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Sir  Robert Robinson (1886–1975), by Wolfgang Suschitzky, 1944 [Oxford scientists: Robinson (right) with (left to right) Sir Edward Abraham, Wilson Baker, and Sir Ernst Chain]Sir Robert Robinson (1886–1975), by Wolfgang Suschitzky, 1944 [Oxford scientists: Robinson (right) with (left to right) Sir Edward Abraham, Wilson Baker, and Sir Ernst Chain]
Robinson, Sir Robert (1886–1975), chemist, was born on 13 September 1886 at Rufford Farm, Barlow Road, Chesterfield, the eldest of five children of William Bradbury Robinson (1826–1911), textile manufacturer, and his second wife, Jane Davenport (1863–1950). His mother was a member of an old Cheshire family engaged in silk manufacture at Macclesfield. (There were also eight surviving children of his father's first marriage.) The Robinsons had been established in Derbyshire at least since the early eighteenth century. Typically they were nonconformists, though not all of the same persuasion: Robert's father was an ardent Congregationalist. Paradoxically—for in later life he had a strong antipathy to organized religion—this profoundly influenced Robinson's career. Local ministers, frequently in the house, impressed on his father the desirability of a university education, never previously considered. They also initiated him into the mysteries of chess, a game which gave him lifelong pleasure (he was president of the British Chess Federation from 1930 to 1933).

Education and early studies

After attending Chesterfield grammar school, Robinson was sent to Fulneck School at Pudsey Greenside, near Leeds. It was run by the Moravian church and particularly identified with the teaching of Jan Hus, compatible with the views of Congregationalists. In his last year at school Robinson had developed a taste for mathematics but his father favoured chemistry: for more than a century the textile and the chemical industries had been closely linked, and, in any event, it was expected that he would later enter the family business, dominant in Chesterfield. For a nonconformist family living in that part of England, Victoria University Manchester, successor to Owens College, was a natural choice. Robert made no strong resistance to his father's choice of subject and in 1902 he matriculated and was admitted to study chemistry.

The choice was fortunate. The department of chemistry, under Professor H. B. Dixon, was unquestionably the finest in Britain and nurtured the talents that were to make Robinson one of the greatest chemists of his generation. In 1905 he was placed first-equal in the graduation list. This was a turning point. Had he done badly he would almost certainly have gone into the family business, as expected. Instead, he was invited by Professor W. H. Perkin (1860–1929) to stay on as a postgraduate worker in his department of organic chemistry, instilling in him his lifelong interest in the chemistry of natural products, especially alkaloids and pigments. During this time he met and was much attracted to a fellow research worker, Gertrude Maud Walsh [see below]. They became engaged, though Robinson's meagre salary then made marriage impossible. Academically he did well: he took his DSc in 1910, by which time he had published some thirty research papers, many with Perkin. He was thus well set for an academic career, though there was no immediate prospect of a professorship, his natural goal. There were then few chairs in Britain, and he was still only in his mid-twenties.

Academic appointments and industrial research

Robinson then decided on a course followed by many of his contemporaries. In the middle of the nineteenth century universities were established in India and Australia; they recruited academic staff in Britain, many of whom later returned home to senior appointments. In 1912 Robinson applied for a new chair of organic chemistry in the University of Sydney. An impressive group of chemists supported his application and he was duly appointed. His salary—£900 plus £100 travel expenses—was much greater than at Manchester and he and Gertrude were able to marry before they left. Their stay in Sydney was enjoyable, but marred in August 1914 by the death of their first child, a daughter, who lived for only one day.

That year was memorable for one of the rare overseas meetings, in Sydney, of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. This gave Robinson an exceptional opportunity to meet, or resume acquaintance with, many of the leading British chemists of the day. This stood him in good stead the following year when the University of Liverpool created a new chair of organic chemistry. Robinson applied, supported among others by several of those who had met him in Sydney. Among them was N. V. Sidgwick of Oxford, who wrote: ‘I have seldom if ever met a man who produced so great an impression so soon’ (Williams, 37). He was duly appointed, though the stipend was £300 less than in Sydney.

In Australia the First World War may have seemed rather remote, but Liverpool was in the thick of it. Of necessity much of the normal departmental work had to be directed to short-term applied research relevant to the war, including the manufacture of TNT and poison gas. This was probably no great hardship for, unlike many of his academic colleagues, Robinson had a keen interest in industrial research, and established several consultancies, with useful fees.

Despite knowledge of his interest in industrial research, there was considerable surprise when, in 1919, Robinson resigned his chair to take up an appointment in Huddersfield as director of research for the British Dyestuffs Corporation, originally a wartime creation of the Board of Trade. The surprise was twofold: first, that he should abandon a promising academic career; second, that if he wanted a career in industry he should choose the corporation, which was notoriously inefficient and racked with internal disputes.

