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Peters, Sir Rudolf Albert

war biochemistry warfare chemical

(1889–1982) British biochemist: wide-ranging discoverer of metabolic paths in cellular metabolism.

Peters studied science in Cambridge and medicine in London, qualifying in 1915, and serving with distinction in France in the First World War before his recall to the UK in 1917 to join the chemical warfare defence laboratory at Porton Down. After the war he began his studies on the vitamin B complex in Oxford, and was the first to isolate thiamine (vitamin B 1 ), and he began to elucidate its function as a precursor of a metabolic enzyme (co-carboxylase). He held the Oxford professorship of biochemistry from 1923–54.

In the Second World War he again worked on chemical warfare defence. Having noted that arsenical poisons inhibit enzymes, he led the work which showed that 2,3-dimercaptopropanol condenses with the arsenical poison gas Lewisite to form a relatively harmless product. As a result of this, 2,3-dimercaptopropanol (‘British anti-Lewisite’, BAL) became available for use both in war and peace for the treatment of poisoning by arsenic and some other metals. As the value of BAL depends on the presence of mercapto (-SH) groups in BAL and in enzymes, this stimulated valuable world-wide studies on the importance of -SH groups in biochemistry generally.

During the Second World War some compounds of fluorine were a major potential chemical warfare threat, and then and afterwards Peters showed how these compounds act, by inhibiting an essential part of the metabolic cycle. Again, the work had valuable spin-off results in pure biochemistry. He was also able to show in 1969 how fluorine is incorporated, in organic form, as an important component of bone.

Retiring from Oxford in 1954, he had two further careers, firstly with the Agricultural Research Council’s Animal Physiology Unit and then from 1959 in Cambridge, where he was an active researcher until 1981. Uniquely, and through the accidents of war, he had used chemical warfare problems as a source for unwarlike and valuable contributions to biochemistry.

Peterson, Trudy Huskamp (1945–) - Archivist [next] [back] Peters, Brock (1927–2005)

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