Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins

A plaque commemorating the life and work of the eminent biochemist Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins (1861 to 1947) will be unveiled at his former Cambridge home on Friday.

The plaque will be displayed on the exterior of 71 Grange Road, Cambridge, where Hopkins lived with his family for many years. It has been designed and made by the present owner of the house, Mark Bury FRSA, a distinguished engraver, designer and lettercutter. Hopkins’ grandson, Nicolas Hawkes, and one of his great grand-daughters will be present at the ceremony to unveil the plaque.

Hopkins is best remembered for his discovery with Christiaan Eijkman of vitamins, for which they were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1929. The discovery of vitamins was a significant step towards greater public understanding about the importance of balanced nutrition and helped virtually eradicate diseases such as rickets.

Born in Eastbourne, Sussex, Hopkins published his first scientific paper, on the Bombardier Beetle, in The Entomologist at the age of 17. Hopkins studied at the University of London and Guy’s Medical School and was invited to Cambridge University in 1898, when he joined the Physiological Laboratory under the guidance of Sir Michael Foster. Here he began to investigate the chemical aspects of physiology.

When Hopkins arrived in Cambridge biochemistry was not recognised as a separate branch of science. His work rapidly began to change all that. In 1902 he was given a readership in biochemistry and then in 1914 he was elected to the newly established Chair of Biochemistry resulting in the founding of the Department of Biochemistry at Cambridge.

His Cambridge students included Joseph Needham who contributed much to the development of comparative biochemistry and embryology before becoming absorbed by the history of Chinese science and civilisation.

Hopkins was a staunch supporter of women in education and research, and employed many female scientists in his laboratories. This was highly unusual at the time. Among his most famous female researchers are Marjory Stephenson, Dorothy Needham and Muriel Wheldale. Hopkins’ biographer, Dr Alison Thomas from Anglia Ruskin University, commented: “At a time when there was virtually no women researchers in any Cambridge department, Hopkins gave them opportunities, despite the hostile criticism this often brought him.”

Hopkins also made an important contribution in the rescuing of scientists from Nazi Germany during the inter war period. Most notably he brought Hans Krebs to Cambridge in 1933 who subsequently went on to discover the citric acid cycle.

Hopkins’ discovery of vitamins, first described as “accessory food factors”, was the outcome of his experiments with animal feeding which showed that diets consisting exclusively of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and water failed to support growth.

During the First World War Hopkins’ research made a valuable contribution to the understanding of what constituted a balanced diet at a time of shortages and rationing. When he found that, unlike butter, margarine lacked vitamins A and D, vitamin-enriched margarine was introduced.

Hopkins’ work was not confined to vitamins. In 1901 he discovered the amino acid tryptophan. He is also credited with the discovery of glutathione in 1921, after some debate concluding in 1929 that it was a tripeptide of glutamic acid, cysteine and glycine. His work led to a string of prestigious awards in addition to the Nobel Prize including the Royal Medal and the Copley Medal of the Royal Society.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1905 and served as its President between 1930 and 1935. He was knighted in 1925 and appointed to the Order of Merit in 1935.

Without doubt Hopkins’ work has underpinned much of the field of biochemistry as we know it and he is rightly viewed as one of the founding fathers of biochemistry.

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