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.

Like other school-leavers, he had no rational basis for choosing one university rather than another and his retrospective judgment upon the School of Chemistry in Glasgow at which he was seeking honours was that it was rather old-fashioned in teaching and not very distinguished in research. As to the teaching, it was clearly built around the expected requirements of industrial chemists, public analysts and the like; plenty of gravimetric and qualitative inorganic analysis – ‘a soul-destroying business’ as it was taught in Glasgow. The second year was given over to that branch of chemistry in which he was to become superbly proficient – organic chemistry. His fourth-year research project led to a publication in the Journal of the Chemical Society and in due course he got his ‘first’, securing with it a research scholarship of £100 p.a. (not at all bad pay at that time) to continue with research – upon a problem in physical chemistry, unfortunately, which did not greatly appeal to him, hankering as he was after the chemistry of substances found in living matter. So Alex felt that he ought to move on-for choice to the Germany supreme in chemistry, of Abderhalden, Fischer, Haber, Staudinger, Warburg, Willstäter and others, their laboratories crowded with foreigners (especially Americans) come to sit at the feet of the masters (the supremacy of German chemistry brought it about that in most universities German was a required subject for students of chemistry). Alex studied under Walther Borsche at the University of Frankfurt am Main. To make this possible, the value of his Carnegie scholarship was raised to £150 p.a., which, at 20 marks to the pound, was adequate, for bed and breakfast cost 35 marks per week and other meals might be got for as little as 50 pfennigs. However, each student had to buy his own glassware and only furniture such as retort stands was on the house. It was decided that Todd should work on the nature of a bile acid, apocholic acid.

Todd’s increasing proficiency in German doubtless helped to make his time in Frankfurt a very happy one. The student body was a polyglot community, ‘comprising as it did many impoverished young men from Eastern European countries belonging to the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, with a sprinkling of Russians, both émigrés and Soviet engineering students, Persians and other Middle Easterners with a few Americans’, but no British other than Todd and an English friend. The University had taken over the colours and traditions of the German University of Strasbourg. Duelling-a strange parasexual ritual of which the purpose was to inflict prestigious but superficial facial wounds – was illegal but occurred from time to time: he attended one such performance in the yard of an inn at 5 a.m. with scouts posted on the look-out for police. It was clearly all very different from life in the bright, bony students’ hall of residence such as he would have occupied nowadays. Most of the students Todd met had right-wing sympathies, but not extreme. Most of them sympathised with the democratic National Party, and the National Socialist Party began to win their allegiance only as the Weimar Republic began to fail. Todd describes as especially interesting the period 1929-1931 during which the Allied occupation was ended – he and his fellow students celebrated the departure of the French from Mainz. The central government was crumbling, though; there was a run on the banks and a great deal of economic distress, providing just the environment in which the Nazis throve. None of the men he knew had any real sympathy for the extreme anti-semitism of the Nazis, he says, adding that a mild form of anti-semitism was probably endemic in Frankfurt – as we know from the early days of the Rothschilds.

After Frankfurt, Todd went to Oxford to work on the chemistry of anthocyanins (the red and blue colouring matters of flowers) under the brilliant Professor Robinson, a professorial Fellow of Magdalen, where he was treated with undisguised contempt by his fellow Fellow C.S. Lewis, who regarded Robinson as a typical scientist and an object of almost automatic censure. Todd himself went to Oriel College, where his proficiency in lawn tennis helped him to become integrated into the student body.

