Martin, Archer John Porter
MARTIN, ARCHER JOHN PORTER
(b. Upper Holloway, London, 1 March 1910; d. Llangarron, Herefordshire, 28 July 2002),
analytical chemistry, chromatography, biochemistry.
Martin was effectively the founder of modern chromatography, a method of separating different compounds in a mixture. The Italian-born Russian chemist Mikhail Tswett is usually credited with invention of chromatography at the beginning of the twentieth century, but the form of chromatography he developed—absorption chromatography—was rarely used for more than two decades after his early death and is hardly ever used in the early twenty-first century. By contrast, Martin invented three forms of chromatography—partition chromatography, paper chromatography, and gas-liquid chromatography— which were rapidly adopted and are still used intensively as of 2007. Even the other two forms of chromatography in common use—thin-layer chromatography and high-performance liquid chromatography—owe much to Martin’s work. But if Martin’s development of chromatography was a remarkable achievement, rewarded by a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1952, his career illustrates how a moment—or even several moments—of scientific genius is not the same as being a scientific genius. Martin’s research work thus sheds new light on the nature of scientific discovery. Martin’s life after winning the Nobel Prize at the relatively early age of forty-two illustrates the problem of not knowing what to do after achieving the ultimate accolade, a problem which has also afflicted other Nobel Laureates.
Childhood and Early Research . During his career, Martin combined an interest in biochemical problems with a love of practical mechanics. This may have been—at least partly—a result of his family background. His father, William Archer Porter Martin, was a medical practitioner whose forefathers were landowners in the north of Ireland. His mother, Lilian Kate Martin (née Brown), was the daughter of John Brown, who ran a plumbing and gas-fitting business in Hove, Sussex. A more immediate influence, however, was his elder sister Nora, who showed him chemistry experiments in the family’s garden shed; they had moved to Bedford in 1920. Martin was probably dyslexic, as he was barely able to read until he was nine; but he went to Bedford School, a middle-of-the-road private school, when he was eleven. There he showed his interest in making things and in methods of separation by studying fractional distillation—a technique that was already crucial to the development of the burgeoning oil-refining industry—and making his own distillation column from coffee tins and lumps of coke. It is not surprising that when he went up to Peterhouse, Cambridge, in 1929 he had a scholarship to study chemical engineering.
In his early days at Cambridge, Martin was drawn into the circle of the well-known biochemist J. B. S. (John Burdon Sanderson) Haldane. This friendship was crucial to Martin’s career. If he had not been taken up by Haldane, he would not have switched to biochemistry and would not have been accepted to do postgraduate research. In the unlikely event that he had been accepted, he certainly would not have completed his PhD without Haldane’s support. It is hard to say what would have happened otherwise, but it is likely Martin would have become an obscure—if rather eccentric—chemical engineer. As a result of his switch in mid-degree to biochemistry and because he was already suffering from the severe depression that plagued him for much of his life, Martin only got a lower second class degree.
His initial research, on the conversion of B-carotene to vitamin A with C. P. (Charles Percy) Snow and Philip Bowden, was a complete failure, mainly thanks to Snow, who gave up chemistry soon afterward. With Haldane’s assistance, Martin then moved to the nutritional laboratory in the biochemistry department. He worked with Leslie Harris and Tommy Moore on the isolation of Vita-min E and then with Sir Charles Martin (no relation) on the isolation of the anti-pellagra factor, but in both cases the Cambridge researchers were pre-empted by other groups overseas. During this research, however, Martin had developed a cumbersome countercurrent solvent extraction apparatus to separate different biochemical compounds. Another crucial meeting in Martin’s life took place in early 1938 when Sir Charles introduced Martin to a fellow graduate student Richard L. M. Synge, who was working on the separation of acetylated amino acids. Martin and Synge then worked together to develop a better countercurrent extraction apparatus.
