Edinburgh Royal College of Physicians Laboratory


In 1919 George Barger was appointed to the newly established Chair of Chemistry in Relation to Medicine. Barger was an organic chemist and had been Professor of Chemistry at Goldsmith's College in the University of London in the 1910s. (ref: 1)

In October 1919, three Assistants were appointed; Charles R Harington, William Robson and CP Stewart. Stewart was known by his initials "CP" and never used his given names (Corbet Page). Robson and CP Stewart were from the North of England, Stewart being a graduate of Durham University, and they both graduate PhD in 1921. (ref: 9,91)

The department carried responsibility only for the teaching of elementary chemistry to medical students. The teaching of biochemistry to these same students was done by the Department of Physiology where Philip Eggleton (who had been preceded by Taylor) was Lecturer and he subsequently became a Reader.

The development of Biochemistry in Barger's Department was largely the work of Edgar and Ellen Stedman who had studied under Barger in London in 1912. They investigated the structural chemistry of compounds of pharmacological interest, the oxygen dissociation curves of haemocyanins and esterases. In the 1940s and 1950s they studied the cell nucleus and its histones and protamines. Edgar retired in 1960. (ref: 1)

Prior to 1921 the degree course took three years with a fourth year for those choosing, and qualifying for, an honours degree. In 1921 a four year course with an honours degree in Chemistry was introduced. After a common first year, two alternative courses were offered; mathematics, physics and geology or physiology and bacteriology. (ref: 93)

When Fred P Coyne, who worked in the Clinical Chemistry Laboratory at the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh from 1927 to 1929, and four fellow students applied to take the latter of these two courses, they had to show the matriculation office their own prospectus to convince them that the course existed. The following day they enrolled with the medical students, but several weeks later they were informed that the pass mark, which was 50% for medical students, would be 60% for the honours science students. On graduating, Coyne undertook postgraduate research and obtained his PhD in Barger's Department for his studies of the constitution and synthesis of the essential amino acid methionine. During this three year period, the medical school intake was substantially increased and Coyne obtained a demonstratorship, firstly quarter time, then half time and finally full time at a salary of 200 per annum. (ref: 93)

The department was housed in the University Medical School in Teviot Place, next door to the Royal Infirmary, shared accommodation and technical staff (under Walter Murray, Laboratory Steward) with the Department of Chemistry (under Professor Sir James Walker). In 1922 the Department of Chemistry moved to King's Buildings, West Mains Road. (ref: 1,91,93)

William Forshall, who had started as a "lab boy" in the departments on 4th August 1919 (at a salary of 0.40 per week), remained with the Department of Chemistry in Relation to Medicine until 1925. Then, in 1926, after a short period with the British Aluminium Company in Fife, he was appointed as "Lab Assistant" in the Department of Clinical Chemistry in the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. (ref: 91)

In 1921, Barger recommended that Harington be appointed to the new post of Chemist to the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, where he had a small laboratory. Studies of the documentation by the Academic Unit of the Wellcome Trust for the History of Medicine, London, in the late 1990s concluded the the laboratory was set up under the direction of Jonathan Meakins, the Christison Professor of Therapeutics. The laboratory was to have the dual functions of doing routine work for the clinical staff and provide Meakins and his assistants with research facilities. (ref: 167)

In 1922 Harington was appointed to a post at University College, London, and in 1926 he determined the structure of thyroxin. He attempted to produced this hormone but had difficulty incorporating the final iodine into his synthetic molecule and came to consult Barger in 1927. Barger proposed the use of the very unstable and explosive nitrogen tri-iodide and this was successful. In the same year, David Murray-Lyon, Professor of Therapeutics, tested the synthetic hormone on patients in the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. (ref: 1,9,12,51,93)

In 1923 CP Stewart obtained a Beit Memorial Fellowship and he worked until 1926 on glutathione with F Gowland Hopkins in Cambridge. Hopkins has been described as "the Father of Biochemistry" and almost all of his postgraduate students became eminent in biochemistry. Stewart returned to Edinburgh University in 1926.

In 1926 a special course in Biochemistry was started for a limited number of third year students who were taking honours in Chemistry. CP Stewart gave all the lectures. He was acknowledged as a gifted teacher and, despite the restrictions of working in a department with a limited teaching remit, he inspired many able young chemists in biological and medical problems.

Among the students who took Stewart's course were Robert Gaddie (in 1927/28), Edward B Hendry (in 1928/29) and James K Grant (in 1935/36). Years later, Gaddie noted that, although he had never heard of biochemistry before, he thought it "appealed more than geology or some such subject" and found that "no other branch of chemistry had any lasting appeal after that year". Gaddie also found Barger to be "an inspiring man". (ref: 1,9,12,34,93)

In 1927 CP Stewart was offered the post of Biochemist to the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, in the Department of Therapeutics. He approached Fred P Coyne to support a proposal that they should both offer to take a half time post in order to retain their connections with Barger's University Department. This suited everyone, as it provided graduate cover for holidays, etc. and it provided an important link between university and hospital.

