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HENRYDRYSDALE DAKIN, BIOCHEMIST (1880-1952): THE OPTION OF OBSCURITY ROBERT M. HAWTHORNE, JR.* Genius will out. Cream rises to the top. You can't keep a good man down. Right? Of course. American inspirational literature from Alger onward assures us of it. And fiction is borne out by real life, time and again. The Man of Humble Beginnings who comes to be At Ease in the Corridors of Power is as American as apple pie—maybe more so, since there are plenty of people who do not like Apples but few who despise Success. That natural gifts and hard work lead to position and influence is the idea made concrete in meritocracy. Given, then, that genius very likely will out in some way, the question arises, In what way? How is that way affected by circumstances, external and internal, in the life ofthe genius? Such circumstances, I shall argue, are crucial. They can amplify a man's talents so that he dominates his field during and after his lifetime—or they can cause him to be forgotten almost before his death. The first case is the common one and is the stuff of most biography. The second may be equally common, but it is certainly less well documented. The career of Henry Drysdale Dakin seems to me an apt illustration of the second case. Dakin was indisputably a genius in biochemical research and had his day of influence in that field. Today he might never have existed, at least in the standard forms of recognition—encyclopedias, biographical dictionaries, and the like. Even in textbooks of biochemistry , which usually recite the names historically associated with the development ofmajor ideas, Dakin does not exist. Watson and Crick, du Vigneaud, Szent-Györgyi, Krebs, even Dakin's contemporary Franz Knoop, whose work was confirmed and extended by Dakin—all are there; but of Dakin, not a word. Only in specialized historical treatments does his name appear. And yet, as I hope to demonstrate below, Dakin's work was as important as that of many of the men just listed. * Center for Environmental Sciences, Unity College, Unity, Maine 04988.© 1983 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0031-5982/83/2604-0344$01.00 Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 26, 4 ¦ Summer 1983 | 553 Why the obscurity? It is precisely the result of circumstances. Having examined the importance of Dakin's work, I shall then discuss those circumstances and show why I think they led to an undeserved lack of recognition. BriefBiography That said, let us first look at the outlines of Dakin's life, then proceed to the work and the circumstances. Dakin's family background shows little connection with science or research. He was born in London in 1880, the youngest of eight children of an iron and steel merchant who had previously owned a sugar refinery. He was schooled at Merchant Taylors' School in London, Leeds Modern Academy, and Yorkshire College (later the University ofLeeds), where he earned the B.S. in 1901 and Ph.D. in 1907. Dakin's scientific career began very early. He was apprenticed to the Leeds City Analyst while still a schoolboy and worked there for 4 years before he entered the university in 1898. The analyses included water and sewage, foods, and occasionally poisons and forensic determinations . Dakin later attributed the range ofhis chemical interests to the breadth of this training. His capacity for chemical research surfaced in his undergraduate years and never flagged for nearly a half century thereafter. At Leeds he published works on organic synthesis with his mentor, J. B. Cohen, as well as analytical procedures that were spillovers from his apprenticeship. He also acted as Cohen's laboratory instructor and lecture demonstrator. After graduation he received an 1851 Exhibition Award and worked with S. D. Hedin at the Lister Institute in London, then with Albrecht Kossel in Heidelberg. Back at the Lister in 1903, he had more than 20 papers to his credit when Director CharlesJ. Martin recommended him to Christian Herter, who was looking for a chemist for his private biochemical research laboratory in New York. Dakin went to Herter's laboratory in 1905 and stayed for 11 years...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 553-567
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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