Compared to Frankfurt, the Dyson Perrins Laboratory at Oxford, where he worked, was rather primitive and ill-equipped with instruments, and it was a handicap that no microanalysis was laid on as a service until an unintended benefaction of Adolph Hitler’s brought the arrival of two Jewish refugees with the appropriate knowhow. But whatever the shortcomings of the place, Todd’s skill, in conjunction with one or two felicitous accidents, led to his preparing synthetic crystals of 2-beta-tetra-acetyl-D-glucopyranosyl-phloroglucinaldehyde, an essential intermediate for the synthesis of such plant colouring matters as cyanin, pelargonin and malvin. This accomplishment opened the door for the synthesis of all the major glucoside anthocyanins. Robert Robinson, his professor, was rated something of a genius in synthetic organic chemistry, and the paragraphs in which Alex Todd describes Robinson’s research strategy are among the most valuable in his book. Todd completed the synthesis of a number of flower colouring matters and turned to the synthesis of vitamin B1 (the vitamin of which a deficiency leads to beri-beri), working with his old friend from Frankfurt. Although they were beaten to the synthesis by German and American rivals, their method was so far superior as to be made the basis upon which the Swiss firm of Hoffmann la Roche based their synthesis of the greater part of the world’s vitamin B.

This work was done in the Department of Medical Chemistry in Edinburgh, where Todd, with his knack for doing the right thing, became engaged to the daughter of England’s foremost medical scientist and medical administrator, Sir Henry Dale, also sometime President of the Royal Society: ‘That was perhaps the best thing I ever did, for my wife has always been a vital part of my career.’ He bought Alison an engagement ring at Wool-worth’s during a meeting of the Biochemical, Society in Aberdeen, later substituting for it a ring of superior quality bought in the Edinburgh branch of Woolworth’s.

When Todd was offered a Readership in Biochemistry at the Lister Institute, Robert Robinson’s letter of recommendation pronounced Todd entirely good enough for the position but expressed some doubt whether the Lister Institute was good enough for him. Todd got the job, but the title of Reader was withheld, perhaps to punish Robinson, or perhaps because at 28 Todd was judged too young for so elevated a position. At the Lister, Todd’s work – on vitamin E, hyaluronidase and cannabis – illustrated the well-known truth that scientists of Todd’s degree of brilliance very often try their hands at all sorts of problems before they settle down to what is later rated their principal work. Todd’s work on cannabis led to a brush with Inspectors from the Drugs Division of the Home Office by whom the idea of using cannabis as a subject for research may have been thought a tall story.

Todd was now so obviously a coming man that jobs were offered almost as a matter of course, and at the age of 30 he was made Professor of Chemistry and head of the chemical laboratories of the University of Manchester. Here he felt he could spread his wings and his thoughts most happily turned to nucleotides, the tectonic units of the nucleic acids that were later shown to be the vectors of genetic information – that is, to embody and transmit the message from one generation that guides and specifies the development of the next. The nucleotides are of four different kinds chemically and the message of heredity is coded in something equivalent to Morse code, with four symbols instead of two. Manchester was a brilliant place in Todd’s day, the staff including Patrick Blackett, Willis Jackson, Michael Polanyi and the historian L.B. Namier. When the war came, Todd was made chairman of the chemical committee responsible for the development and production of chemical warfare agents.

After the war I served under Todd on a committee that had to make important policy decisions to do with the structure and future of the Chemical Warfare Establishment at Porton, and this gave me a privileged insight into the working of military intelligence. The work involved the consultation of secret, even top secret documents, and as I was at that time Professor of Zoology in University College London – a veritable hotbed of liberal opinion – I was given a talking-to by an intelligence officer who explained the importance of secrecy and said that my best safeguard would be if no one had any idea that I was engaged in secret work. This precept was hard to live up to because when I was once sent a top secret document, it was delivered to my department by a soldier who arrived on a motorbike in a small courtyard outside a lecture theatre in which I was speaking. The motorbike was banging and exploding as motorbikes do and the soldier carried a document which he was to put personally into my hands – events that did not pass without remark. From Todd’s description of our arrangements for mounting chemical warfare it is easily understandable that there should have been no important progress on the subject since 1918. This section of Todd’s book is full of genuinely funny anecdotes and is therefore more accessible to a lay reader than the more technically chemical parts.

