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Robinson, Sir Robert

organic chemistry natural electronic

(1886–1975) British organic chemist: master of organic synthesis and pioneer of the electronic theory of organic chemistry.

His family had a prosperous business making surgical goods, but young Robinson hoped to become a mathematician. However, his father wished to construct a bleach works (on the information supplied by Chambers Cyclopaedia ) and so pressed him to study chemistry. He was sent to Manchester, did well and was afterwards successively professor at Sydney, Liverpool, St Andrews, Manchester, London and Oxford. He also had links with ICI and Shell. He was highly productive; his name is on more than 700 papers (20 after his 80th birthday) and 32 patents. One area of his talent was the chemistry of natural products; he worked on natural dyes such as brazilin, on the anthocyanins (plant petal pigments) and on alkaloids (he established the structure of the complex plant alkaloids strychnine and morphine) and steroids and antibiotics. His work carried organic chemistry to its highest points of achievement in the period before complex equipment came in, from 1960. Typically he would both show the structure of a natural product and devise elegant methods for its laboratory synthesis. In some cases he devised a method which neatly imitates a natural biosynthetic route.

In Manchester, Robinson took up the ideas of his teacher Arthur Lapworth (1872–1941) on the electronic mechanism of organic reactions and, at first with him and later alone, he offered an electronic theory that helps to explain and predict the course of reactions of organic molecules. However, his interests moved on and he left others (such as ) to expand the subject. Similarly, his seminal work on the biogenesis of organic compounds in plants was largely developed by others.

Robinson had a keen intuition in chemistry, as well as a highly analytical mind displayed both in his synthetic schemes and in chess (he was a powerful player). He was also a mountaineer, a keen traveller and an alarming motorist. In personality he was forceful and abrasive, and an irascible defender of his priorities.

He was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1947 and received most of the other honours open to him, including the Order of Merit (a UK decoration awarded for particular service to the country and limited to 24 persons).

Rochas, Marcel [next] [back] Robinson, Peter - Author, Career, Sidelights, Selected writings

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