Hilditch, Thomas Percy

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Hilditch, Thomas Percy

(b. London, England, 22 April 1886; d. Birkenhead, England, 9 August 1965)


Hilditch was mainly responsible for the advances in knowledge of the chemical constitution of natural fats and oils from 1925 to 1950. He received the D.Sc. from the University of London in 1911 and became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1942 and commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1952.

Both an industrial and an academic chemist, Hilditch followed the advice of his teacher Sir William Ramsay and accepted the post of research chemist for Joseph Crosfield’s and Sons, soap and chemical manufacturers. He remained with Crosfield’s for nearly fifteen years (1911–1925), during which time he was concerned with the catalytic hydrogenation of fats and the constitution of the less common components of commercial fats. In 1925 Hilditch was appointed the first James Campbell Brown professor of industrial chemistry at the University of Liverpool, a post he held until his retirement in 1951. His work during this quarter century constitutes Hilditch’s major contribution to science. He and his students at Liverpool played a major role in transforming knowledge about the constitution of natural fats. With the help of nearly eighty students from all over the world Hilditch published more than 300 papers, dealing mainly with the component acids and glycerides of natural fats and with the experimental methods for studying these substances.

In 1925 the chemistry of fats was a neglected field. Although the chemical structure of fats had been elucidated by Chevreul in the 1820’s, no other great figure appeared in this field of research until Hilditch. There was no systematic account of fats in 1925: little quantitative information was available on the component fatty acids of natural fats and none on the component glycerides. Furthermore, techniques for obtaining the fatty acids were inadequate and were nonexistent for the glycerides. By 1951 Hilditch and his students had obtained this information experimentally for a wide range of fats and oils, and their efforts stimulated others to work in this field.

Throughout this long period of work Hilditch tried to discern the underlying patterns running through animal and vegetable fats. He believed that there was a relationship between the distribution patterns of the component fatty acids and glycerides and the order of the evolutionary development of the parent organisms from which the fats were obtained. This relationship was the basis of his most important book, The Chemical Constitution of Natural Fats (1940), which reflected in its four editions the advances in fat chemistry made by Hilditch and his school.

Hilditch retired before both chromatographic methods and controlled enzymatic hydrolysis of fats came into general use, but he realized what might be accomplished with these methods. He had the satisfaction of knowing that his students and many other chemists were continuing his pioneering work.


I. Original Works. A bibliography of Hilditch’s books and papers by R. A. Morton is in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 12 (1966), 259–289. His most important book is The Chemical Constitution of Natural Fats (London, 1940; 4th ed. [with P. N. Williams], 1964). His other major works are A Concise History of Chemistry (London, 1911; 2nd ed., 1922); The Industrial Chemistry of the Fats and Waxes (London, 1927; 3rd ed., 1949); and Catalytic Processes in Applied Chemistry (London, 1929; 2nd ed., 1937).

II. Secondary Literature. For a detailed account of Hilditch’s life and career, see R. A. Morton’s article mentioned above. Brief notices include F. D. Gunstone, “T. P. Hilditch, C.B.E., D.Sc., F.R.I.C.,” in Journal of the American Oil Chemists Society, 42 (1965), 474A, 530A; P. N. Williams, “Prof. T.P. Hilditch, C.B.E., F.R.S.,” in Nature, 208 (1965), 730–731; and W. D. Raymond, “Professor T.P. Hilditch, C.B.E., F.R.S. (1886–1965),” in Chemistry and Industry, 85 (1966), 251.

Albert B. Costa

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