Predictably, the move itself was disappointing, though during this time he was elected (1920) to fellowship of the Royal Society and a second daughter, Marion, was born. Additionally, he learned much about dyestuffs chemistry which was to stand him in good stead in later years, as a consultant to ICI. In 1920 a government inquiry condemned the corporation as having ‘no system, no co-operation, no organisation, no efficiency’ (Williams, 49). Clearly, it was time to move on. Fortunately the chair at St Andrews now fell unexpectedly vacant—its holder J. C. Irvine, having been appointed principal. Robinson applied, and again found powerful supporters. He was duly appointed and moved to Scotland in the autumn of 1921. His new department was flourishing and had an international reputation, especially in ‘sugar chemistry’. Against this, it was scientifically remote—450 miles from the key learned societies in London.

Meanwhile, however, significant changes were in prospect at Manchester, where Dixon, a physical chemist, finally retired in 1922 as head of department. In an unexpected move Robinson's old friend there, Arthur Lapworth, was appointed to fill the position, thus leaving his own chair of organic chemistry vacant. When this was offered to Robinson he accepted with alacrity. He and Gertrude now found themselves back in the department in which they had spent their student days.

In his successive appointments Robinson had built up an impressive list of nearly 100 publications—often with visiting foreign research students—mostly on alkaloids, pigments, and other natural products. Back in Manchester he turned his attention, with Lapworth, to a more general field of chemistry—the interpretation of organic chemical reactions in terms of the electronic configurations of their constituent atoms—which had interested them in pre-war years. Even at the end of his life Robinson regarded this as ‘his most important contribution to knowledge’ (Robinson, 184). Few chemists today would agree with this: indeed, most would remember not the theory but the furious and unedifying public disputes concerning it between Robinson and C. K. Ingold, then professor of chemistry at Leeds. Ingold was the better strategist and ultimately his interpretation prevailed; Robinson was embittered until his dying day.

In 1928 Robinson again surprised his friends by abandoning Manchester to accept the chair of organic chemistry at University College, London (UCL). It seemed at best a sideways move, though it certainly brought him close to the scientific societies which meant so much to him. Another possible reason is purely personal. In 1926 the Robinsons had a son Michael (d. 1988), who was born with Down's syndrome: realization of this lifelong problem must surely have had an unsettling effect. Whatever the reasons, his stay at UCL was short. In September 1929 Perkin, Waynflete professor of chemistry at Oxford since 1912, unexpectedly died and Robinson succeeded him in the following year.

Oxford years

Robinson's inheritance at Oxford was rich. The well-equipped Dyson Perrins Laboratory had been completed in 1916. The resident staff included four old Mancunian friends and he brought a number of his own research workers from London including, as usual, many from overseas. Ex officio he was a fellow of Magdalen College, where he could entertain friends and colleagues, and he acquired a spacious family house near the laboratory. Against this, he had to adjust himself to the wholly unfamiliar university and college system, which meant among other things that he had no authority over university demonstrators in his own laboratory. Soon after arriving he remarked that since the only better place to be was heaven, he intended to stay in Oxford. This he did for twenty-five years, during which he published some 400 research papers, nearly half his total. While alkaloids and pigments prevailed, his interests included steroids, synthetic oestrogens, and penicillin, the latter developed next door in the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology by H. W. Florey and E. B. Chain.

Nevertheless, all was not entirely well. Increasingly Robinson cut himself off from his senior colleagues and research students, and for this various reasons have been adduced. Although he could be a lively and amusing companion he could also be withdrawn, his agile mind clearly occupied with some problem of personal interest, and to some this gave offence. In his heyday his great strength with students was his ability to give them instant answers to their problems but by the mid-1930s he was less assured yet hated to be seen at a loss.

Additionally Robinson was now of international stature, in constant demand for scientific gatherings throughout the world. At home he was a consultant to ICI, Boots, and other industrial chemical companies. In 1939, the year he was knighted, he was elected president of the Chemical Society for what should have been a memorable term as it included its centenary in 1941. The war made this a muted occasion and the formal celebration was postponed until 1947. Robinson then attended in a different capacity, for he served as president of the Royal Society in 1945–50. He had previously received the society's Davy (1930), royal (1932), and Copley (1942) medals. During his term of office he gained the ultimate accolade, a Nobel prize, in 1947. He was admitted to the Order of Merit in 1949. He also served as president of the Society of Chemical Industry (1958–9).

