinese science in all its aspects, complied in the 27 volumes of Science and Civilisation in China

In 1940 Fred Sanger joined the department on a Beit Memorial Fellowship. He won the 1958 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for obtaining the first sequence of a protein and, after moving to the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, shared the 1980 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Walter Gilbert for nucleic acid sequencing. In 1943 the plant biochemist Albert Charles Chibnall FRS, who had worked in Drummond’s UCL lab, succeeded Hopkins as Sir William Dunn Professor. In 1945 Marjory Stephenson became the first female FRS for her work on bacterial oxidation, at the same time as the X-ray crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale. Stephenson’s work on microbial metabolism was continued by Ernest H.Gale who became Professor of Chemical Microbiology in 1960 and remained a member of the department until his retirement in 1981.

Next: The legacy of Hopkins
Previous: The Hopkins Building jubilee celebrations