Obituary: Lord Todd

John Cornforth
Thursday 16 January 1997 01:02

Lord Todd, former President of the Royal Society and Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, was a colossus of 20th-century chemistry and will be remembered not only for his contribution to the chemistry of the nucleic acids - work that led to the solution of the genetic code and the subsequent development of genetic science - but also for his part in raising the status of science to its apogee in the 1960s.

Alexander Robertus Todd was born in Glasgow in 1907, in an unprivileged family which had bettered itself by hard work; respect for education was deeply ingrained in it and in him. He began to experiment in chemistry even before his secondary schooling at Allan Glen's School, the Glasgow High School of Science, and he went on to take a First in Chemistry at Glasgow University.

In those days, Germany was the country for organic chemistry and Todd, attracted by the molecules found in living matter, went to Frankfurt to take his DPhil with the Ger- man organic chemist Walter Borsche. Those were the last days of the German science wrecked by the Nazis, who discriminated against all scientists who did not conform to their ideology, leading to a movement of scientists out of Germany from 1933 onwards.

In 1931 Todd gained a Senior Studentship from the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, the far-sighted foundation that did so much for British scientists, and he spent it at Oxford with Sir Robert Robinson, working with great success on chemical synthesis of the anthocyanins that colour flowers and fruits. By the time he left Oxford in 1934, his style as a chem-ist was formed: wide-ranging, and undeterred by difficulties.

Todd's first independent researches, at Edinburgh and at the Lister Institute in London, were on the structure and synthesis of vitamins. It was a highly competitive field and, although he did not arrive first at syntheses of thiamin (vitamin B1) and tocopherol (vitamin E), his synthesis of thiamin became the one used commercially. He also worked on cannabis, and in his excellent autobiography A Time to Remember (1983) he tells with relish the story that, having naively imported 6lb of distilled cannabis resin donated by the Indian police, he had to promise Customs that he would send 25 copies of any ensuing paper to their Bureau of Drugs and Indecent Publications.

His reputation was growing and appointment as Sir Samuel Hall Professor at Manchester at the age of 31 put him in charge of a major chemical department. He must have impressed his seniors, as he impressed a very junior me when we first met in 1941, with his calm constructive approach to all problems, scientific or administrative. He knew what must be done and he usually knew how to do it.

The Second World War years limited Todd's research effort (he worked on war gases that were never used) but he was able to start the research that was to win him the Nobel Prize in 1957. The nucleic acids, famous now as RNA and DNA, were at that time ill-defined components of living cells. The connection with inheritance and maintenance was guessed at, but without evidence. The individual building bricks (sugars and purines and pyrimidines) were known but had not been put together, and nobody knew how to use the mortar (phosphate). Todd had to assemble chemistry from four unrelated fields to solve problems that nobody had tackled before; and he succeeded by a systematic assault that owed nothing to luck. His synthesis of ATP (adenosine triphosphate, the carrier of chemical energy) was a measure of the mastery he achieved. This field is now so well developed that putting together a polynucleotide is an assembly-line process done by machines; but Todd was the pioneer.

Todd's last move, academi-cally, was to Cambridge in 1944. He inherited a stagnant, ill-found department with a divided command, and transformed it. Todd always had the ability to attract and inspire good co-workers and he brought some of the Manchester group with him (they formed a club called the Toddlers). With the ending of the war, people came from all over the world to work with him.

The Nobel Prize in 1957 confirmed Todd as the leading organic chemist in Britain. He continued to attack difficult problems. One of these was the chemistry of the aphins, very unusual pigments that give their colours to aphids. Another was the anti-anaemia vitamin (vitamin B12), but here the mystery of its structure was to yield to Dorothy Hodgkin's inspired crystallographic interpretation. Scientists who worked with Todd at Manchester and Cambridge spread over the globe the spirit of free enquiry and intellectual challenge that they found in his laboratories.

A scientist of Todd's ability and eminence could hardly have avoided involvement in the politics of science and in the formation of public scientific policy, and there is no evidence that he was reluctant. In Cambridge he became Master of Christ's College, helped to found Churchill College, and took part in the reform of the Cambridge University Press. He served as President of the Chemical Society and later (1975-80) of the Royal Society. In 1965-68 he chaired a Royal Commission on medical education. By 1962 he was already a life peer, with friendships and contacts pervading the scientific establishment not only of this country, but abroad (he loved Australia and often visited there). His honours are too numerous to mention.

Politically, Todd was a right-wing elitist, as people who have risen by merit often are. He deplored the expansion of university education, fearing that it would produce too many chiefs and too few Indians; but he was not narrow or intolerant. People trusted him and sought his advice. I remember talking with Vladimir Prelog, a fellow-laureate, and asking him if he knew what "tod" meant in Scottish. "Yes," said Vlado, "A fox. A benevolent fox."

In 1987 Todd married Alison Dale, daughter of Sir Henry Dale who was soon to become President of the Royal Society. They had a son and two daughters. Her death in 1987 was a heavy blow to him, compounded by injuries and illness. He spent his last years quietly at Cambridge, and retained his faculties to the end.

As a Scottish MP, writes Tam Dalyell, may I record the debt that two generations of our constituents owe to the work of Alec Todd in helping to set up Strathclyde University? Sir Sam Curran FRS, its first Principal (1964-80), who chose Todd as the first Chancellor, recalls:

After tough arguments with Sir Keith Murray, then chairman of the University Grants Committee, agreement was reached that the Glasgow Tech should become a university. Murray asked me, "What about a first Chancellor?" I said he must be a Scot. He must represent the sciences. He must be seen as a heavyweight in academic affairs. We chimed together, "Only one man fits that bill, all three criteria. Got it in one! Alec Todd."

Curran went to Cambridge and Todd's immediate reaction was that he was proud to do the job. For 21 years he was a notable figure - he understood the role of Chancellor well, never meddled and was happy to listen to individuals with their problems.

As an honorary secretary of a Parliamentary and Scientific Committee during the period when Todd was our president (1983-86), I saw at first hand his assiduous attendance and contribution to the nuts-and-bolts work of the committee. He was ever concerned with what Parliament could do about scientific manpower.

As a member of the "Other Place", I pay respectful tribute to the quality of reports on subjects such as engineering, research and development education and training for new technologies, occupational health and hygiene services, research on the relationship between agriculture and the environment, new space technologies, and guidelines on land use which came out during the time between 1980 and 1984 when Todd was chairman. He was superb at picking subjects - remote sensing and digital mapping, for example - which were not of obvious importance at the time but which subsequently were seen to be very important.

Alexander Robertus Todd, organic chemist: born Glasgow 2 October 1907; Reader in Biochemistry, London University 1937-38; Sir Samuel Hall Professor of Chemistry and Director of Chemical Laboratories, Manchester University 1938-44; FRS 1942; Professor of Organic Chemistry, Cambridge University 1944-71; Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge 1944-96, Master 1963-78; Kt 1954; Nobel Prize for Chemistry 1957; created 1962 Baron Todd; Chancellor, Strathclyde University 1965-91, Fellow 1990-96; OM 1977; married 1937 Alison Dale (died 1987; one son, two daughters); died Cambridge 10 January 1997.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments