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Todd, Alexander Robertus, Lord

chemical vitamin results synthesis

(1907–97) British organic chemist: achieved synthesis of important natural products, including co-enzymes, ATP and structural units of DNA.

As a schoolboy in Glasgow, Todd did well in all subjects except art (he was teased about the inappropriateness of his initials) but his enthusiasm was chemistry, which he studied in Glasgow and later in Frankfurt. In Oxford with he worked on synthesis of the anthocyanins, which colour plant petals and fruits, and his chemical interests focused thereafter on organic natural products. Next in London at the Lister Institute he devised syntheses of tocopherol (vitamin E) and of thiamin (vitamin B1 ): the latter became the preferred commercial route. He also worked on the constituents of cannabis resin, ingenuously bringing through Customs from India some 2½ kg of it donated by the Indian police. When the results of this work were published this importation dismayed the Drugs Branch of the Home Office, who also insisted that in future 25 copies of such publications be sent to the Bureau of Drugs and Indecent Publications. In 1938 he became professor at Manchester, where he built up a team of highly effective co-workers, ‘the Toddlers’. In the Second World War he worked on war gases, which were never used in action. Most of the Toddlers joined him when he moved to Cambridge in 1944. Research there concerned the colouring matters of aphids; the relation of vitamins to the co-enzymes into which they are converted in the body; and the successful synthesis of ATP, which is the living cell’s energy carrier responsible for the conversion of nutrients into energy-using activity of any kind in plants and animals. His most important work was on the nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) where he and his team devised methods of making the units (nucleotides) from which the nucleic acids were later synthesized. This laid essential groundwork for the results of in 1953 which revealed the chemical basis of genetics and so created modern ‘molecular biology’.

He went on to attack the problem of the highly complex and unusual structure of vitamin B12 , which was solved in 1956 by linking Todd’s chemical results with crystallographic studies of the vitamin. Todd won an unshared Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1957. Thereafter, while presiding at Cambridge over Britain’s dominant university chemical laboratory, Todd was increasingly involved in advice to governments and associated public commitments. He was made a Baron in 1962, became Master of Christ’s College in 1963, President of the Royal Society in 1975 and a member of the Order of Merit in 1977. A man of strong opinions (often, but not always, found to be right) he was known to some as ‘the Lord Todd Almighty’.

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