Coyne was appointed to the Nobel Division of the newly formed ICI in Ardeer, Ayrshire, in February 1929 and he was succeeded by Robert Gaddie in 1929 and Edward B Hendry in 1931. (ref: 1,9,10,39,93)

James K Grant, born in Dundee and educated in Edinburgh, worked for CP Stewart from 1938 to 1939 as a PhD student on a Carnegie Research Scholarship. The role of histamine was not understood at that time and Grant was set the task of trying to isolate the factor released from burnt tissue. He shared a room with John Halliday Croom, who became President of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh, and Harold Scarborough. (ref: 34)

Harold Scarborough was a Clinical Tutor and Assistant in the Department of Therapeutics (1933 to 1938) and a Beit Memorial Research Fellow and Demonstrator in the Department of Pharmacy (1938 to 1939) in Edinburgh University. He later became Professor of Medicine at Cardiff (1950 to 1970). (ref: 34)
In 1939 Grant's research project was interrupted by army service (Royal Scots and Weapons Technical Staff, 21 Army Group; rank - Major) and he returned to the department in 1946. (ref: 34)

In 1938 George Barger was appointed to the Regius Chair of Chemistry in Glasgow; a post he occupied for only a few months before he died in 1939. (ref: 1) In 1939 Guy F Marrian succeeded Barger in the Chair of Chemistry in Relation to Medicine. Later he changed the name of the department to Medical Chemistry and, by 1946, to the Department of Biochemistry.

Marrian had worked as a technician for a year between leaving school and starting his studies for his degree (1922 to 1923) at the National Institute for Medical Research with Dr HW Dudley, preparing insulin from pancreatic tissue - this was within a year of the announcement of the discovery of insulin. In 1925 he graduated with honours in Chemistry from University College, London and, from 1933 to 1938, he had been an Associate Professor at Toronto University.

At the time of Marrian's appointment, the department still taught only elementary chemistry to the, by then, large classes (over 200) of medical students and it was many more years before it took responsibility for the teaching of biochemistry. This, together with the inadequate staffing and poor physical state of the department's premises were some of the snags recorded by Marrian when he had visited it in 1938 in response to an invitation by the University to apply for the post. However, the much needed alterations had to wait until after World War II, during which time he worked on chemical warfare in Edinburgh and in Canada (1942 to 1943) and was a Major in the Home Guard.

Alexander Purdie was appointed at the age of 14 as a technician in July 1944. At one time he was assigned to Barbara Clayton's husband (Bill Klyne) and he served in the department until he retired as Superintendent of the Biochemistry Laboratories in July 1993: he was granted an Honorary BSc by Edinburgh University on his retiral. Although Clinical Biochemistry was not, in the main, part of the remit of the Biochemistry Department, over the years there was considerable liaison between members of staff of both departments. In the early 1950s, Dr GS Boyd (later professor) of the Biochemistry department collaborated with Dr MF Oliver (later professor) of the department of medicine in the study of Coronary Artery Disease. During the early years of this study, the blood cholesterol estimations were carried out in Boyd's laboratory in the Biochemistry Department. (ref: 161, 165)

After demobilisation in 1946, JK Grant was appointed to a Lectureship with Marrian in the Biochemistry Department. He completed his PhD in 1950 on the structure of oestriol glucuronide and on the metabolism of progesterone. In 1954, Marrian introduced Grant to Tom Symington, Professor of Pathology, and Alastair Currie, Senior Lecturer in Pathology, at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. They were interested in the adrenal and pituitary glands, respectively and were looking for biochemical support. For a period, Grant provided this support, spending one or two days a week in Glasgow. He was appointed as Senior Lecturer at Edinburgh University in 1955 and visited the Max Planck Institute for Cell Chemistry in Munich in 1956/57. It was the 1950s that Grant played a significant role in working out the pathways of adrenal steroidogenesis and the enzymes that control the process. In 1960 he was appointed as Senior Lecturer in Steroid Biochemistry at Glasgow University. He was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1980, retired in 1981 and died in 2004. (ref: 34, 176)

In 1946 Marrian and colleagues persuaded the Medical Research Council to establish a "Clinical Endocrinology Research Unit" in Edinburgh (see below). Marrian left in 1959 to become the Director of Research at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund Laboratories in London. He retired in 1968 and died in 1981. (ref: 2,10)

Also in 1946, the Department of Clinical Chemistry was recognised as an independent department and CP Stewart was appointed as Reader. His department became responsible for the systematic teaching of clinical chemistry (both lecture and laboratory courses) to undergraduate medical students; teaching of clinical chemistry within the department in the earlier years having been occasional and informal. (ref: 51)

CP Stewart retired in 1962 and the Chair of Clinical Chemistry was established on his retiral. Many of his friends considered that his work had been inadequately recognised by the University and it has been suggested that this, in part, may have been due to Professor GF Marrian not fully appreciating the difference between his own "pure" and Stewart's "applied" biochemistry. (ref: 2,10)

(In the appreciation of GF Marrian published in the Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 1982; 28: 347 - 78, the impression is given that there was a major clash of personalities between Marrian and CP Stewart and, by the 1950s, they are described as having "been at loggerheads for some time". This is considered by many who worked with CP Stewart to be a gross over statement and, in the words of some, "just nonsense".)

Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh in the 1920s

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