Frederick Gowland Hopkins


Throughout the years, there have been hundreds of people awarded prizes for their contributions to the world. If you have an interest in science in general and food in particular then a scientist you need to know about is a man named Frederick Gowland Hopkins. He is a British biochemist who received the 1929 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine together with Christiaan Eijkman. They were given the prize for their work on the discovery of vitamins or what was then called “essential nutrient factors” that are needed in animal diets for better health.

In the year 1901, Hopkins made a wondrous discovery as he found out about the amino acid tryptophan. He then isolated it from its protein and in 1906-07, he was able to show that it and other amino acids are not produced by some animals from other nutrients and that supplementation was necessary.

His Early Life

Frederick Gowland Hopkins was born on 20 June 1861 at Eastbourne, England. His father was a bookseller in Bishopsgate Street and was said to have a keen interest in science. He died when Frederick was but an infant. For the next decade of his life Frederick lived with his mother, still at Eastbourne and showed an affinity with literature and not so much science although he did study life on the seashore when his mother gifted him with a microscope. However, it was said that he spent more time reading and writing rhymes than with scientific pursuits. He even speculated later in life that had he been given encouragement he might have become a naturalist or a classical scholar. This doesn’t mean that his love for literature went to waste because his abilities added much color and depth to his scientific works and addresses.

He didn’t stay in Eastbourne long because in 1871 his mother moved to live at Enfield and he went to attend the City of London School. Reports have it that he was very good at school and excelled in many subjects. He was also given the first-class prize in chemistry during the school year of 1874. He was given a prize for science as a result of an examination given at the College of Preceptors and when he was just 17, he wrote a paper about the bombardier beetle that was published on The Entomologist. It was also the same time that he finally left school.

He worked as an insurance clerk for 6 months and after that he apprenticed with a consulting chemist who prodded him to take a course in chemistry at The Royal School of Mines after which he went to University College in London. That was where he undertook an Associateship Exam at the Institute of Chemistry, which he aced. In fact, he did so well that Sir Thomas Stevenson got him as an assistant. At that time, Sir Stevenson was the Home Office Analyst as well as an expert in poisoning. Hopkins was just 22 at the time but that didn’t stop him from taking part in a number of legal cases that were of utmost importance. Within this time, Hopkins also decided to take up his London Bs.c. degree and made it a point to graduate at the shortest time possible.

When he turned 28 in 1888, he went to Guy’s Hospital in London as a medical student and was instantly given the Sir William Gull studentship. During the same time frame, he received honors in Materia Medica and was awarded a Gold Medal in Chemistry.

His Career

When he turned 32 in 1894 he graduated from his medical course and taught toxicology and physiology at Guy’s Hospital. He taught for 4 years but for two of those years, he was also in charge of the Clinical Research Association’s Chemical Department. Two years after, in 1896, he and H.W.B Brook published their work on halogen derivatives of proteins. He also worked with S.N. Pinkus to find out more about crystallization of blood albumins.

As he was attending a meeting at the Physiology Society at Cambridge in 1898, he met Sir Michael Foster who invited him to move to Cambridge. Hopkins was asked to move there so he could develop chemical aspects of physiology. At that time biochemistry wasn’t yet recognized as a separate branch of science so Hopkins said “yes” to the offer. He was given a salary of £200 for his lectureship but he managed to add to his income by giving tutorials and supervising undergraduates. After Sir Thomas Stevenson died, he also worked part time for the Home Office so he lived quite comfortably.

By the time the year 1902 rolled in, he was given a biochemistry readership and 8 years later in 1910, he was given Fellowship at Trinity College and he was also made an Honorary Fellow at Emmanuel College. He was elected Chair of Biochemistry at Cambridge University in the year 1914. With all these awards, you would think that he was living the high life but in fact, he was living in one small room at the Department of Physiology and moved to another room at Balfour Laboratory.

He had many outstanding contributions to science but perhaps his greatest contribution was discovering a method for isolating tryptophan as well as identifying its structure. Subsequently, he and Christiaan Eijkman also did the work that was to garner them the Nobel Prize and that was to show the connection between beriberi and eating decorticated rice.

Later on, he did some work with Walter Fletcher where they observed the changes that occurred in muscular contractions upon death. He not only supplied methods for analysis but he also devised a totally new color for lactic acid. His work paved the path for future Nobel Prize Laureates like Otto Meyerhof and A.V. Hill.

In 1925, Frederick Hopkins was granted Knighthood and in 1935 he was the recipient of the Order of Merit.

Personal Life

Despite his busy life, he got married to Jessie Anne Stevens and they had to daughters. One of them, Jacquetta Hawkes, got married to the author J.B. Priestley. He died at the age of 86 in 1947.