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The Hopkins Building jubilee celebrations

It is interesting to pause for a moment to look back at those early years through the words of members of the department in 1924 who spoke at the Jubilee celebrations in 1974. Professor Malcom Dixon summarized the history of the area from long before the Physiological Laboratory came into existence by noting that in the fifteenth century Downing Street was known as Landgrythes Lane and that the first stretch from Trumpington Road follows the line of the King’s Ditch which was the outer defence of the town. The address of the department has its origins in a private lane from Downing Street to the real tennis court building that from 1565 until the early years of the nineteenth century was situated near the present position of the back gate of Pembroke College. The Downing Site itself was originally called Swinecroft after the Swyn family or St. Thomas’s Leys, after St. Thomas’s Hostel next to Pembroke.

Professor Malcolm DixonDixon went on to remind everyone that 50 years before the new building was constructed the University had no laboratories. A few colleges had their own laboratories in the period when they, the colleges, taught science rather than the University. The mahogany bench of the main lecture theatre was a relic of this period, rescued by Hopkins from the St. John’s College laboratory. The New Museums site was originally the grounds of an Augustinian Friary (occupying the area from Bene’t Street to Downing Street and from Free School Lane to Corn Exchange Street). When the friary dissolved it was bought by the Vice-Master of Trinity for £1,600 in 1760 – and given to the University as its Botanical Garden. This became the site for two or three houses for Professors of Science to keep their own collections of specimens and apparatus and to give lectures, which thus became the ‘New Museums’. The removal of the Botanical Gardens to their present site provided space for laboratories including, in 1876, for Physiology and Comparative Anatomy adjacent to Corn Exchange Street. In 1914 this became the first home of the Department.

Malcolm Dixon was born in 1899 and, as a local boy, he went to the Perse School in Free School Lane. This was the ‘Free School’ established by Dr. Stephen Perse in the 17th century, the original school hall of which now houses the Whipple Museum of the History of Science. It was in the year of his birth that the University bought the northern half of the Downing Site. This was sold by the Downing trustees because, having bought all the land between Downing Street and Lensfield Road to build a college of great magnificence, they discovered they had insufficient funds. So the plan was to build laboratories on that land to relieve the growing congestion on the New Museums site. In a way that was to become familiar down the years, there was much opposition to the scheme because it was held to be inconceivable that science could ever need that much space and, in any case, no one would wish to use a site so far from the town. 

After the department outgrew its space in Corn Exchange Street, at which Elsie Bulley would arrive on horse back, it moved in 1919 to the Balfour Laboratory in Downing Place in what later became the Music School. This had been built in 1790 as a non-conformist chapel before, in 1884, it was opened as the Balfour Biological Laboratory for Women for the benefit of students of Newnham and Girton Colleges taking the Natural Science Tripos. Biochemistry shared this laboratory for four years before the department had to move out in 1923 which caused some difficulties because the new building was not completed for its official opening until 1924. That might have been even later, as it emerged when building was well under way that it was in the wrong place, being some fifteen feet north of its allocated site. The view was taken that it was too late to move it but a consequence of the mistake can be seen to this day in the form of the right angle bend at the Pembroke end of what is now the Department of Genetics.

Malcolm Dixon observed that the design of the building reflected the science of the time. As you could not then buy biochemicals you had to make them, so there were hot rooms for running tryptic digests but no cold rooms. As for equipment, there were incubators but no refrigerators: ice was acquired in large blocks from the fishmonger.

On the subject of buildings and conditions it’s worth recalling the words of Sir Rudolph Peters on the subject of the unrivalled research work that Hopkins and his colleagues carried out in the original building shared with physiology to the effect that, in retrospect, this seemed astonishing because the conditions were ‘by any standards appalling’. To give a flavour he observed that ‘Every room, I suppose, except that of Professor Langley and that in which Hopkins worked with S.W.Cole, was a passage. As will always be the case, it was the people that counted – there was a unique research atmosphere, – so much so that E.Mellanby, who became the second secretary of the MRC said that any young man entering that laboratory was “doomed to research”. I could elaborate, but I will confine myself to the cellars. At the bottom of the steps, there was a darkish room containing some of Hopkins rats. Turning left there was a slit of a room, quite dark, where A.V.Hill worked, and going through this one came to the small cellar for the distinguished neurophysiologist Keith Lucas who was responsible for the aerial compass (during the First World War when he worked at the Royal Aircraft Establishment). Going back to the central room, at the bottom of the stairs, there was a cave for the frogs, extensively used both in class, and also in muscle biochemistry, and beyond this the incredible centrifuge – the only one we had, which took up a cubic space of 12 ft. each way, and was run by a gas engine.

Sir Rudolph PetersOf Hopkins, Peters observed ‘I have never known anyone who would listen so attentively to a person who was talking to him as the Professor; this was equally true for the young or the old. He was astonishingly receptive and able to visualize the future of what you were saying. In spite of his busy life as Tutor, we found in the Part II class that he had not only read the literature; but that he had, as he said, “appraised it”. He was a remarkable mixture of a critical mind with immense human sympathy, so that in a way he was often at war with himself. During the morning, when I might want to consult him on some point connected with the laboratory, large numbers of folk from the University would collect outside his room, – many of them to weep on his shoulder. He was always sympathetic. I like the picture of him best which was published in my Hopkins Memorial lecture. The peering look is so characteristic. There is one story of the Professor, which I only heard 4 years ago, from Professor C.G.King, in a restaurant in Zurich. King isolated vitamin C independently of Szent-Gyogi, and is a Professor in the U.S.A. He was in the laboratory about 1929 for a period. One day in the library, which in those days had some bookcases sticking out into the room, he heard someone pacing up and down behind one of the cases. He was surprised to find that this was Hopkins, with his hands behind his back, characteristically. The Professor said to him, “You know, King, I should much like to feel that I had done something really important…” The next day came the announcement of his Nobel prize.

Reminiscing about the building, Malcom Dixon referred to Steegman’s book on Cambridge architecture, the author’s comments on the Downing site in general and on the Biochemistry building in particular. ‘This extraordinarily depressing area is one of the most intense concentrations of scientific knowledge in England… But nobody would imagine, if he did not already know, that these meaningless shapes are really laboratories and museums which draw students and scholars from over the whole world. They might be banking houses or the dwellings of Edwardian millionaires or liberal clubs… There are, however, one or two of these institutions which do not actually hurt the critical spectator. The Institute of Biochemistry in Tennis Court Road, designed by Sir Edwin Cooper in 1923, is exceedingly stylish, though what style it is supposed to be is not certain, nor can one be certain when looking at the outside as to what function this very self-conscious pink-and-white edifice is intended to perform’. To which Dixon added: ‘This was before we stuck the New Wing on the back.’

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