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BIOCHEMISTRY* J. H. QUASTELf I have the privilege of addressing you on British contributions to biochemistry. It is not possible to do justice to this subject in the time at my disposal. I have therefore decided to deal with some early aspects of the growth of biochemistry in Britain, to dwell on a few items with which I am personally familiar, and to give some of the highlights as I see them today. Although biochemistry was born of two parents, chemistry and biology, it was nourished almost entirely in its early days in Britain by physiology. If we turn to the classical text on physiology written by Michael Foster toward the close of the last century, we find in it a section entitled "The Chemical Basis of the Animal Body." This section , composed by Sheridan Lea, epitomizes what might be considered to be the biochemistry current in the late Victorian era. It considers the animal body to be a mixture of various representatives of three large classes of chemical substances, namely, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, but it also considers the animal body "as made up on the one hand ofactual living substances and on the other hand of numerous lifeless products of metabolic activity." "We know nothing," he states, "about the molecular composition ofthe active living substance but when we submit it to chemical analysis we always obtain from it a considerable quantity of the material spoken of as protein." Thus, current thought, at the time, envisaged the living cell as made up of something endowed with life or having the essence of life, together with a variety of lifeless products such as might be found at any time on the laboratory bench. A revolution in this line of thought. was to take place in the next 2 or 3 decades, and this was due in no small measure to the development of biochemistry in Britain. It must not be thought, however, that advances in the chemical aspects of the living organism did not occur in Britain before that period. Even the famous memoir of Lavoisier, read in 1777, "on the respiration of animals and the changes which ?Reprinted with permission from William C. Gibson, ed., British Contributions to Medical Science, London: Wellcome Institute of the History of Medicine, 1971. tProfessor of neurochemistry, Faculty of Medicine, University of British Columbia, Vancouver 8, Canada. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine · Spring 1974 | 317 take place in air on passing through the lungs" was founded, as Lavoisier himself states, on "the ingenious, delicate and novel experiments of Priestley." Prout, in 1823, made the discovery that the walls of the human stomach secrete free hydrochloric acid, an active constituent of gastric juice. Also, about this time, a Glasgow man, Andrew Ure, was the first actually to prove, from observations made on a patient, that an increased excretion ofhippuric acid follows upon the administration of benzoic acid. This was confirmed by Wöhler in Germany, and thus there arose the conclusion that a substance extraneously introduced into the body might become involved in the machinery of metabolism. This fact, so familiar to all of us, was at the time exciting, and new, and stirred the imagination of chemists and physiologists. It was the first known instance of a well-defined synthesis being effected by the animal body. Further major developments in this field, however, took place in Germany where work on physiological chemistry, as it was then called, flourished in the latter half of the last century. Such familiar names as Baumann, Schmiedeberg, Ackermann, Hofmeister, Salkowski, Kossei, Hedin, Hoppe-Seyler, and many others belong in this period, and quite a number of British biochemists received their early training in Germany. Most of the amino acids were first isolated in Germany, but the discovery of tryptophan was due to Hopkins and his student, Cole, in Cambridge in 1901. The respiratory pigments, called originally histohematins but now known as the cytochromes, were originally described by MacMunn, who published his work on myohematin in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1886. He concluded that the pigment, which shows on reduction a characteristic absorption spectrum composed of four bands which disappear on oxidation, was involved in respiratory...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 317-332
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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