Chromatography, a method for the separation of complex chemical mixtures, depends on partitioning the various components of the mixture between a stationary phase and a mobile phase which passes over or through the stationary phase. Although the method was discovered in 1903, development was slow until Archer Martin and R.L.M. Synge published their work on liquid-liquid partition chromatography in 1941.
This work led to a great advance in the scope and power of the method so that, today, it is of paramount importance in all branches of chemistry from the composition of petrol to the structure of proteins.
The son of a local GP, Martin attended Bedford School and from there went up to Peterhouse, Cambridge, in 1929. It is clear from the evidence manifest throughout his career that Martin was an extremely able practical scientist as well as a good theoretician. He is reputed to have built a distillation column from tin cans in a shed in the garden in his early teens and when he went up to Cambridge it was with the intention of becoming a chemical engineer. However, he became attracted to biochemistry by J.B.S. Haldane, then Reader of Biochemistry at Cambridge. Martin graduated with a 2.2 degree, partly as a result of switching courses and partly because of bouts of depression from which he suffered for many years.
As a consequence of his poor degree, Martin had some difficulty in being accepted for research but Haldane obviously recognised his potential and recommended him to F.P. Bowden and C.P. Snow (the latter now better known as a novelist than a scientist). Unhappy with his research project, in 1933 Martin managed to transfer to the Nutritional Lab at Cambridge, where he worked on Vitamin E and constructed a countercurrent apparatus to isolate various fractions which demonstrated the existence of three distinct varieties of the vitamin.
He then started work for Sir Charles Martin (no relation to him) on the antipelagra factor in pigs and for three years was totally responsible for the well-being of 30 pigs, from feeding to cleaning out the animals – another example of his manual ability.
Sir Charles Martin introduced Archer Martin to R.L.M. Synge, who was working on the separation of amino acid derivatives by partition between chloroform and water and the two men designed a 40-stage countercurrent extraction machine for this work. Both Martin and Synge moved with their apparatus to the Wool Industries Research Association (Wira) lab in Leeds soon after. Although the machine worked it was not an unqualified success and leaked chloroform quite badly.
It was at this juncture that Martin realised that it was unnecessary to move both liquids; it was only necessary to move one over the other, keeping one liquid stationary. Martin and Synge tried absorbing the water on silica gel packed in a glass column down which a chloroform solution passed and in a very short time this simple piece of equipment yielded results that were outstandingly better than the complex countercurrent machine.
Thus partition chromatography was born; the work was published in the Biochemical Journal in 1941 and Martin and Synge received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1952 for this publication. Martin and others went on to develop paper chromatography, the simplest of all chromatographic methods.
The biochemist W.J. Whelan has published the following (abbreviated) comments on the impact of paper chromatography:
Amino acids that were formerly separated by laborious techniques of organic chemistry and where large quantities were needed could now be separated in microgram amounts. Paper chromatography would allow one within the space of a week to carry out work which until then could well have occupied three years.
After leaving Wira in 1946, Martin spent two years working in the research department of Boots at Nottingham. He joined the National Medical Research Council and in 1952 became the head of the physical chemistry division at the National Institute of Medical Research at Mill Hill, where he was among a galaxy of outstanding workers including John Cornforth, George Popják, James Lovelock and Anthony James (all to become Fellows of the Royal Society and Cornforth a Nobel prizewinner). Popják asked Martin for help in the separation of fatty acids and Martin put A.T. James to work on gas-liquid chromatography, the possibility of which had been forecast in Martin and Synge's 1941 paper.
Accounts of their results were presented at meetings of the Biochemical Society in 1950-52 but it was not until the presentation at the Society for Analytical Chemistry meeting in Oxford in September 1952 before an audience of largely industrial analysts that much notice was taken of the work. Its significance was instantly realised, particularly by the petroleum industry, and an enormous amount of effort was put into research and development such that by the mid-1960s the method had become a mature technique.
In retrospect it is clear that the time at the MRC labs in Mill Hill represented the apogee of Martin's career. After leaving the MRC in 1956 he held a number of consultancies and academic positions in the UK, Holland and the United States. While in Holland, he furthered his pioneered studies on electrophoretic separations but these were relatively unimportant until the development of high-voltage capillary electrophoresis in 1981.
Another demonstration of his prescience is his presentation at the 4th International Symposium on Gas Chromatography in 1962 on "Future Possibilities in Microanalysis ", clearly outlining the advantages of working on a very small scale that have been the subject of intensive efforts in the last few years.
Archer Martin had a mind that was always willing to question conventional opinion, whether scientific or social. Lovelock has recounted how he would appear at Mill Hill on summer days in the late 1940s in an open-necked shirt, shorts and sandals at a time when even scientists wore three-piece suits. Stories of his eccentricity are legion and although no doubt some are true it is sad that many may be due to the fact that for the last 20 years of his life Martin was suffering from the progressive mental degeneration of Alzheimer's disease.
That such an outstanding scientist was reduced in this way surely represents a tragedy of Greek proportions. In spite of this, his earlier work with Synge and James has resulted in a revolution over the last 50 years in practically every branch of chemistry, a revolution that is still taking place as biochemists learn how to master larger and larger molecules that play key roles in living processes.
By E. R. Adlard
Archer John Porter Martin, biochemist: born London 1 March 1910; chemist, Wool Industries Research Association 1938-46; researcher, Boots Pure Drug Co, Nottingham 1946-48; staff, Medical Research Council 1948-52; FRS 1950; Nobel Prize for Chemistry 1952; Head of Physical Chemistry Division, National Institute of Medical Research 1952-56; chemical consultant 1956-59; director, Abbotsbury Laboratories 1959-70; CBE 1960; consultant, Wellcome Research Laboratories 1970-73; Professorial Fellow, Sussex University 1973-78; Robert A. Welch Professor of Chemistry, University of Houston, Texas 1974-79; married 1943 Judith Bagenal (two sons, three daughters); died Llangarron, Herefordshire 28 July 2002.