Development of Partition and Paper Chromatography . At this point, Sir Charles Martin suggested to his namesake that he take a job as a biochemist at the Wool Industries Research Association (WIRA) in Headingly, Leeds, rather than pursue his earlier ambition to become a chemical engineer. Archer Martin carried on, building more and more elaborate countercurrent setups, but tired of trying to get the inefficient and temperamental apparatus to work properly. He then had a revolutionary idea that transformed separation science. He had already seen the need for the two solvents to reach equilibrium rapidly so that the extraction could be carried out in a reasonable time, and realized that the best way of achieving this was by using very fine droplets. But if he used fine droplets the solvent would not move quickly and the benefit of achieving a rapid equilibrium was cancelled out. It suddenly struck him that there was no need for both the solvents to move; one could be held in a fine state on a stationary medium and the other solvent would move through it.
By this time, Martin had been reunited with Synge, who had come to WIRA in 1939. They decided to use silica gel as the solid support, as it could hold almost its own weight in water and was chemically inert. They were able to separate acetylated amino acids from the hydrolysis of wool protein, using methyl orange as an indicator, much more efficiently than with the countercurrent apparatus they had hitherto used. Martin and Synge demonstrated partition chromatography at a meeting of the Biochemical Society held at the National Institute for Medical Research, Hampstead, on 7 June 1941. Their practical achievement was supported by their development of the theory of partition chromatography; within a short space of time Martin was able to model the behavior of peptides and other compounds with a fair degree of precision. In their paper on this new technique, published in Biochemical Journal in November 1941, Martin and Synge suggested that a carrier gas could be used instead of a liquid for the mobile phase: gas-liquid chromatography was developed by Martin a decade later. They also proposed the use of fine particles and high pressures to improve the separation: the main features of high-pressure liquid chromatography, which was introduced in the mid-1970s. It must not be forgotten that this breakthrough took place during World War II. At the same time as they were inventing solid-liquid partition chromatography, Martin and Synge were also developing cloth that provided protection against mustard gas.
Column-based partition chromatography was a great improvement over Tswett’s adsorption chromatography and countercurrent extraction, but it still had limitations. In particular, Martin and Synge soon discovered it did not work well with certain amino acids. Just as Martin had taken the older adsorption chromatography and adapted it, they now turned to paper chromatography, which had been originally described by Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge in 1850. Filter paper adsorbed water, was cheap, and readily available (an important consideration in wartime). Martin and Synge found that paper-based partition chromatography was eminently suitable for amino acids and required only tiny amounts of material, a crucial concern in biochemical research. Their new collaborator, A. Hugh Gordon, suggested using ninhydrin as an indicator to detect the spots of purified amino acids formed in the process.
Synge moved to the Lister Institute for Preventive Medicine in Chelsea, London, in 1943, and his place was taken by Gordon and Raphael Consden. Martin and his colleagues went on to develop two-dimensional paper chromatography, which uses one solvent (or mixture of solvents) in one direction, after which the paper is turned through ninety degrees and a new solvent is employed. The first public demonstration of paper chromatography took place at a meeting of the Biochemical Society held at the Middlesex Hospital, London, on 25 March 1944.
Development of Gas Chromatography . After an unhappy spell as head of the biochemistry division of Boots Pure Drug Company in Nottingham in 1946–1948, Martin joined the staff of the Medical Research Council (MRC), initially at the Lister Institute in London. In 1950 he joined the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), the flagship institute of the MRC, when it moved from Hampstead to Mill Hill on the northern outskirts of London. Martin needed the right partner to work with and an understanding boss. At Mill Hill, he was fortunate on both counts. He formed a working partnership with Tony James and reported to the director, Sir Charles Harington, who considered originality and intelligence to be more important than keeping the rules and having management skills. Mill Hill in this period also produced another great scientific maverick, James Lovelock. This was fortunate, as Martin rarely wore a tie and turned up for work in the summer in shorts and sandals.
Having developed partition chromatography and paper chromatography, Martin had become interested in crystallization in a column (later known as zone refining) but could not achieve worthwhile results. He was rescued from this dead end by a request from his NIMR colleague George Popják for a simple method of separating small amounts of mixed fatty acids, which arose from his investigation of the biosynthesis of milk fatty acids in a lactating goat. To help Popják (and to give Lovelock something more worthwhile to do), Martin returned to a concept he had explored with Synge almost a decade earlier but not pursued, namely gas-liquid chromatography. In essence, as previously, this was the addition of a liquid interface to an existing technique—gas-solid absorption chromatography—which had been developed earlier. The mobile phase was now a gas (usually nitrogen) and the stationary phase was Celite, coated with a suitable liquid and placed in glass tubes. The column was heated by a jacket containing boiling ethylene glycol (this well-known antifreeze has a boiling point of 180° C).
