Frederick Gowland Hopkins

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Frederick Gowland Hopkins


English Biochemist

Frederick Gowland Hopkins won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1929 for his research on the chemistry of nutrition. Hopkins proved that, even if a diet was adequate in terms of total calories and protein content, small quantities of specific "accessory factors" were essential to health. The chemical studies of these dietary factors carried out by Hopkins and his co-workers stimulated the isolation and characterization of vitamins.

Hopkins was born in Eastbourne, England. His father, a bookseller in London, died when Hopkins was only an infant. His mother, Elizabeth Gowland Hopkins, gave him a microscope with which he studied marine life. As a child, however, Hopkins seemed more interested in poetry and literature than science. When Hopkins was 10 years old, he was sent to the City of London School, where his interest in science was stimulated and he received honors in chemistry. Bored by his coursework, however, he left school when he was seventeen. Shortly after leaving school, he published his first scientific paper, an article on the bombardier beetle in The Entomologist.

After working as an insurance clerk for six months, Hopkins became an assistant to a chemist in a commercial analytic laboratory. A small inheritance allowed Hopkins to take a chemistry course at the Royal School of Mines in London. The lectures on chemistry given by Edward Franklin led him to join a private laboratory run by Franklin's son. Finding the work routine and boring, however, Hopkins enrolled in course-work at University College London in order to prepare for the associateship examination of the Institute of Chemistry. His outstanding performance on the examination led to a position with Sir Thomas Stevenson at Guy's Hospital. Stevenson was a distinguished expert on poisoning and a forensic specialist for the Home Office. While working for Stevenson and participating in several important legal cases, Hopkins was able to study for his B.Sc. degree. In 1888 he became a medical student at Guy's Hospital Medical School, where he was awarded the Sir William Gull Studentship, earning his degree in 1894. In 1898 Hopkins married Jessie Anne Stevens, with whom he had two daughters. In 1891 he published in Guy's Hospital Reports a paper on an assay method for uric acid in urine. He also published work on the pigments in butterfly wings.

From 1894-1898 he taught physiology and toxicology at Guy's Hospital, conducted research on blood proteins, and helped organize the Clinical Research Association. In 1898 Sir Michael Foster invited him to move to Cambridge to establish a lectureship in chemical physiology. Because the stipend connected to the lectureship was inadequate, Hopkins had to supplement his income by supervising undergraduates, giving tutorials, and conducting part-time work for the Home Office. In 1902 he was appointed to a readership in biochemistry; in 1910 he became a Trinity College fellow and an honorary fellow of Emmanuel College. In 1914 he became the chair of the biochemistry department at Cambridge University. In 1925 he moved his laboratory into the new Sir William Dunn Institute of Biochemistry.

Among the many areas that interested Hopkins was the puzzle of nutritional-deficiency diseases, such as scurvy or rickets. At first, he assumed that dietary proteins would provide the key to understanding nutrition. This approach led to investigations on uric acid output, the purification of proteins, and the isolation and characterization of the amino acid tryptophane. Hopkins and his associates developed synthetic diets for experimental animals and discovered that a diet that consisted of purified proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and salts was inadequate. Hopkins concluded that small quantities of "accessory food factors" were essential for growth and health. When he first described the work in 1906, other scientists were skeptical, but Hopkins continued to gather evidence. His experiments, published in 1912, are considered classics in the history of nutrition. Inspired by his ideas, other researchers subsequently identified the fat-soluble vitamins A and D and the water-soluble vitamin B. Hopkins also conducted research on the metabolic changes occurring in muscular contractions and rigor mortis, developed analytical tests for lactic acid, isolated glutathione, and discovered the enzyme xanthine oxidase.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, Hopkins received many other honors, including knighthood, the Order of Merit, the Royal Medal of the Royal Society of London, and the Copley Medal. From 1930 until 1935 he was president of the Royal Society.


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