Areas of Achievement: Biochemistry, medicine.
Contribution: The main figure in the establishment of
biochemistry as a field of both teaching and research in Britain, Hopkins
made many important contributions to the understanding of the metabolism
of living cells, and to biochemical research methods. He won the Nobel Prize
for his discovery of vitamins.
Frederick Gowland Hopkins was born in the English seaside town of Eastbourne, in 1861. His father, a cousin of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, died when he was a baby, but at about age eight Frederick began to play with his father's old microscope, and was deeply impressed by what he saw. In 1871 the family moved to north London. Frederick attended the prestigious City of London School, and did outstandingly in Chemistry and English. However, around age fourteen, bored with his classes, he began to play truant, and spent several weeks walking alone in the countryside, and exploring docks, museums and the public library. For this he was, effectively, expelled.
At seventeen Frederick started work in an insurance office, but very soon began to pursue his interest in science, publishing a paper in The Entomologist on the purple vapor ejected by the bombardier beetle, and taking a job as an analyst in a commercial laboratory. He studied for an Associateship of the Institute of Chemistry, and his exceptional performance in the examination was noticed by Dr. Thomas Stevenson, who asked him to become an assistant in his forensic laboratory at Guy's Hospital. Hopkins' work here contributed to the conviction of several notorious murderers. In 1888, after inheriting some money, he began a medical degree at Guy's, and, after qualifying, stayed on to teach and do research.
In 1898 the professor of Physiology at Cambridge University invited Hopkins to come and develop the almost moribund teaching and research program in 'Chemical Physiology', as Biochemistry was then known. The pay was poor, and to support his new wife and family Hopkins had to take on additional teaching work. In 1910 he became ill from overwork, but later that year Trinity College elected him as a Fellow and Praelector in Biochemistry, a position that gave him much more time for his researches. By 1912 he had published his seminal paper demonstrating the importance of vitamins.
In 1914 Hopkins was appointed Cambridge's very first Professor of Biochemistry, a position he held until retirement in 1943. Under his leadership both teaching and research in Biochemistry began to flourish and grow, both at Cambridge and, later, elsewhere in Britain and around the world. Although a mediocre teacher in introductory classes, Hopkins was inspiring at the advanced level, and by the time he died seventy-five of his former students were Professors of Biochemistry throughout the world.
Although his Nobel Prize in 1929 was "for his discovery of the growth-stimulating vitamins", for Hopkins, nutritional studies were secondary to his research on cellular metabolism: the very complex sequence of chemical reactions by which living cells extract energy from food molecules. This process was not fully understood during Hopkins' lifetime, but work done or inspired by him contributed enormously to our current understanding. His vision of the cell as a chemical machine was ahead of its time, and provided an indispensable guiding framework not only for his own research but for biochemical science as a whole.
Whilst teaching in Cambridge, Hopkins was surprised when a student's protein samples failed to turn blue in the standard Adamkiewicz test. This led him to the discovery of the amino acid tryptophan, present in many, but not all, proteins, and necessary for the Adamkiewicz reaction. He found that mice fed a diet without tryptophan became sick, and, that certain other amino acids were also dietetically essential. The body needs these components to build its own proteins, but cannot make them for itself.
Hopkins now suspected that minute amounts of other, yet unknown, chemicals were necessary in the diet. He fed mice solely on fat, starch, salts, and purified milk protein (containing all the essential amino acids). They became sick and ceased to grow. However, when also given a very small quantity of whole milk, they recovered. This led to the isolation of vitamin C, and what Hopkins called "fat-soluble A" (actually two vitamins: A and D).
During World War I, butter, an important source of "fat-soluble A", was scarce, and Hopkins was asked to investigate margarine. He found that it lacked this vitamin complex. Consequently, vitamins A and D are now routinely added to margarines.
For further information on Hopkins' contribution to our
understanding of the nature of life, see
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