The problem with gas chromatography was finding a suitable method of detecting the separated components as they left the so-called column (which soon became a coil). Acidic and basic compounds were popular in the early work as they could be measured by standard titration. Martin and James used their first gas-liquid chromatography set-up to separate a mixture of amines and then used this information to identify the odoriferous principle of stinking goose-foot (Chenopodium vulvarium). They demonstrated the new technique at the meeting of the Biochemical Society held at the NIMR on 20 October 1950. By the time they repeated their demonstration at the Dyson Perrins Laboratory in Oxford, during the meeting of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry in September 1952, they had extended the scope of gas chromatography to mixtures of fatty acids (in the form of their methyl esters) and hydrocarbons.
Whereas the impact of partition chromatography had been relatively slow, partly because of the war and Martin’s modest status at the WIRA—Martin did not become a Fellow of the Royal Society until 1950—gas-liquid chromatography attracted attention almost immediately. Despite its greater complexity, this new technique spread like wildfire in 1952 and 1953. This was partly a result of Martin’s higher profile as a Nobel Laureate—he won the Nobel Prize for chemistry with Richard Synge in 1952 for partition chromatography—and partly the result of a pent-up demand in academia and industry for a technique that would separate tiny amounts of relatively volatile compounds quickly and cleanly. This was particularly true in the rapidly developing petrochemical industry and gas chromatography was taken up enthusiastically by companies such as Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (which became British Petroleum—later BP—in 1954), Shell, and Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). Martin himself concentrated on the development of detection methods for gas chromatography and developed the gas density balance for this purpose in September 1953. The gas density balance was typical of Martin’s innovations. It was an elegant masterpiece of intricate engineering, but it was far too complicated for most chemists to construct or use, and it was rapidly superseded by other detectors.
Later Career . Martin’s career after 1954 was uneventful by any standard and could even be described as unsuccessful. It is worth asking why this was the case. Having spent nearly two decades developing new methods of separating compounds, Martin had achieved all his goals. His later
projects, mainly of a biochemical nature, were rather unfocused and soon petered out. Martin had succeeded when he was working with other gifted scientists with strong personalities who ensured that the research stayed on track and disabused Martin of his more eccentric ideas while at the same time developing the good ones. A good example of the eccentricity of some of his ideas was his proposal for a tornado-making machine at a cocktail party in Houston in the 1970s.
After he left the NIMR in 1956, Martin worked largely on his own and the practical mechanic side of his personality became dominant. He spent much of his time tinkering with machinery rather than concentrating on serious scientific research. In the late 1950s and 1960s, following the discovery of the double helix, biochemistry was rapidly becoming molecular biology. Lacking close contact with other leading biochemists, Martin failed to appreciate the major changes in his field. His biochemical research with its aim of isolating biologically active factors harked back to Cambridge in the 1930s. Martin did not have the managerial or organizational skills to become a senior manager in a major organization, a successful businessman, or a head of an Oxbridge college. He was neither a good team player nor an inspiring leader. Martin had shot both of his bolts and had nothing more to offer.
Leading scientists, even Nobel Laureates, often become marginalized in their later careers by working as freelance consultants, or they exist on the edge of academia by holding honorary or visiting research fellowships. Martin’s later career encompassed both options and neither option turned out well. Martin left the NIMR in part because he was angry that the British government had sold his patent for the gas density balance to an American firm. But there was really nothing left for Martin to do at Mill Hill. He was not very successful as head of the physical chemistry division—a post to which he had been appointed in 1952—and he was clearly not suitable for consideration as a possible successor to Sir Charles Harington as director. With the aim of becoming a consultant for Griffith & George (he was even listed as director of research of Griffith & George in the Royal Society yearbook for 1960) and other companies interested in his work on gas chromatography, Martin used his Nobel Prize money in 1957 to buy Abbotsbury, a large house in Elstree near Mill Hill, riddled with dry rot and standing in a large overgrown plot. At Abbotsbury Laboratories, as it was rather grandiosely named, Martin acted as a consultant, made gas density balances, and carried out biochemical research. Between 1969 and 1974, he also held a visiting professorship as a bijzonder hoogleraar leer der analogiën (special professor in the science of analogies) at the Technical University of Eindhoven. This post also gave him the opportunity to act as a consultant to Phillips Electronics during his visits to the Netherlands.
