Todd Almighty

Peter Medawar

  • A Time to Remember: The Autobiography of a Chemist by Alexander Todd
    Cambridge, 257 pp, £15.00, November 1983, ISBN 0 521 25593 7

Lord Todd’s describing himself as ‘a chemist’ is not mock modesty but a true representation of how he sees himself and chooses to be seen by others – no ordinary chemist, mind you, but the supremo of British chemistry for very many years and a figure of world rank as well. He is a Nobel Laureate and a peer and has been President of the Royal Society and the Head of a Cambridge College; he has earned, too, what must surely be the rarest and most prestigious of all doubles – membership of our own Order of Merit and of the Order Pour le Mérite, the German model of our own. I believe the only two others who have won this double are Henry Moore and Sir Ronald Syme.

Nothing could be more interesting than to learn such a man’s views on unilateral nuclear disarmament, the Greenham Common women, the exhaustion of fossil fuels and the fitness of women for Holy Orders, but Todd had no intention of writing any such book: his resolution was to ‘place on record an account of my own life and career in the hope that the pathway from childhood in Glasgow to a Nobel Prize, the House of Lords and the Presidency of the Royal Society might prove of some interest.’ He is of course perfectly entitled to take this view, but I expect most readers will find it, as I did, rather a disappointment, for which the inclusion in appendices of his more important Addresses – to the Royal Society and to the British Association for the Advancement of Science – is not a substitute.

Alexander Robertus Todd, Baron Trumpington, was the son of a responsible white-collar employee of a railway company who later became managing director of a substantial department store in Glasgow. Todd describes him as an ambitious and hard-working man who went to work at the age of 13 and from then on was self-taught by attendance at night classes (none of them concerned with science). His father and mother worked their way up in the world ‘into what might be called the lower middle class’ by sheer hard work and resolved at whatever cost to themselves to provide their children with a decent education. Alexander was accordingly put into the kindergarten department of a public school (Scottish sense), where he received rapid preferment – ‘more, I fear, because of my physical size than my mental precocity’. There must have been many other occasions in his life when his great height (two metres) and patrician carriage promoted his career. Todd is not a man who could ever have been overlooked. Young Alex walked to and from school in wretched wartime shoes (those were great days for the profiteers who were said to make cardboard shoes for issue to the trenches). Todd thinks it was these shoes in conjunction with the inadequate wartime diet that were responsible for his extremely painful chilblains. At his next school, entered by competitive examination, he was allowed a shilling a day for his lunch – a pretty handsome allowance, too, even in my own schooldays, when prices had gone way up. The sum bought 13 oranges, or eight ham rolls (the ham so thin we could read print through it), or several yards of liquorice ribbon, so Alex saved quite a bit of his lunch allowance. These savings played a part in his career, for a very early interest in chemistry was nourished by ‘a Home Chemistry set’ in a pink cardboard box that contained little pillboxes of sulphur, iron filings, charcoal etc, and doubtless also – my own memory stirs – of lycopodium powder, a plant spore with pyrotechnic possibilities. It so happened that one of the best-known firms of laboratory furnishers was just by an annexe of Alex’s new school and here with his lunch money he could enlarge the repertoire of his home chemistry set by purchase of glassware, Bunsen burners and reagents such as concentrated nitric and sulphuric acids (heavens!), chloroform and carbon disulphide.

Alex’s new school, true to its subtitle the ‘Glasgow High School of Science’, taught maths, physics and chemistry: Greek had been abolished from the curriculum by the will of the founder. Allan Glen’s School nourished the interest that had begun with his home chemistry set. Todd had no difficulties with regular school subjects except art: he claims to have been the worst in the school at freehand drawing, thus unhappily creating an opportunity for a master to remark that his initials (A.R.T.) were evidence of a sense of humour on his parents’ part, but he was taught chemistry well – physics less well. And in spring 1924 he passed the Scottish Higher Leaving Certificate examination in English, French, mathematics, physics and chemistry, German and dynamics. Instead of staying at school for an extra year, Todd decided to go directly to the University of Glasgow, failing to secure an entrance scholarship because he was unable to answer the questions in physics. A bursary from the Carnegie Trust could not be sought because of his father’s indignant refusal to sign a form declaring that without a bursary he could not go to university – how could Alex suppose that Todds would seek charity? He tore the form up and threw it on the fire. Alex went nevertheless, and at the end of his first year he won the Joseph Black Medal and a prize that provided him with a scholarship for the duration of his course.

The trouble with biographies of people known beforehand to have been very successful is that they have a certain quality of inevitability that robs them of all power to surprise. Exercising his privilege in writing upon what he pleases, Todd tells us nothing about his interests outside science. Readers have their rights too, if they pay £15 for a book: I should dearly have liked to have been told what young Alex read and if, for example, such typical boys’ reading as Jules Verne and the short stories of H.G. Wells stoked his enthusiasm for a career in science, and I should also like to know how he came to write so well in the straightforward narrative style of Daniel Defoe. But on all these matters we are left to guess: we learn the facts about his life and nothing about his motivation.

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