Obituary: Richard Synge

S. R. Elsden
Tuesday 23 August 1994 23:02

Richard Laurence Millington Synge, biochemist: born Liverpool 28 October 1914; Researcher, Wool Industries Research Association, Leeds 1941-43; Researcher, Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, London 1943-48; Researcher and Administrator, Rowett Research Institute, Aberdeen 1948-67; FRS 1950; Nobel Prize for Chemistry 1952; Researcher, Food Research Institute, Norwich 1967-76; Honorary Professor of Biology, University of East Anglia, 1968-84; married 1943 Ann Stephen (three sons, four daughters, and one son deceased); died Norwich 18 August 1994.

RICHARD SYNGE was a tall and well-proportioned man with a broad face topped by a mass of hair combed straight over the forehead, as small boys used to do before they grew up. His size made him stand out in a crowd and it was this which first brought him to my attention in the practical classroom of the biochemistry department at Cambridge University in 1934-35. He seemed always to have an animated group around him and on enquiry I was told that this was Dick Synge - a Trinity man. Eighteen years later, at the age of 38, he was awarded jointly the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Dick Synge was educated at Winchester College and in 1932 won an exhibition in Classics to Trinity. Discussing once our varied experiences of examinations, Synge told me that after the last morning of the Classics scholarship papers he went to lunch with an uncle and they split a bottle of hock between them. Synge went into the last paper in the afternoon in a spirit of some elation and said, 'I shall never know if that half- bottle raised my performance to the level of an exhibition or reduced it to an exhibition from a scholarship.'

Having awarded him an exhibition in classics, Trinity agreed to allow Synge to read natural sciences. The scholarship examinations had been held in December and the rest of his time at Winchester was spent catching up on science; and he always remembered the excellent instruction in chemistry he received from Eric James (later Lord James of Rusholme). At Cambridge he read chemistry, physics and physiology for Part I of the Tripos and biochemistry for Part II. He obtained a Double First and was accepted as a research student.

The biochemistry department, inspired by its gentle professor Sir Frederick Hopkins, was an exciting place in those days - the intellectual calibre of the staff was high, with a number of strong personalities. The politics were left-wing and there was strong support there as there was throughout Cambridge for the anti-war and anti-Fascist movements. Synge entered these activities with an enthusiasm for peace which never left him. He decided in his final year to work on the chemistry of proteins and particularly on their amino acid content. I became aware of this when I had lunch in his rooms - he served poached eggs on spinach - and during the conversation he said: 'I'm going to work on proteins. Do you know that only 70 per cent of the nitrogen of a protein can be accounted for in terms of amino acids?' (Some 20 of these amino acids are the building blocks out of which proteins are made.) Within six years he and his colleague Archer Martin provided the means whereby proteins could be analysed.

Once he started research Synge came to the conclusion that his chemistry was not strong enough to do the work he wanted to do. To correct this, he transferred to work with David James Bell, a carbohydrate chemist of incomparable practical skills, and the abiding lesson which Synge learnt from 'Wee Davie' was that a better separation of mixtures was achieved by extraction with solvents than by precipitation and crystallisation. This was the course Synge followed in his attack on proteins and to this end he prepared a series of amino acid derivatives which could be separated by extraction techniques. To exploit this information he got in contact with Archer Martin, who had built an apparatus for the continuous extraction of one liquid by another. Martin, while working at the Dunn Nutrition Laboratory at Cambridge, had built such an apparatus to purify Vitamin E. It was a large complex of glass tubing - Martin was an expert glass blower - and was housed in the foyer of the nutrition laboratory.

Martin by this time was working in the Wool Research Institute at Leeds and agreed to collaborate with Synge and to design and build an apparatus for work with Synge's solvents - chloroform mixtures. Synge continued to work in Cambridge, where he was supported by a generous grant from the International Wool Secretariat. In 1941 Synge moved to Leeds to work closely with Martin on the machine Martin had built. It was very cumbersome and they called it 'Roger', but it separated the derivatives prepared by Synge, and the road to complete protein analysis was now open. For those amino acids which could not be separated in this way could be estimated by other means.