Post-Oxford work and second marriage

Robinson ought to have retired in 1951, when he was sixty-five, but he persuaded the university to extend his appointment to 1955. The welcome respite was marred by the death of his wife in 1954. The following year was a bleak one for Robinson: Gertrude had died, his daughter Marion was a medical missionary in Africa, and his professorship had ended. Fortunately, he had plenty to do: he moved from Oxford to an attractive house in Great Missenden; he was busy as president of the British Association for its annual meeting, in Bristol; and he had transferred his industrial allegiance to Shell. He became a director of Shell Chemicals and, from 1967, of Shell Research Ltd, and until 1973 Shell provided him with a laboratory at Egham and an office in London. During this time he published 100 more papers. All this, and his extensive academic contacts, gave him plenty of opportunity for the international travel he so much enjoyed. In 1956, on a voyage from America in the Queen Mary, he met Stearn Sylvia Hillstrom (née Hershey), a divorced American advertising executive of Hungarian descent, twenty-five years his junior; they were married on 15 July 1957. Another unexpected alliance was with Robert Maxwell, the publisher, with whose Pergamon Press he was associated in several ventures, notably the very successful journals Tetrahedron (1957) and Tetrahedron Letters (1959).

It was not until the end of Robinson's active career, in the 1960s, that instrumental methods of analysis came to replace classical methods of structure determination. Until then, all of Robinson's work was based upon degradations of natural products into smaller identifiable, albeit still complex, molecules whose structures, if unknown, also had to be determined before the original molecules could be patiently reassembled (synthesized) through a series of controlled reactions, and their structures declared known. Robinson's comprehensive knowledge of these degradation pathways and of the chemical literature impressed everyone and was to stand him in good stead in his investigations of the structures of natural alkaloids (such as brucine and strychnine), plant pigments (particularly brazilin, the colouring matter of brazilwood, which he pursued throughout his life), and aromatic steroids, as well as his abortive study of penicillin.

Robinson's last years were clouded by failing sight—he ultimately became almost totally blind. Despite this he embarked, by dictation, on a programme of books. The most interesting of these was his autobiography, of which only the first volume was published, posthumously, as Memoirs of a Minor Prophet (1976). Sadly, he had left it too late: the book is rambling and full of errors and inconsistencies and did him no favours. He died in London on 8 February 1975.

Gertrude Maud Robinson

Robinson's wife and fellow chemist Gertrude Maud Robinson [née Walsh], Lady Robinson (1886–1954) was born at Over, Cheshire, on 6 February 1886, the youngest daughter of Thomas Makinson Walsh, a coal merchant's representative, and his wife, Mary Emily (née Crosbie). She was educated at Verdin School in Cheshire. Like Robinson she had graduated (1907) in chemistry at Manchester and had returned there to work as research assistant to the chemist Chaim Weizmann, an ardent Zionist destined to become the first president of Israel. Throughout their lives the Weizmanns and the Robinsons were close friends. Gertrude gained her MSc in 1908; she and Robinson were married in Over, on 7 August 1912. She was not only a devoted wife—sharing his enthusiasm for climbing and music—but, at least until 1939, an active collaborator in his research. In 1953, a year before her death, Oxford conferred on her an honorary MA degree. She published over thirty papers, mainly on the synthesis of fatty acids and on the composition of flower pigments. Together with Ida Smedley Maclean, she was active in the affairs of the University Women's Federation. She died in Oxford on 1 March 1954, of a heart attack.

Trevor I. Williams

Sources  

T. I. Williams, Robert Robinson: chemist extraordinary (1990) · Lord Todd and J. W. Cornforth, ‘Robert Robinson, 13 September 1886 – 8 February 1975’, Memoirs FRS, 22 (1976), 415–527 · R. Robinson, Memoirs of a minor prophet: 70 years of organic chemistry (1976) · ‘Robert Robinson centenary symposium’, Natural Product Reports, 4/1 (1987) · G. N. Burkhardt, ‘The school of chemistry in the University of Manchester’, Journal of the Royal Institute of Chemistry, 78 (1954), 448–60 · J. C. Smith, The development of organic chemistry at Oxford [n.d., c.1969] · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004) · J. Simonsen, JCS (1954), 2267–8 [Gertrude Maud Robinson] · W. Baker, Nature, 173 (1954), 566–7 [Gertrude Maud Robinson]

Archives  

priv. coll. · RS, corresp. and papers |  Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Dorothy Hodgkin; corresp. with Sir Rudolph Peters · CUL, corresp. with A. V. Hill · Derbys. RO, letters to W. B. Robinson, family papers · Nuffield Oxf., corresp. with Lord Cherwell · Wellcome L., corresp. with Sir Ernst Chain


Likenesses  

W. Stoneman, photograph, 1933, NPG · W. Suschitzky, photograph, 1944, NPG [see illus.] · A. K. Lawrence, oils, c.1950, RS; related portrait, NPG · J. Grant, drawing, 1956, Magd. Oxf. · W. Bird, photograph, 1963, NPG · W. Bird, photograph, repro. in Todd and Cornforth, Memoirs FRS

Wealth at death  

£50,382: probate, 6 May 1975, CGPLA Eng. & Wales