Heilbron, Ian Morris

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(b. Glasgow, Scotland, 6 November 1886; d. London, England, 14 September 1959)

organic chemistry.

Theyounger son of David Heilbron, a wine merchant, and Fanny Jessel was named Isidor but altered the name to Ian during his youth. During his studies at Glasgow High School he developed a fascination for chemistry that met resistance from his father, who expected his son to follow him into the family business. Heilbron persisted and was permitted to enroll in the Royal Technical College of Glasgow (now Strathclyde University), where the influence of George Gerald Henderson fortified his resolve to become a chemist. With the aid of a Carnegie fellowship he did research with Arthur Rudolf Hantzsch at Leipzig, taking his Ph.D. in 1909. Heilbron was married in 1924 to Elda Marguerite Davis of Liverpool; they had two sons. His wife’s death in 1954 was a serious blow from which he never fully recovered.

After completing his formal education at Leipzig, Heilbron returned to Glasgow as a lecturer at the Royal Technical College, where, after a wartime interruption, he was made professor of organic chemistry. His reputation in research brought successive professorships at Liverpool (1920), Manchester (1933), and Imperial College of Science and Technology of London University (1938).

During World War I, Heilbron served in Salonica, Greece, as assistant director of supplies, holding the ranks of lieutenant and lieutenant colonel. He received several awards for distinguished service. When the war ended, he spent a short period with the British Dyestuffs Corporation, but his interest in the academic life soon took him back to Glasgow. However, he continued to serve the company, which became a part of Imperial Chemical Industries, Ltd., as a consultant until 1949. Heilbron’s chemical interests always showed a strong bent for industrial application. When he retired from Imperial College in 1949, he became the first director of the Brewing Industry Research Foundation. He was not a figurehead officer but actively developed the foundation as a sound agency for promotion of better scientific understanding of fermentation. He retired in 1958.

Heilbron’s organizational capacity was utilized in World War II in his capacity as a scientific adviser in the Ministry of Supply (1939–1942) and in a similar role in the Ministry of Production (1942–1945). He strongly supported the new insecticide DDT, and was a leader in developing production on a large scale for wartime use in North Africa, the Mediterranean basin, and the Far East. After the war he vigorously promoted its routine use in agriculture.

Heilbron’s most lasting contributions, however, were in organic chemical research, where he quickly became one of the leaders. He combined a keen mind, driving energy, and meticulous attention to detail with a rare capacity for organization. Theresult was an unusual success in exploring structural problems, particularly in the realm of natural products.

Heilbron was a leader in the application of physical methods in the investigation of structural problems and was effective in turning organic chemists away from the tedious structural approaches of the nineteenth century. He was among the first to use spectroscopic techniques effectively in a full range of wavelengths; he pioneered in the revival of chromatography as a separatory and diagnostic tool; and he was one of the pioneers in use of the molecular still. He quickly adopted microanalysis in his laboratory.

Heilbron pursued a broad range of organic structural problems, from early work with Henderson on terpenes and with students on semicarbazones, to studies on dyes, on photocatalysis with Edward C. C. Baly, on reactions of polyunsaturated ketones, and ultimately to studies on a variety of compounds found in nature and having biochemical significance.

When he moved to Liverpool, Heilbron worked for a time with Baly, studying the hypothesis that in photosynthesis carbon dioxide is degraded to formaldehyde in the presence of colored materials such as chlorophyll, the formaldehyde becoming a building block in the synthesis of sugars. In extending the studies to reactions involving the formation of nitrogenous compounds in plants, it was learned that traces of simple organic compounds, including formaldehyde, frequently arose from rubber tubing. Although Baly was reluctant to abandon the formaldehyde hypothesis, Heilbron was not inclined to pursue the matter.

About the time that Thomas Percy Hilditch left the oil-and-soap industry to become the first James Campbell Brown professor of industrial chemistry at Liverpool (1925), where he pursued a quarter of a century of research on the composition of fatty oils, Heilbron and Hilditch undertook a study of the unsaponifiable matter in the oils of elasmobranch fish. Heilbron immediately became interested in the structure of squalene (from shark-liver oil). He was not only able to establish the formula as C30H56 and to propose the probable structure as an isoprene polymer, but also to demonstrate that it showed a structural relation to the sterols; he suggested a biosynthetic pathway from squalene to the steroid nucleus. His speculation was later substantiated by studies of Konrad Bloch and David Rittenberg at Columbia, who used isotopic tracers.

Heilbron’s subsequent research dealt almost entirely with problems related to natural materials of biological significance and compounds produced in their degradation. While always focusing on the main problem, he and his research students and associates uncovered a body of new chemistry related to the degradation products.

Heilbron’s studies on squalene led quite naturally to studies of other compounds in unsaponifiable matter. An interest in the sterols converted to vitamin D by irradiation resulted in extensive work on cholesterol and to the characterization of ergosterol. The squalene work continued into work on substituted naphthalenes and was a factor in working toward the structure of vitamin A.A final proof of structure by Heilbron and his associates was anticipated by Paul Karrer and his collaborators.

The work in Heilbron’s laboratory on both sterols and carotenoids led to characterization of a number of naturally occurring compounds in seaweeds. The degradation of such molecules led to studies on biphenyls and pyridylquinolenes, and the development of substances with antispasmodic properties.

During World War II, Heilbron continued a vigorous research program in London, concurrent with his governmental commitments. He began to explore the chemistry of penicillin at a time when concentration of the material was laborious and difficult. The structural studies in his laboratory were important in establishing the synthesis of penicillin F and G, and in elucidation of the chemistry o fheterocyclic five-membered rings containing nitrogen and sulfur.


I. Original Works. A bibliography of Heilbron’s nearly 300 scientific papers is in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 6 (1960), 75–85. They include “The Chemical Society: A Mid-century Review,” in Journal of the Chemical Society (January-June 1950), 1641–1653; “Carotenoids and Vitamin A: The End of a Chapter,” in Endeavour, 10 (1958), 175–182, with A. H. Cook; “Expanding Horizons in Organic Chemistry,” in Journal of the Royal Society of the Arts, 106 (1958), 861–871; and “Reflections on Science in Relation to Brewing,” in Journal of the Institute of Brewing, 65 (1959), 144–154.

II. Secondary Literature, A.H.Cook, “lan Morris Heilbron (1886–1959),” in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 6 (1960), 65–85, deals primarily with his chemical contributions; Cook’s sketch in Dictionary of National Biography, 1951–1960, 469–470, summarizes his career and lists his many honors. Also see an obituary by R. Robinson in Nature, 184 (1959), 767–768.

Aaron J. Ihde