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An outline

As the nineteenth century drew to a close there began to emerge a new science – the study of the chemistry of living organisms, otherwise known as biological chemistry, that was to evolve into Biochemistry. The first University departments bearing that name and hence being chaired by a Professor were established in Liverpool and at University College, London. The first of these, in Liverpool, was established in 1902 and headed by Benjamin Moore, part of whose legacy was the foundation of the Biochemical Journal. Moore’s son, Thomas, became the first deputy director of the MRC Dunn Nutritional Laboratory. Sir Jack Drummond, a pioneer of research on vitamins, became the first Professor of Biochemistry in the University of London in 1922.

The coming of Hopkins and the years before 1924

In Cambridge Arthur Sheridan Lea had begun to carry out research on chemical physiology and he taught the first courses on metabolism and digestion, started in 1882. By the 1890s Michael Foster was also working as a chemical physiologist in the Physiological Laboratory and it was he who invited Frederick Gowland Hopkins in 1898 to come to Cambridge and develop that subject in his laboratory. Hopkins was born on June 20th. 1861 in Eastbourne. His father died when he was very young and in 1871 he moved with his mother to Enfield and attended the City of London School. Having published his first paper at the age of seventeen, he studied chemistry at the Royal School of Mines and at University College, London. After his B.Sc. he read medicine at Guy’s Hospital, graduating in 1894. He worked for a period as a Home Office analyst and taught physiology and toxicology at Guy’s for four years. It was at a Physiological Society meeting that Sir Michael Foster suggested he came to Cambridge.

F. G. HopkinsGiven the impact that Hopkins was to make on the world of science, it might reasonably be claimed that Foster’s initiative led to one of the most important appointments ever made by the University of Cambridge. It will surprise no one subsequently associated with that august institution that, however enthusiastic it may have been, the University declared that it had no funds available to support this enterprise. To its eternal credit the Physiological Laboratory provided the initial stipend.

Hopkins began his Cambridge career by teaching physiology and anatomy. In 1902 the alert department in Liverpool offered him a chair in Biochemistry, whereupon the physiologists made another critical contribution by persuading the University to make him a Reader. In 1906 the University established a Professorship of biological chemistry, first held by the proto-zoologist G.H.F.Nuttall as Director of the Molteno Institute, and in 1909 the Special Board for Medicine agreed to propose a personal Chair in Biochemistry, as already created at Liverpool. In November 1914 Hopkins was elected.

By 1898 Hopkins, working with Sydney W. Cole, had discovered tryptophan which led eventually to the concept of essential amino acids. In the Physiological Laboratory he began to work on the chemical composition of muscle and ‘accessory food factors’, that is, vitamins, which led to his being awarded the 1929 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

In 1914 the embryonic biochemistry department moved into space that had been vacated by the Physiological Laboratory. The University gave £1,500 for fitting out, £500 for equipment and (in 1915) £600 from the Medical School grant from the Board of Education. Hopkins was adviser to the Royal Society Food (War) Committee and was carrying out nutritional research aimed at helping the war effort. Nevertheless fears were expressed that taking government money would invite their interference in running the University. Other research in that period, funded by the MRC, focused on bacteriology.

When the war ended the numbers working in the laboratory in Corn Exchange Street rose quite rapidly. One of the first new recruits, in 1918, was also one of the most remarkable. Whilst still a student taking Part II Physiology, Rudolph Peters had showed that in oxyhaemoglobin one molecule of labile oxygen is united with one atom of iron. When war broke out he completed his degree in medicine at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and became the medical officer in the 60th Rifles. He served with them at Delville Wood, Vimy Ridge and Beaumont Hamel, winning a Military Cross and bar and being mentioned in dispatches. He was recalled from the front in 1917 to work at Porton Down on chemical warfare. Among other things, he showed that small amounts of thallium salts in the medium of Paramecium made the ciliate protozoa reverse their ciliary action, prompting a visiting General to exclaim ‘What! A gas that makes the enemy go backwards!’ In the 1929 Harben Lecture he said ‘The fact that the cell contents are often quite fluid can be reconciled with the fact that the living cell shows a continuous directive power by the view that protein surfaces in the cell constitute a mosaic form which radiate chains of molecules, controlled by their attachment to the central mosaic. These constitute a fluid anatomy in the cell, and the central mosaic behaves as a kind of central nervous system’. With Hopkins Rudolph Peters carried out early pioneering work on vitamins. From 1923 to 1954 he was Whitney Professor of Biochemistry at Oxford, after which he returned to Cambridge. During the Second World War he developed an antidote to the gas Lewisite. In 1964 he showed that fluoracetate, which had been produced as a commercial insecticide, was toxic, eventually persuading the Ministry of Agriculture to ban it.