Matters appeared to take a turn for the better when David Long arranged for Martin to become a consultant for the Wellcome Foundation at its research laboratories in Beckenham, Kent, with the expectation that he would tell the firm which research topics were likely to be useful and thus worth exploring further. This was probably not a good idea, as Martin was much better at generating ideas than at judging which were sound. When Long left Wellcome in 1973, he arranged for Martin to be given funding by the Medical Research Council to set up a research group at the University of Sussex, where John Corn-forth—his former colleague at the NIMR—was now based with other leading chemists, including Joseph Chatt, Alan Johnson, and Harry Kroto.
Martin’s later research can be divided into three areas: isolation of biologically active compounds, work in broader areas, and mechanical developments. At Abbotsbury, he concentrated on the isolation of anti-inflammatory factor from milk, liver, and eggs. At the Wellcome and the University of Sussex in the 1970s he attempted the isolation of insulin from pig gut. In the 1960s, Martin conceived the idea of “microengineering” and in particular the concept of a micromanipulator that could replace the hand in delicate scientific work. Subsequently, these ideas were validated by the introduction of nanotechnology, on one hand, and the development of microsurgery, on the other. If Martin had been working closely with other scientists, this line of research might have been fruitful; working on his own, he was unsuccessful. While he was at Sussex, Martin was interested in the biological mechanism of smell. On the mechanical side, Martin worked with Frans Everaats of TU Eindhoven on improvement of electrophoresis, a separation technique Martin had wished he had taken up earlier in the 1940s when it was still being developed. At the Wellcome Foundation, Martin used his mechanical expertise to develop a vacuum pump for freeze-drying and a handheld high-pressure pump for the needle-free administration of vaccines.
At this point, Martin’s career began to unravel completely. Annoyed about the miners’ strike in 1973–1974 and the return of the Labour Party to power, in 1974 Martin suddenly took up a Robert A. Welch Professorship at the University of Houston, Texas, without formally giving up his position at Sussex. The faculty at Houston looked forward to working with Martin and they gave him unlimited funds to purchase equipment. As there was no statutory retirement age for the well-paid Welch Professors, he looked set to fulfill his wish to continue with research until he was in his eighties. However, when he arrived in Houston, his fellow faculty members found Martin profoundly unsettling. American chemists viewed a research professorship as an opportunity to pursue an energetic research program. Martin saw it as an opportunity to spend his time in a leisurely manner, wander around, tinker with the machinery in the basement, and think. He tried to extract a protein from potato skins and his laboratory was soon full of rotting potato skins.
If this was not bad enough from the faculty’s point of view, Martin kept getting into trouble with the university authorities in various ways. For instance, he created a storm in the student body over his views about race and intelligence. He believed that less intelligent people should be paid not to have children whereas very intelligent people (such as himself) had a duty to procreate. He also had controversial views about the punishment of criminals, arguing that they should be given the option of radiation treatment that would artificially age them instead of a prison sentence. At a time when the Unification Church was actively seeking links with influential academics, it cut its ties with Martin because of his contentious views. The faculty’s patience finally snapped and his professorship was terminated in 1979, a unique event in the annals of the Welch Professorships.
Around this time, Martin started to suffer from severe forgetfulness, which was eventually diagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease in 1985. He would leave his car engine running, forget to turn off taps, and fail to turn up to give lectures. On the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday he had the prepared text of a speech with him, but he was unable to read it. Nonetheless, the leading chromatographer Ervin Kováts was able to obtain a position for him at the University of Lausanne and hoped that Martin could collaborate with pharmaceutical firms on his anti-inflammatory factor, but nothing came of this, probably because of Martin’s worsening mental condition. When Martin retired in 1984, he moved with his wife—Judith (née Bagenal) whom he had married in 1943—to Cambridge. His mental condition deteriorated, and although he took part in the trials of donepezil (Aricept), he was moved to a nursing home in 1996. At the time of his death, Martin was living in a nursing home in Llangarron, Herefordshire, near his daughter’s home.
