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Hirst, Sir Edmund Langleylocked

(1898–1975)

Hirst, Sir Edmund Langley (1898–1975), chemist, was born on 21 July 1898 in Preston, Lancashire, the elder son (there were no daughters) of the Revd Sim Hirst (1856–1923), a Baptist minister, and his wife, Elizabeth (1869–1955), daughter of Joseph Langley, flour merchant and baker, of Liverpool. Owing to the frequent ministries of his father, Edmund Hirst had a mixed schooling. He attended kindergarten in Burnley, had lessons privately, and studied at schools in Burnley and Ipswich, and finally at Madras College, St Andrews. He gained a £40 bursary and a Carnegie scholarship to the University of St Andrews.

In 1917 Hirst was called up for military service and then seconded back to the university for the urgent study of mustard gas. In 1918 he joined the special brigade of the Royal Engineers and saw service in northern France. He returned in February 1919 to study classics, mathematics, and chemistry. Hirst gained his BSc that year with special distinction in chemistry. He was also awarded first-class honours in mathematics and natural philosophy in the MA degree. He then gained a Carnegie research scholarship and studied carbohydrate chemistry under W. N. Haworth, graduating PhD in 1921. In 1923 he secured a lectureship in chemistry at Manchester University and a year later rejoined Haworth who was then at Armstrong College at Newcastle upon Tyne. Thus began a fruitful collaboration which lasted for over twelve years.

In 1925 Hirst married Beda Winifred Phoebe, daughter of Frank Ramsay, solicitor, of Glasgow. However, Beda was soon diagnosed as suffering from an incurable progressive mental illness, which ultimately (1937) led to her hospitalization. In the year of Hirst's marriage, Haworth moved to the Mason chair of chemistry at Birmingham University, and two years later in 1927 appointed Hirst as a lecturer and his assistant director of research. Together they led a talented team of research students which unravelled the molecular structures of simple sugars and complex polysaccharides, and whose work culminated in determining the structure and synthesis of vitamin C.

Hirst obtained his DSc (Birmingham) in 1929 and his readership and fellowship of the Royal Society in 1934. In 1936 he was appointed to the Alfred Capper Pass chair of organic chemistry at Bristol University and began research into starch, plant gums, and mucilages. However, during 1939–44 Hirst was heavily involved in the Bristol laboratories' research on explosives. He served on numerous committees and travelled widely to inspect ordnance factories for the Ministry of Supply. He also served as Home Office senior gas adviser for the south-west region.

In 1944 Hirst was appointed to the Samuel Hall chair of organic chemistry at Manchester University, where he built up a strong research group, planned new laboratories, and served as chairman of the research section of the working party set up by Sir R. Stafford Cripps to report on the cotton industry.

In 1947 Hirst was invited to occupy the newly established Forbes chair of organic chemistry of the University of Edinburgh. Here with a large group of staff and students he spent twenty-one happy years. The move to Edinburgh also marked the beginning of a happier phase in Hirst's private life. Following the dissolution of his first marriage in 1948, Hirst married Kathleen Jenny (Kay), an inspector of schools and daughter of Charles Lyall Harrison, headmaster, in 1949. This marriage was an ideally happy one. Hirst's research work at Edinburgh was devoted to carbohydrate chemistry. His early work established the ring structures of monosaccharides and laid the foundations of his later work on vitamin C and complex polysaccharides. With his colleagues and students he published about 300 papers which made him known worldwide.

Hirst's work was recognized by the award of a Coronation Medal in 1953, appointment as CBE in 1957, and a knighthood in 1964. He received honorary doctorates from the universities of Aberdeen, Birmingham, St Andrews, and Trinity College, Dublin, and the fellowship of Heriot-Watt College. He served twice on the council of the Royal Society, was awarded the Davy medal (1948), and gave the Bakerian lecture (1959). He was president of the Chemical Society (1956–8), and was awarded the Longstaff medal. He was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1948 and later served as president (1959–64). He was an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy (1967) and an honorary fellow of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts (1964). He was also chairman of the chemistry research board of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (1950–55).

Hirst's hobbies were hill climbing, gardening, and studies of railways (of which he had an encyclopaedic knowledge). He was of distinguished appearance and of quiet and humorous disposition. He died in Edinburgh on 29 October 1975, survived by his wife, Kay. There were no children from either marriage.

Sources

  • M. Stacey and E. Percival, Memoirs FRS, 22 (1976), 137–68
  • personal knowledge (1986)

Archives

  • RS, corresp. with Sir Robert Robinson
  • Trinity Cam., corresp. with R. L. M. Synge

Likenesses

  • W. Stoneman, photograph, 1946, RS
  • W. Bird, photograph, 1959, RS
Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society