The immediate post-war period saw the New Zealander Huia Onslow (his father had been governor of New Zealand) working on pigmentation and Muriel Wheldale establishing the field of plant biochemistry, working particularly on chloroplasts. In 1919 they became husband and wife, the first, but by no means the last, intra-departmental marriage. Onslow had been paralysed in a diving accident but despite this ran a research programme in chemical genetics from a laboratory constructed in his own home.

The years between 1914 and 1924 saw soaring numbers of students (towards 500/term) and much debate over the inclusion of Biochemistry as a Tripos subject. The 1920/21 class included Malcolm Dixon and also Barbara Hopkins, one of the Professor’s two daughters. Joseph Needham was one of the class of 1921/22. In 1921 the University introduced degrees for women, encouraged no doubt by Hopkins who had always been a keen supporter of women in science and had taken many women on in the department by the early 1920s. His opinion clearly conflicted with that of the writer for Chemistry and Industry who observed 'It {the new institute} is probably too much the resort of women students, who cannot be expected to bring to the study of the subject that breadth and originality of outlook and the acute powers of observation that are essential to progress.'

J. B. S. HaldaneIn 1920 the Trustees for the estate of Sir William Dunn provided funds for the University to establish a School of Biochemistry. Dunn was a Scottish banker and merchant, born in Paisley, for which constituency he became a Liberal Member of Parliament (there’s a statue of him in the town). He made his fortune in South Africa and, having no heirs, left it to charity for, among other things, ‘the support of hospitals, as well as to alleviate human suffering and to encourage education.’ The money contributed by the Trustees was to establish a Chair of Biochemistry (The Sir William Dunn Professorship) and also to provide a building to house the new Department of Biochemistry. In 1922 the Trustees made a further endowment in the form of a Readership, a position first held by the legendary J.B.S.Haldane. Haldane’s father and various others of his family were physiologists but he read Mathematics and Greats at Oxford. As a student he had mastered Greek, Latin, French and German, he fought with manic bravery in the First World War and became a popular science writer and broadcaster (in 1923, for heaven's sake, he pointed out that we would run out of coal as a source of power and should build a network of hydrogen-generating windmills!). He joined the Communist Party in 1940 and was on the editorial board of the Daily Worker before leaving in 1950 in protest over Lysenkoism. No less a figure than Sir Peter Medawar described him as ‘the cleverest man I ever met’ and he made contributions to the study of enzymes and the field of genetics that are influential to this day.  It is well known that he had a habit of doing experiments on himself (there’s a great photo in the accompanying archive of him locked in a spasm having injected himself with tetanus to ‘see what would happen’). He also had a habit of consuming large numbers of sugar lumps at tea which led to someone trying an experiment on him of which he was unaware. Dorothy Needham witnessed the tea-time entertainment in which holes had been bored in several sugar lumps and then filled with quinine. She averred that JBS ‘gobbled the lumps as usual without showing the slightest sign of noticing anything out of the way.’ Haldane was a dab hand at writing rhymes but it was an anonymous author who commemorated his tea-time trait, at the same time immortalizing one of the department’s long line of distinguished tea ladies:

How rude of the reader
To put on his feeder
And eat so much sugar at tea;
But Olive has spotted
His manners besotted
And double his tea bill will be.

