Monday August 5, 2002
Sixty years ago, a revolution swept through the world of analytical biochemistry. It was driven by an invention called partition chromatography, developed by the Nobel laureate Archer Martin, who has died aged 92.
The techniques he pioneered allowed the rapid separation of small amounts of complex mixtures of biomolecules, such as proteins: a process that was impossible through ordinary chemical methods. One version perfected by Martin and his co-workers was a particularly quick and economical method, known as paper partition chromatography, for which he shared the 1952 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Richard Synge. The discovery opened the way for a flood of other Nobel prize-winning advances in chemical, medical and biological research.
Archer was born in north London, where his father was a doctor and his mother a nurse. He later recalled his early fascination with the intricacies of fractional distillation, the process used in oil refineries and elsewhere to separate liquids when their boiling points were close together. While still at Bedford school, which he attended from 1921 to 1929, he built five-foot high distillation columns by soldering together coffee tins (after cutting off the tops and bottoms) and packed them with coke of graded size. It was excellent preparation for his studies at Peterhouse, Cambridge, to which he won an exhibition in 1929.
Martin entered the university with the intention of becoming a chemical engineer. However, the distinguished geneticist JBS Haldane, then reader in biochemistry at Cambridge, encouraged him to specialise in biochemistry.
After graduating, Martin worked for a year in the physical chemistry laboratory, before getting a research post in the university's Dunn Nutritional Laboratory, where he studied from 1933 to 1938 under LJ Harris and Sir Charles Martin, receiving his PhD in 1936.
He was involved in an attempt to isolate vitamin E and in investigations into the pathological effects of prolonged vitamin E deficiencies. The research involved the development of solvent extraction and chromatographic methods that laid the foundation for his later work.
In 1938 Martin became a research chemist for the Wool Industries Research Association in Leeds where, with Richard Synge, he invented partition chromatography, one of the most powerful analytical techniques ever developed for separating and identifying the components of complex mixtures.
Their invention arose from research on analysing the amino acid components of wool fibre. The technique became widely used in chemistry, biochemistry, biology and medicine; and their discovery was commemorated on a British postage stamp issued in 1977.
Although amino acids were known as the key components of all living things and the building blocks of proteins, they were troublesome for the analyst because many of them so closely resembled each other chemically that it was almost impossible to get clear-cut separations by established methods. Martin and Synge solved the problem by a clever adaptation of chromatography.
The technique's principles had been established in 1903 by the Russian botanist Mikhail Tsvett. He found how to separate plant pigments that were chemically very much alike by washing them down a column of powdered limestone, packed in a glass tube, with a solvent.
He dissolved his mixture of pigments in petroleum ether and poured it over the limestone. Then he poured in clear solvent. The separated pigments were captured as they trickled from the bottom of the column one after another.
After years of being largely ignored, the process was rediscovered and came into wider use in 1931. Various alternatives were tried to replace the limestone, colourless as well as coloured. However, the process was not reliable enough to win the general confidence of the scientific community as a means for studying the components of natural products.
The amino acids, in particular, were so alike that a complete separation to show the composition of proteins was impractical until Martin and Synge turned their hands to it. They got better results by using starch as the packing material in the column, and developed a method called liquid-liquid partition chromatography in which two solvents moved in opposite directions through the tube.
The dramatic change came in 1944, with a simpler method called paper chromatography, in which they replaced the separating column with a slip of paper and a stationary liquid. A drop or two of a mixture of amino acids was deposited near the corner of a sheet of pure filter paper, an absorbent paper made of particularly pure cellulose. This edge of the sheet was then dipped into a solvent, such as butyl alcohol.
The solvent slowly crept up the paper by capillary action, picking up the molecules in the deposited drop and sweeping them along the paper. After a while the amino acids in the mixture separated into a series of spots on the sheet.
Experienced biochemists could identify each amino acid almost at a glance. By dissolving the spot, they could even measure how much of a particular amino acid was present in the protein. Subsequently, Martin and his colleagues developed gas-liquid partition chromatography, a widely used technique.
In one area of research, Martin's group confirmed that in pigs, unlike rats, nicotinic acid prevented a vitamin deficiency disease. The results were used to suggest a cure for pellagra, a human dietary deficiency disease, with vitamin B6.
From 1946 to 1948, Martin was head of the biochemistry division of the research department of Boots Pure Drug Company at Nottingham. In 1948, he joined the National Institute for Medical Research.
He was appointed head of the Division of Physical Chemistry at the Institute in 1952. In 1959 he became a director of Abbotsbury Laboratories Ltd, and was consultant to the Wellcome Medical Research Laboratories from 1970 to 1973. From 1973 to 1984, he held professorial appointments at Sussex and Houston universities, and at the Ecole Polytechnique, Lausanne.
Martin was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1950, and made a CBE in 1960.
In 1943 he married Judith Bagenal: she survives him, along with his three daughters and two sons.
Archer John Porter Martin, biochemist, born March 1 1910; died July 28 2002