WORKS BY MARTIN
With Richard L. M. Synge. “Separation of the Higher Monoamino-Acids by Counter-Current Liquid-Liquid Extraction: The Amino-Acid Composition of Wool.” Biochemical Journal 35 (1941): 91–121.
With Raphael Consden and A. Hugh Gordon. “Qualitative Analysis of Proteins: A Partition Chromatographic Method Using Paper.” Biochemical Journal 38 (1944): 224–232.
With Anthony T. James. “Gas-liquid Partition Chromatography: The Separation and Micro-Estimation of Volatile Fatty Acids from Formic Acid to Dodecanoic Acid.” Biochemical Journal 50 (1952): 679–690.
“The Development of Partition Chromatography.” Nobel Lecture, 12 December 1952. Available from nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1952/martin-lecture.pdf.
On the Uses of Analogy. Eindhoven, Netherlands: Technische Hogeschool Eindhoven, 1964. Available from http://alexandria.tue.nl/extra2/redes/martin1964.pdf.
Lovelock, James. “Obituary: Archer John Porter Martin.” Memoirs of the Fellows of the Royal Society 50 (2004): 157–170.
Morris, Peter J. T. “Martin, Archer John Porter, 1910–2002.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition, January 2006. Available from http://www.oxforddnb.com/index/101077176.
Porter, Ruth, ed. Gas Chromatography in Biology and Medicine. London: Churchill, 1969. Martin’s CIBA Foundation lecture. Although it appears to be autobiographical, it was written by someone else using notes made during the lecture.
Stahl, G. Allan. “Interview with Archer J. P. Martin.” Journal of Chemical Education 54 (February 1977): 80–83.
Peter J. T. Morris
Martin, Archer John Porter
Martin, Archer John Porter
Very few chemical reactions produce clean, pure products with no trace of starting materials or impurities. Most generate a mixture whose individual components must be purified before the results can be identified. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, purification of a chemical reaction product often required repetitive crystallizations, distillation, or solvent extraction.
Archer John Porter Martin grew up in London, England, and from an early age demonstrated an aptitude for chemistry. As a child, he designed and built an apparatus for distillation from old coffee tins packed with charcoal, some as tall as five feet. He entered Cambridge University with the intention of pursuing a degree in chemical engineering. However, he was influenced by J. B. S. Haldane to specialize in biochemistry. At Cambridge his childhood experience with fractional distillation became valuable.
Martin continued with his explorations of multiphase separation technology and went to work as a research chemist for the Wool Industries Research Association in Leeds. It was there that he met Richard Lawrence Millington Synge and began to collaborate with Synge on the problem of separating acetylamino acids. Eventually, Martin and Synge came up with the idea that, instead of using a counterflow extraction process with solvents moving against one another, they could partition one phase (hold one phase stationary using an appropriate support). The result was the invention of liquid-liquid partition chromatography , first reported in the Biochemistry Journal in 1941.
In their landmark paper, Martin and Synge also indicated that partition chromatography that used a carrier gas as the mobile phase was possible. In his Nobel lecture of 1952, Martin casually revealed that he, in collaboration with A. T. James, had devised a mechanism for gas-liquid chromatography. The use of a gas as the mobile phase did place limits on the types of material that could be analyzed, as the compounds had to be volatile and better detectors were needed, but these difficulties proved to be surmountable. Today, gas-liquid chromatography is probably the single most widely used analytical tool in chemistry.
see also Analytical Chemistry; Synge, Richard Laurence Millington.
Todd W. Whitcombe
Martin, Archer J. P., and Synge, Richard L. M. (1941). Biochemistry Journal 35: 1358–1366. American Chemical Society and the Chemical Heritage Foundation.
Shetty, Prabhakara H. (1993). "Archer John Porter Martin." In Nobel Laureates in Chemistry 1901–1992, ed. Laylin K. James. Washington, DC: American Chemical Society and the Chemical Heritage Foundation.
Nobel e-Museum. "Archer John Porter Martin—Biography." Available from <http://www.nobel.se>.
Dilettanti, Society of
Chilvers, Osborne, & Farr (eds.) (1988);
Society of Dilettanti (1814)