Obituary: Professor Claude Rimington
Friday 13 August 1993
CLAUDE RIMINGTON's remarkable scientific career spanned three generations of British biochemistry. As he wrote recently, he 'therefore witnessed vast and impressive developments in the science of biochemistry, at times revolutionary in character, and still continuing'. His own contribution to the development of the subject was immense and at the time of his death he was still actively engaged in laboratory work and contributing to the scientific literature.
A leading international authority on the biochemistry of porphyrins, pigments that are vital components in chlorophyll and the oxygen-transporting blood pigment haemoglobin, Rimington will be remembered not only for his great scientific achievements but also for his personal kindness and humility and his unswerving devotion to the things that he knew to be right.
Claude Rimington was widely read in many languages and was drawn at an early age both to literature and to chemistry. He combined poetic insight and sensitivity with unusual powers of concentration. He was remarkable in being able to pay astonishing attention to detail and yet have a broad and understanding outlook of the place of mankind in the cosmos. He was fond of quoting the eminent biochemist Frederick Gowland Hopkins, - 'The life of the cell is a dynamic equilibrium in a polyphasic system' - and drawing the distinction between the mechanism that gives life and the astonishing potential inherent in living systems.
Although Rimington was proud to have been among the generation of biochemists who established that life processes could be described by the ordinary laws of physics and chemistry without the intervention of a mysterious 'life force', he distinguished clearly between science, as limited to the observable, measurable appreciation of the universe, quoting Henrik Wergeland: 'Man, do not forget that you are dust, but do not forget that you are more than dust]' Rimington was deeply religious and much of his poetry reflects the eternal relationship between man and God.
Rimington was a tallish, slender figure with aquiline features and close-cropped slightly curly hair. He came from a formal generation and always conducted himself with decorum. In all things he proceeded carefully, seeking advice and deferring to authority. He could present a somewhat forbidding appearance, especially in his white coat, and he certainly did not encourage interruptions when he was working in the laboratory. But he was invariably helpful to those who sought his advice, summing up their plight with quick and sympathetic brown eyes.
Rimington disliked administrative tasks and was unsympathetic to bureaucracy which interfered with serious academic effort. He was baffled by present science policy. He showed unbridled enthusiasm for his chosen subject, porphyrins, on which he worked with unfailing enterprise for 60 years. He had a remarkable ability to turn, within a few moments, a conversation on any topic into a detailed exposition of some aspect of porphyrin metabolism. But while he was
single-minded in this respect, he had an abiding interest in philosophy and literature and throughout his career enjoyed writing poetry.
Claude Rimington was born in London in 1902. In his youth he seems to have been a lonely figure, reading avidly rather than playing games. Holidays often consisted of solitary camping trips on a bicycle on which he covered prodigious distances. He was educated at Haberdashers' Aske's School and Emmanuel College, Cambridge, from which he graduated with a First Class degree in Chemistry. His first research work was conducted at Cambridge on the determination of organic phosphates and was published in the Biochemical Journal in 1924. He gained a London PhD four years later. In 1925 he made his first visit to Scandinavia, setting out by ferry from Newcastle to Bergen and working up the west coast, eventually ending up in Oslo and then taking a boat to Copenhagen. Rimington was enthralled by the warmth and friendliness of the people. He spent some months in Denmark and carried out research with the biochemist Linderstrom- Lang, who introduced him to Danish poetry and initiated a lifelong interest in Scandinavian literature.
Back in Cambridge, Rimington benefited from being part of the intellectually stimulating atmosphere of the biochemical laboratories at that time. Gowland Hopkins had gathered about him many personalities including Robin Hill, Muriel Onslow, Henry Quastel, Joseph Needham, and JBS Haldane. Rimington was present when Albert Szent-Gyorgyi first isolated crystals of Vitamin C.
In 1928 Rimington moved to the Wool Industries Research Association Institute, in Leeds, to set up a biochemical department. The institute was a large converted house of which the Biochemical Department consisted of two small rooms. Rimington was not happy in Leeds and in 1930 he took up a post at the Onderstepoort Veterinary Research Laboratory, in Pretoria, to investigate plants poisonous to livestock. This was an entirely new departure for him but fortunately the Empire Marketing Board, which sponsored the research fellowships, agreed that he could visit several laboratories and consult with chemists conversant with the field before sailing to South Africa. In the course of these visits Rimington had interviews with Sir Arnold Theiler in his flat in Lucerne which deeply impressed him. As he wrote later, 'I came away a convert, a convert to his scientific devotion.'
In South Africa Rimington began work on the sheep disease 'Geeldikkop' (which in Afrikaans means 'yellow thick-head') the cause of which was later shown to be due to biliary stasis resulting in jaundice and photosensitisation due to a porphyrin derived from the breakdown of chlorophyll. Rimington also characterised the porphyrins present in the bones of diseased cattle. The reddish-brown bones looked like the illustrations of skeletal discolouration found in the rare human disease congenital erythropoietic porphyria, a famous case of which had been studied by the eminent German chemist Hans Fischer. Rimington's results showed almost complete identity with the findings of Fischer.
In 1937 Rimington left South Africa to take a position as a biochemist at the Medical Research Council's National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), in Hampstead, north London, where he studied the copper-containing red porphyrin complex present in the wing feathers of the Turaco, a South American bird. At the outbreak of war in 1939 he was on holiday on the island of Askeroy with his wife and daughter and had to return to England leaving his family behind. When Norway was invaded his family were detained by the occupying forces and he did not see them again until the end of the war. During the war, Rimington was involved in various investigations at NIMR, including a study of the value of dietary supplementation with carrots for improving the night vision of fighter pilots.
In 1945 he took up the Chair of Chemical Pathology at University College Hospital Medical School (UCHMS), in London. During the blitz the medical school had been evacuated. The windows of the laboratories had been shattered by bombs and everything had been exposed for three years to wind and rain. From these unpromising beginnings Rimington built up a world-renowned department based on the Nuffield Unit for Research on Pyrrole Pigment Metabolism. Many distinguished researchers joined the department and a large volume of important work in the field of porphyrin metabolism emanated from UCHMS as the years went on.
Shortly before he retired Rimington was involved in the investigations of the hypothesis put forward by the psychiatric historians Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter on the illness of King George III. On the basis of the available evidence he published jointly with Macalpine and Hunter the BMA paper 'Porphyria - A Royal Malady' (1968), suggesting that George III had suffered from an inherited abnormality of porphyrin metabolism known as Variegate Porphyria.
In 1968 Rimington retired to Norway, which gave him the opportunity to renew his literary interests, translating into English verse some of Norway's distinguished poets such as Bjornstjerne Bjornson, Henrik Wergeland, Anulf Overland and others. During this time he published two small volumes of poems. In addition, from 1984 until the time of his death he worked in the Norwegian Cancer Hospital Research Institute on the application of porphyrins in the photodynamic therapy of cancer.
Rimington's unique record of original contributions to science were recognised by many honours, including honorary membership of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, honorary membership of the Biochemical Society and membership of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1954 and was awarded the Norwegian Order of Merit by King Olaf V in 1989.
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