'Roger' was cumbersome and gave off chloroform vapour, but Martin and Synge soon devised a simpler solution: the silica gel chromatogram - a small tube packed with silicic acid saturated with water. This achieved more simply, more quickly and more safely the separation of amino acids. This type of column found wide use: for the separation of lower fatty acids; and the separation of penicillins. It was used by Fred Sanger in his great investigation of the structure of the protein insulin. The silica gel column was followed by a more general tool Martin and Synge devised for the separation of mixtures of compounds - paper chromatography, a process based on the same physical principles as the column.

The development of silica gel chromatography and paper chromatography revolutionised biochemistry in the 1940s and the coupling of paper chromatography and the radioactive tracer techniques had notable successes - in particular the discovery of the way in which the green plant fixes carbon dioxide. Martin and Synge's methods have in the intervening 50 years been both improved on and superseded but the fact remains that their work opened the doors by providing the methods. They were both elected fellows of the Royal Society in 1950 and were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry jointly in 1952.

During this period Synge met Ann Stephen, a niece of Virginia Woolf, and I received an ecstatic letter from him to tell me that he had fallen deeply in love with Ann. They were married in 1943 and set up house in Leeds until they moved to London later that year, when Dick joined the staff of the Lister Institute.

At the Lister, Synge studied the antibiotic Gramicidin S which he showed was composed of amino acids. To obtain the ultimate structure he prepared crystals for his friend Dorothy Hodgkin to examine. Working at that time with her was a fourth-year chemical student involved with the Gramicidin work - Margaret Roberts. Years later, when Margaret Thatcher became eminent, Synge used to refer to her as his first student.

Synge spent a year at Uppsala and while in Sweden developed a liking for skiing. By the time he returned to Britain he wanted to work in a more practical area. He fixed on agriculture and obtained a post at the Rowett Research Institute, Aberdeen, in 1948. There Andrew Phillipson and his group worked on the digestive processes of the ruminant. Synge studied the digestion of proteins and how to prevent their being wastefully fermented. Eventually he found that he could protect dietary protein by a mild treatment with dilute


He and Ann lived in a large house on the cliff edge, at Muchalls, to the south of Aberdeen. There they brought up their large family and it was always a pleasure to stay with this happy group. Ann became a counsellor of Kincardineshire and their closeness to the sea provided her with the opportunity to sail. They were both very active in the peace movement and in this way developed a wide range of friends.

In 1967 Dick Synge moved to the new Food Research Institute which the Agricultural Research Council had recently established in Norwich. There was some apprehension as to how this famous man would behave, but such worries were quickly expelled for Synge fully lived up to the motto of Winchester College 'Manners Makyth Man' and the affection he always engendered spread among the staff. At the institute he continued to work on the combination of phenolic compounds of plants with proteins - a process akin to the tanning of leather. He also had become increasingly concerned with the problems of the storage and retrieval of information on the structure of organic compounds.

On his retirement in 1976 the University of East Anglia, of which he was an honorary professor, allowed him the use of the university computers. He developed a program for the storing of the structures of a group of compounds he was interested in, and his paper was accepted for publication; this was as he put it 'my last scientific paper'. Not a bad performance for a man approaching 70.

Dick Synge had a phenomenal memory and he was fluent in German, Russian and Swedish. He was extraordinarily well organised - despite a certain far away, even fey look. He was very knowledgeable about the railway system and its timetables and if you were going on an outing with him, he had the programme at his fingertips and it always worked no matter how remote the junction was and the time at which you had to catch the train. He was kind and always helpful but he did demand accuracy of expression, indeed accuracy in all things. He always made his demand politely. His father, Laurence Millington Synge, was a Liverpool stockbroker and Dick was particularly well informed on financial matters. Thus, as treasurer of the Norwich Peace Council, he kept a stern eye on the ways in which money was spent and was a meticulous auditor of accounts. He and Ann worked hard for the peace council and all its endeavours. It was quite a sight to see these two large, imposing, figures behind the counter at the peace stall in Norwich market.

Over the past few years Ann has been poorly and more and more of the household chores fell to Dick, including shopping and cooking. He always was a good cook, as I first learnt years ago in his rooms in Trinity. He was a great man.

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