All who have followed Haldane as employees of Cambridge University are indebted to him for having an adulterous affair with a married lady which, when it became public in 1925, led to his dismissal by the Sex Viri (the University moral guardians – dubbed by JBS as “Sex Weary”) for ‘gross or habitual immorality’. He contested the charge, won and was reinstated – thereby establishing henceforth the principle of University non-interference in the private life of its staff. Although critically neutered as a result of JBS’s battle, the Sexviri became the Septemviri, the continuing existence of which can be confirmed by consulting the Statutes And Ordinances Of The University Of Cambridge Matriculation, Residence, Admission to Degrees, Discipline. When asked in an interview for the department magazine ‘When are you at your best?’ JBS replied: ‘My optimum pH is obtained by saturating a 25% aqueous solution of ethanol with CO2 (yes, Mr. Editor, you can get iced champagne for 4/- a bottle in Paris)’; ‘When are you at your worst?’ ‘There is no evidence that the depths of my potential iniquity have been plumbed’; ‘Do you think life worth living?’ ‘Yes, but I do not think the majority of resting bugs, dons and bacteriophages are alive. My answer only applies to higher organisms’.

By 1922 there were 47 research workers in Hopkins’s group and in that year the Low Temperature Research Station (LTRS) opened with William Hardy (Director of Food Investigation at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research) as its Superintendent. This came about because of a recommendation by the Food Investigation Board to set up a ‘cold storage laboratory’ and, given the research environment that owed much to Hopkins, Cambridge was the obvious place for it. One of the early research topics was post-mortem changes in meat that had been initiated by Hopkins and Fletcher in their study of the formation of lactic acid in muscle published in 1907. A later Director, Dr. E.C.Bate-Smith, recalls the Downing Site when it was built: ‘A continuous avenue of lime trees stretched from the School of Agriculture to the spacious court of Downing College. Where the Geography Department now stands was a small school of forestry; otherwise the only other buildings were the Molteno Institute of Parasitology and some huts and styes belonging to the School of Agriculture.’ Some of the photographs in the accompanying archive indeed show very clearly the park-like appearance of the Downing Site in those days.

In the 1940s Kenneth Bailey, working in the LTRS, revealed the critical role of calcium in muscle contraction and it was in the same building that Max Perutz experimented on the properties of ice as part of the abortive Habakkuk project to make icebergs that could be floated into strategic locations as aircraft landing strips.

In 1967 the Institute of Food Research was set up in Norwich and the Meat Research Institute at Long Ashton, with LTRS staff as their nuclei. LTRS, often referred to as ‘the Hardy Building’, then became, in effect, an extension of the main building and it housed a substantial proportion of the department for the next 30 years until, in 1997, they were persuaded to leave their salubrious surroundings for the new Sanger Building.

In the year after the LTRS was opened, 1923, Malcolm Dixon was appointed a Senior Demonstrator.

1924 was perhaps the most important year in the history of the department because it saw the opening of the new Dunn Institute that was to be the main building of the Department of Biochemistry until 1997, and is now named after Hopkins. The opening was on 9th. May by Lord Balfour, the Chancellor of the University. Somewhat astutely, rather than giving the money to the University, the Sir William Dunn Trustees gave the building itself which had been designed according to their wishes and in particular to the those of their Chairman, Sir Jeremiah Colman. The cost was £165,000 and the building was ‘launched’ by the Canadian J.Murray Luck who left water running through a condenser when he went home: the ensuing leak soaked the beautiful plaster ceiling below and shorted out the entire electrical supply. The Library was established on the express wish of Jeremiah Colman, an alumnus of St. John’s, who developed Colman’s mustard from the enterprise started by his Dad in a village just down the road from the present home of the Institute of Food Research.

For the new building Hopkins commissioned four wood carvings by way of decoration. These were of John Mayow {the 17th. century physician who showed respiration and combustion to consume something from air}, Thomas Graham {the 19th. century chemist who coined the term colloid}, Louis Pasteur {this carving showing di-symmetric crystals}, and Justus von Liebig {the 19th. chemist and teacher, the carving including sheaves of corn reflecting his interest in agricultural chemistry}. These can still be seen mounted on the columns in the library reading room. As if all that wasn’t enough, the Part II Biochemistry teaching course was introduced.

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