Haworth, Walter Norman

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Haworth, Walter Norman

(b. Chorley, England, 19 March 1883; d. Birmingham, England, 19 March 1950)

organic chemistry.

The second son and fourth child of Thomas and Hannah Haworth was born into a highly respected family of businessmen, lawyers, and clergymen. His father managed a linoleum factory, and Haworth obtained his first knowledge of chemistry and business from his early training there in all aspects of linoleum design and manufacture. Despite the discouragement of his family, he decided to continue his education; and in 1903, after a strenuous period of private tutoring, he entered the University of Manchester, where he studied under William Henry Perkin, Jr. He graduated in 1906 with first-class honors in chemistry.

Although he had planned to work in the chemical industry after graduation, his plans changed when he was awarded a scholarship which enabled him to study with Otto Wallach at the University of Göttingen. He received the doctorate after one year’s work and returned to Manchester, where he continued his studies on terpenes. In 1911 he received a D.Sc. from Manchester.

Early that year he went to Imperial College of Science and Technology as senior demonstrator under Thomas Edward Thorpe. In 1912 he became lecturer at United College of the University of St. Andrews, where he became acquainted with the new developments in carbohydrate chemistry carried out at St. Andrews by Thomas Purdie and James C. Irvine. Terpene studies were set aside as he became fascinated with carbohydrates. During World War I he helped in a supervisory capacity with the government’s production of fine chemicals and drugs.

In 1920 Haworth was appointed professor of organic chemistry at the University of Durham. He married Violet Chilton Dobbie in 1922; they had two sons. In 1925 he became Mason professor of chemistry at the University of Birmingham, succeeding Gilbert Morgan. Many of his postgraduate workers followed him from Durham, forming a nucleus of a new school of carbohydrate chemistry.

Although he suffered a breakdown of health shortly before World War II, Haworth recovered sufficiently to take an active role in the chemical part of the atomic energy project. After the war he continued his work on carbohydrates even after his retirement in 1948. His sudden death in 1950 from a heart attack followed a strenuous tour of Australia and New Zealand.

Haworth received many awards and honorary degrees during his long career. Most notable was the Nobel Prize in chemistry, which he shared with Paul Karrer in 1937, for his work on carbohydrates and for his synthesis (with E. L. Hirst in 1933) of vitamin C. He was the first British organic chemist to receive the prize.

Haworth’s scientific contributions can best be divided into four main categories. His earliest studies, first published in 1908 with Perkin, involve terpenes. This work was carried out at Manchester, Göttingen, Imperial College, and for a time at St. Andrews. The last paper appeared in 1914. The investigations included derivatives of menthane and sylvestrene and condensations of aldehydes and ketones.

Haworth’s first contribution on simple sugars appeared in 1915 and involved a new method of preparing the methyl ethers of sugars by use of methyl sulfate and alkali. This method proved very valuable to structural work and remained a standard procedure applicable to most sugars. Haworth next undertook structural studies of the disaccharides; the only fact known about them at the time was that two monosaccharide residues were united by loss of a molecule of water. Haworth attacked the problem by preparing the fully methylated derivatives which were then hydrolyzed by aqueous acid. Although lactose, for example, was easily characterized, sucrose was quite troublesome and required many years of patient work. Another problem solved by Haworth and his co-workers was the nature of the ring systems present in simple sugars.

In 1932 Haworth turned his attention to the problem of the structure and synthesis of vitamin C. In that year Albert Szent-Győrgyi had isolated from the adrenal cortex and from orange juice a reactive substance he named “hexuronic acid.” Its identification as vitamin C did not come until later. The Birmingham group, isolating the vitamin from ample supplies of Hungarian paprika, elucidated the structure of “ascorbic acid” (the name coined by Haworth). The synthesis, the first of any vitamin, was accomplished in 1933 with the assistance of a large team of workers.

Haworth’s final field of study was the polysaccharides. Very likely his earlier work on simple sugars served as a stepping-stone to the more complicated problems shown with the biologically significant polysaccharides. Two of his important contributions to this field were his early recognition of the significance of X-ray studies and his introduction in 1932 of the end-group method of studying the fine details of structure.


Much of Haworth’s research is discussed in his book The Constitution of Sugars (London, 1929). Other valuable historical summaries of his work are found in several of his addresses: “The Constitution of Some Carbohydrates,” in Chemische Berichte, 65A (1932), 43–65; “The Structure, Function, and Synthesis of Polysaccharides,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 186A (1946), 1–19, the Bakerian lecture; “Starch,” in Journal of the Chemical Society (1946), pp. 543–549; and “Carbohydrate Components of Biologically Active Materials,” ibid. (1947), pp. 582–589. The paper first reporting his Nobel Prize-winning synthesis is “Synthesis of Ascorbic Acid,” in Chemistry and Industry (1933), pp. 645–646, written with E. L. Hirst.

Although as a Nobel laureate Haworth is discussed in many biographical collections, clearly the most useful detailed biography is E. L. Hirst’s obituary notice, “Walter Norman Haworth,” in Journal of the Chemical Society (1951), pp. 2790–2806.

Sheldon J. Kopperl