The Department of Chemistry in Manchester was already thought of as the ‘first-class waiting room’ for higher preferment, so when Cambridge was looking around for a successor to the great biochemist Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins it was natural that the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge would telephone Todd to say that it was the unanimous wish of the Board of Electors that Todd should succeed him. ‘Do you mean that you would like me to give an answer to your question now?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then the only reply I can give you is no.’ There followed a hurried consultation with the other electors and Todd was made the target of a broadside of 18-inch guns: Sir Henry Dale, Sir Robert Robinson and Sir Charles Harington begged him not to turn the job down outright, but at least to come and see the department of which he was being invited to become head. He did so and still said no. For one thing, he was not really a biochemist as that designation had come to be understood, and he found that the school had a sort of baronial structure, with no unity of purpose. The barons shared the departmental budget and were united only by ‘an almost sycophantic attitude to Hopkins’, and he thought that the teaching was entirely inadequate. The Vice-Chancellor was not really surprised at Todd’s refusal and Todd felt that the department may have been relieved. Happily the headship of the University Chemical Laboratory was vacant and before he returned to Manchester Todd indicated that he might be interested in it. As it happened, Sir Robert Robinson, the great panjandrum of British chemistry, had asked Todd some years beforehand if this chair would interest him, but Todd had said no because he was happy and fruitful in Manchester and felt especially loyal to the Vice-Chancellor, Sir John Stopford (who, I add from personal knowledge, was also one of the nicest men known to science).

Although as a school of organic chemistry Cambridge was at that time ‘virtually nonexistent’, it had possibilities, and after securing some administrative reforms and reconciling himself to the truth that the laboratory, built on the cheap in 1886 to designs already obsolete, was ‘quite dreadful’, Todd accepted the position, though not before telling the electors that the professor’s office could more appropriately be located in the Museum of the History of Science. Todd became Professorial Fellow of Christ’s College – C.P. Snow’s college, of which Todd later became Master. It is a tribute to Todd that so many of his colleagues came with him – one, indeed, threatened to leave the profession if Todd went to Cambridge without him. So his research was not grievously interrupted. One of the many topics in which he had been interested in Manchester was the chemical nature of the anticoagulant heparin, a product of the Con-naught Laboratories in Toronto sent to him at the instance of Charles Best, a principal in the discovery of insulin. This interest in heparin put it in Todd’s power to perform an act of magnanimity on behalf of his colleague Dr Anni Jacob, a refugee who had fled Germany, not because she was Jewish, which she wasn’t, but because she did not feel there was room in Germany for Hitler and herself. Unfortunately, an arbitrary Home Office ruling caused her to be interned in the Isle of Man at a time when the country could have made good use of her services. (Can it be that her not being Jewish was deemed by the Home Office to deprive her of a valid reason for having left Germany?) During his long battle with the Home Office to get her released, Todd made arrangements for her to do some research at the Marine Biological Station on the possible presence in seaweeds of anticoagulants such as were known to exist in carragheen. This story had a happy ending: she married a Franco refugee, joined ICI, settled in Cheshire and brought up a family.

It goes without saying that Todd was interested in penicillin, in the analysis of which he made discoveries that led to the founding of a new pedigree for such compounds – β-lactam antibiotics. Of his varied research interests Todd remarks: ‘I have always found it difficult to do good research unless the subject is one in which I have a strong personal interest. I think this latter point applies to many academic research scientists, and that is why they are usually not very efficient in industrial contract work.’ Nucleotides and nucleic acids accordingly remained at the very heart of his research: quite apart from its importance as a chemical feat, his synthesis of the energy-rich adenosinetriphosphate had an important moral effect by making the nucleic acids less daunting than they had seemed to most people at that time to be. Nucleic acids were indeed a controversial subject, but over and again Todd’s judgment upon matters of dispute can be seen in retrospect to have been entirely sound: he had no use, for example, for the tetra-nucleotide theory of the structure of nucleic acids, or for Stedman’s surmise that the vector of genetic information was not nucleic acid but the basic protein histone with which it formed a salt as deoxyribonucleo-protein, the principal ingredient of chromosomes. He showed excellent judgment, too, in his choice of topics for research by leaving detailed chemical anatomy of nucleic acids to be done by younger colleagues: having shown that the synthesis of oligonucleotides was possible in principle, he shunned the tediously repetitive procedures that would have been entailed by the synthesis of polynucleotides. Todd’s interests were throughout chemical rather than crystallographic, and they played no part in resolving, as Crick and Watson did, the double helical conformation of DNA. Todd confirmed his mastery of the nucleotide field by the synthesis of flavin-adenine-dinucleotide, reported in 1952, and, as expected and predicted, he won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1957 ‘for his work on nucleotides and nucleotide co-enzymes’.

