Professor Sir James Baddiley: Biochemist who applied his understanding of organic chemistry to problems in biology

Saturday 03 January 2009 01:00

The biochemist James Baddiley was a master of experimentation, with an intuitive ability to deal with the vagaries of organic compounds. Although he was an organic chemist by training, his research brought him increasingly into the field of biochemistry and biology. When each new problem presented itself, he learned or devised the experimental techniques necessary for its solution. He used the methods and insight of the organic chemist to answer important questions in biology, notably with regard to coenzyme structure and function, and the structure of bacterial cell walls.

Baddiley's forebears were farmers in South Yorkshire. His father, also James, broke with tradition and was a distinguished dyestuffs chemist, becoming Perkin Medallist of the Society of Dyers and Colourists, and for many years Director of Research of the Dyestuffs Division of Imperial Chemical Industries. Jim Baddiley was born in 1918 and educated at Manchester Grammar School and Manchester University.

He had the good fortune to begin research in 1941 with Professor A.R. Todd (later Lord Todd, Nobel laureate) who was then establishing his future reputation. He studied the synthesis of nucleosides, the fundamental units of nucleic acids and nucleotide coenzymes and obtained his PhD in 1944. In that year he moved with Todd to Cambridge as an ICI Research Fellow and achieved the synthesis of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the nucleotide concerned with essential energy transformations in all forms of life.

After a spell at the Wenner-Gren Institute in Stockholm, Baddiley returned to a staff appointment at the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine in London. Independent for the first time, he built up a small research group. He collaborated with Fritz Lipmann in Harvard to determine the structure of coenzyme A, a nucleotide derivative of pantothenic acid (one of the B vitamins) involved in the biochemistry of fatty acids and the citric acid cycle. In addition, he published syntheses of the biological methylating agent "active methionine" and codecarboxylase.

When Baddiley moved to King's College, Newcastle (now Newcastle University) in 1955 as Professor of Organic Chemistry, he took with him an intriguing problem which had arisen out of his interest in the way coenzyme A was produced in bacteria. A chance observation at the Lister Institute was exploited and led to the isolation of two new nucleotides, cytidine diphosphate glycerol and cytidine diphosphate ribitol. Due to the small amounts of material available, the structural determinations depended on a combination of chemical and enzymic degradations followed by analysis using paper chromatography, and were completed in 1956.

The next question was the biological role of these nucleotides. Similar nucleotides were known and had been shown to be the biochemical precursors of polymeric materials: a search for such polymers of glycerol phosphate and ribitol phosphate was immediately successful. They were isolated from Gram-positive bacteria and shown to be components of the cell wall and membranes and were given the name "teichoic" acids (from the Greek teichos, a fortified wall) and constituted 30 to 60 per cent of the wall structure. Phosphate groups link the polyol units in the same manner as in the nucleic acids. There had been earlier work by Peter Mitchell and Jennifer Moyle that had indicated that the walls of Gram-positive bacteria contained phosphate derivatives. The cell wall teichoic acids were found to contain sugar residues and the amino acid D-alanine, and to be linked to the main cell wall peptidoglycan structure.

Baddiley's subsequent work in Newcastle was directed towards a comprehensive exploration of the teichoic acids, especially their biosynthesis, function and immunology. He realised that his research was taking him out of the mainstream of organic chemistry and established a separate Microbiological Research Laboratory; in1977, he became Professor of Chemical Microbiology. Many of his research collaborators, obtaining MSc or PhD degrees under his guidance, later went on to make a name for themselves in the field.

Intending to pursue an active retirement, Baddiley left Newcastle in 1981 to take up a senior research fellowship in Hans Kornberg's Biochemistry department at Cambridge. He continued his research there, with post-doctoral assistance, and helped to set up the Cambridge Institute of Biotechnology with support from the university and from industry. He became a Fellow of Pembroke College and served on a number of university and national committees where his experience was much sought after.

Baddiley received many honours for his work: the Meldola Medal of the Royal Institute of Chemistry (1947); the Corday-Morgan Medal and Prize (1952); the Tilden Medal and Lecture (1959) and Pedlar Lecture (1978) of the Royal Society of Chemistry, and the Leeuwenhoek Lecture (1967) and Davy Medal (1974) of the Royal Society. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1961, the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1963, and was knighted in 1977. He was an Honorary Member of the American Society of Biological Chemists and was actively involved in a number of scientific societies and research councils.

A rock climber in his youth, Baddiley had many interests in later life which he attributed in part to a happy childhood and a lack of specialisation at school. He was keen on music, both classical and jazz, and on art and photography. In all of these he was supported by his wife, Hazel (née Townsend), a textile designer, whom he married in 1944. Jim and Hazel made the research group feel like a family and Hazel was active in the wider sphere of Newcastle University and later in Cambridge. They celebrated their diamond wedding in 2004, but Hazel died last year.

Grant Buchanan

James Baddiley, biochemist: born Manchester 15 May 1918; Imperial Chemical Industries Fellow, Cambridge University 1945-49, SERC Senior Research Fellow 1981-85; Swedish Medical Research Council Fellow, Wenner-Gren Institute for Cell Biology, Stockholm 1947-49; staff, Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, London 1949-55; Professor of Organic Chemistry, Newcastle University, (previously King's College, Durham University) 1954-77, Head of School of Chemistry 1968-78, Professor of Chemical Microbiology 1977-83 (Emeritus), Director, Microbiological Chemistry Research Laboratory 1975-83; FRS 1961; Kt 1977; Fellow, Pembroke College, Cambridge 1981-85 (Emeritus); married 1944 Hazel Townsend (died 2007; one son); died Cambridge 17 November 2008.

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