Benjamin Arthur Hems was born in Scotland in 1912; he was known as Arthur since he did not much care for the Benjamin. He was educated at Glasgow High School and Glasgow University where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry. He obtained his PhD at Edinburgh University for research in organic chemistry, and joined the research staff of Glaxo at Greenford, Middlesex, in 1937.
The years of the Second World War were spent on projects concerned with the development of methods for the production of vital chemicals and pharmaceuticals including penicillin. By 1946, Hems was head of the Chemistry Unit at Greenford and became involved in the synthesis of L-Thyroxine, the active principle of the thyroid gland. The successful completion of the chemical synthesis allowed the company to market the pure product in 1948, thus enabling doctors to give precise doses of the compound, compared with the variability of the previously available thyroid extracts. His work on L-Thyroxine formed the basis of his thesis for the Doctor of Science degree which was awarded to him in 1951.
It was also in 1951 that Glaxo embarked on a large-scale research and development programme that was to prove crucial for the future viability of the company. This was the development of new methods for the synthesis and production of corticosteroids such as hydrocortisone and prendisolone, and the discovery and exploitation of new betamethasone derivatives. The latter have since proved of great value, particularly in dermatology and the treatment of asthma. Hems was the driving force behind the whole project; there were some bad times when success did not look likely, but in typical fashion he perfected the technique of turning a deaf ear to instructions to terminate the work from fainter hearts on high.
A little later, Hems was involved in organising another important project concerning the cephalosporins, a new type of antibiotic. Similar success was achieved in this area, with the eventual development of an important new range of products. In 1969 Hems was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, one of the relatively few industrial scientists to achieve this distinction at that time. The citation for his fellowship covered in a few plain words a massive contribution: "distinguished for his application of organic chemistry in the pharmaceutical industry especially in connection with the synthesis of thyroxine and the development of important new steroids and antibiotics".
Within Glaxo, Hems's commitment and ability led to a series of promotions, culminating in his appointment as Managing Director of Glaxo Research in 1965. By now, this was a large organisation employing hundreds of scientific and support staff, and covering many scientific disciplines. It was a far cry from Hems's earlier days when he was responsible only for the chemistry group; here he was at his inspirational best, being deeply involved in the detail of all that was going on, and spending a great deal of time in the laboratories driving his chemists on to ever greater efforts. He spared no one, least of all himself and one of his greatest achievements was the recruitment of high-calibre staff and their organisation into a unit that proved capable of tackling the difficult chemistry in the steroid and antibiotic fields; one suspects that this was one of the happiest periods of his working life. Managing a very large multidisciplinary group required a different approach, with which he was probably never entirely comfortable, but this did not prevent his continuing success in new projects. In 1975, after 38 years of service, he retired from Glaxo. He lived with his wife in the suburbs west of London.
During the course of his industry career, Arthur Hems built up a wider reputation in the spheres of science and chemistry. He was a member of the Science Research Council for a number of years, was a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Chemistry and a member of the Chemical Society and the Society of Chemical Industry. In 1970 he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws of Glasgow University.
Benjamin Arthur Hems, chemist: born 29 June 1912; research scientist, Glaxo Pharmaceuticals 1937-75; FRS 1969; married 1937 Jean Herd (one daughter); died Ickenham, Middlesex 2 July 1995.Reuse content