The Father of Biochemistry

Chris Adriaanse 22 November 2007

Chris Adriaanse tells us about the birth of biochemistry

For most scientists a Nobel Prize is the pinnacle of success; proof of one’s talent. But Sir Frederick Hopkins, who was awarded the prize in 1929 for his discovery of vitamins, had grander visions for the future of science.

Much of the nutritional research in the early twentieth century was focused on energy requirements alone. While doing research on animal diets, Hopkins noticed that something was missing from the equation. Diets of pure protein, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and water were not enough to support life and the animals quickly became unwell. The missing part of the puzzle was of course vitamins. His seminal paper published in 1912 highlighted the need for “accessory food factors” now called vitamins for which he went on the share the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine 17 years later.

However, after the publication his interests shifted. Still at the Physiological Laboratory in Cambridge, Hopkins continued his animal feeding experiments but was unable to isolate the pure vitamins. From this and his previous work, it was becoming increasingly clear to Hopkins that the chemical structure of biological compounds was not enough to fully understand the living organism. He needed the understanding of the chemical reactions.

Hopkins research was traditionally classified as chemical physiology but he grew frustrated with the facilities at his disposal and the conventional thinking. Hopkins started promoting dynamic biochemistry as he called it, defending it as a fundamental life science that needed its own subset of skills and techniques at the borderland between biology and chemistry. The University acknowledged this in 1914 when they created a separate Department of Biochemistry with Hopkins as Chair.

The new department flourished under Hopkins. Called to work on troop nutrition during the First World War, Hopkins showed that margarine lacked vitamins A and D and consequently in later years they were added during production.

Hopkins contribution to biochemistry was not just centred on the research in the department but also the teaching in Cambridge. Formal teaching was quickly started with its inclusion into the Natural Sciences Tripos as a subject in its own right. The shear number of his students that were elected to chairs in biochemistry departments at other universities when they graduated illustrates his gift as a teacher and scientist.

In the years leading up to his retirement in 1943 and subsequent death in 1947, Hopkins received many awards including the Order for Merit, which is the highest civilian recognition as well as his knighthood. He became the President of both the Royal Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science and became widely known to the general public as an innovator in science and education.

Hopkins is credited as the father of biochemistry and was certainly key to Britain’s place at the forefront of biochemical research at the time of his death. His passion and promotion of the subject throughout his life led to many successes and meant that biochemistry became a science in its own right. This was the beginning of multidisciplinary science, a necessary collaboration that has and will continue to yield the most significant scientific breakthroughs we will ever achieve.