A simultaneous demonstration in America and by the Glaxo Laboratories that the anti-pernicious anaemia factor known to be present in liver was vitamin B12 reawakened Todd’s old interest in the B vitamins, and not surprisingly he was asked if he would study the vitamin B12 chemically while Dorothy Hodg-kin elucidated the structure by X-ray crystallography. Todd did not persist with attempting to synthesise vitamin B12 because a distinguished American chemist had a method which seemed to him likely to succeed – as indeed it did. Todd’s thoughts turned again to the endlessly fascinating problems of the chemical structure of the colouring matters of plants and of the haemolymph of insects (of which carmine is one).

After the collapse of Germany the Swiss Chemical Society invited Todd to lecture in Zurich and Basle on his researches on cannabis. After the darkness and comparative privations of England he was delighted to see the bright lights of Zurich airport, the street lamps and the illuminated shop windows – with shops selling candy and even bananas! Later, revisiting Frankfurt, he sought out and spent a happy hour or two with his old professor and his wife; he traced his old landlady, too, and ran into the laboratory steward of his student days – they took the opportunity to toast each other in laboratory alcohol. During the course of a tour of West Germany he visited the little town from which his colleague Anni Jacob came and where her brother-in-law turned out to be the village pharmacist. Todd discerned signs of the rebirth of German chemistry and was relieved to find that the two great German encyclopedias, Gmelin’s Hand-buch der Anorganischen Chemie and Beilstein’s Handbuch der Organischen Chemie had been rescued from Berlin.

Alex Todd went from strength to strength and honour to honour; as the leading British chemist of his generation, it was inevitable that he should become the subject of many feeble but respectful mots depending upon the assonance of the words Todd and God; and if not inevitable it was at least very likely that he should be elected President of the Royal Society, the oldest and most famous scientific society in the world. It was a good thought on Todd’s part to include as appendices to his biography a number of his annual Presidential Addresses to the Society, memorials of great good sense and good judgment and of the earnestness of his endeavours. ‘To improve the knowledge of naturall things, and all useful Arts, Manufactures, Mechanick practises, Engynes and Inventions by Experiments – (not meddling with Divinity, Metaphysics, Moralls, Politicks, Grammar, Rhetorick, or Logick)’-in all these respects he abided strictly by the rules propounded for the Royal Society in 1663 by Robert Hooke.

Todd’s eminence and his very many public services, including chairmanship of the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy, led to his being created the first Baron Todd of Trumpington. In this country, a peerage bestows upon its holder considerable authority, as I came to realise during a period of service under Lord Todd as a member of the Royal Commission on Medical Education. Todd set us a very bad example by smoking incessantly and we weak-minded members of the Commission tended to follow his example. When Lord Platt, sometime President of the Royal College of Physicians, appeared before us to give evidence, the air in the room had almost ceased to be translucent. Noting this, his Lordship (Platt) said how very strange he thought it was that such an august body, investigating and seeking to promote medical education, should be seen by its witnesses so heedlessly to be smoking; he added that he for one would feel very much obliged if the Committee would be good enough to abstain from it. It was a lordly utterance and Alex Todd, no less lordly, inclined his head as we all furtively extinguished our cigarettes.

I enjoyed this book immensely because I lived through much of the period he writes about and am in the profession. But who else will read it? Not literary intellectuals, to be sure, to Whom Todd has little to say and, I suspect, little inclination to say it. My only complaint is literary. Todd squanders the great advantage autobiography has over straight biography – that is, the privileged insight which a man who writes his own life has into ambitions, motives, private thoughts and secret personal judgments about people and events. I for one would have liked to have read something more about Todd’s views on the matters that Robert Hooke arbitrarily struck off the agenda of the Royal Society – metaphysics, morals, politics, and the like.