Although Alex Todd was not medically qualified, his life’s work profoundly affected medical education in two important ways. The first resulted from Todd’s work as an organic chemist in the 1930s and early 1940s, without which the spectacular growth of knowledge of biochemistry in general, and metabolism in particular, could hardly have occurred. He and his colleagues were the first to synthesize (and thereby unequivocally to establish the structure of) many of the phosphorylated sugars involved in cellular respiration and energy exchange, in the biosynthesis of glycogen, and in the configuration of DNA. The second arose from Todd’s chairmanship of a Royal Commission on Medical Education. Not only did that report foreshadow many of the changes in the provision of medical education in London, which were amplified in a subsequent report produced by a committee under the chairmanship of Lord Flowers and led to the amalgamation of a number of medical schools, but it also led to the creation of new clinical schools that are likely to be the last to be established in this country in the foreseeable future.
Alex (as he liked to be called by his friends) was, in every sense, a big man. Standing well over 6 feet 6 inches tall, slim, and with an imposing head of initially blond and latterly snow-white hair, he naturally dominated any group; a dominance enhanced by a deep, slightly gruff, voice and a compelling Glaswegian accent. But it was not only physical size which gave him his commanding stature; his record of outstanding achievements, both in scientific research and in its application to the public good, endowed him with a reputation which few could challenge.
After graduating from Glasgow in 1928, Alex began his scientific career as a doctoral student in Frankfurt, graduating in 1931. The award of a 1851 senior studentship enabled him to join Robert Robinson at Oxford and to take a second doctorate in 1933. Two years of work in Edinburgh, where he participated in pioneering research leading to the synthesis of vitamin B1, followed by a further period of research at the Lister Institute in London (on vitamin E and on the active principle of cannabis) had already established Todd as one of the most innovative and productive of the younger generation of organic chemists in the UK. It was thus understandable, though surprising to some, that he should be offered the then second-most important British chair of chemistry, at the University of Manchester, at the ripe age of 30. The wisdom of that choice was made indisputable by the brilliant research he and his rapidly growing group of young colleagues undertook on the synthesis of natural materials, including flower pigments and substances containing phosphate linked to sugars, which also led to his election to the fellowship of the Royal Society while only 35 years old. This work occupied Todd’s attention for the remainder of his active involvement in laboratory-based research; as mentioned above, it resulted in the first syntheses of the substance that provides energy for all life processes (adenosine triphosphate), of the coenzymes NAD, FAD (the biologically active forms of nicotinamide and of vitamin B2) and of UDP-glucose; it also laid the foundations for the elucidation (by James Watson and Francis Crick) of the structure of DNA. It was these important contributions to knowledge that were recognized by the award to Todd of the (undivided) Nobel prize for chemistry in 1957.
Alex remained in Manchester throughout most of the Second World War, devoting his energies largely to research on chemical warfare agents which (to his oft-expressed relief) were never used. In 1943 he was offered the Sir William Dunn professorship of biochemistry at Cambridge, in succession to the legendary but aged Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV, p.535]. A brief tour of that department convinced Alex that it was not for him - an episode of which he gleefully reminded me on many occasions, after he (thirty years later) had persuaded me to accept the very chair that he had refused! But, in his discussions with the then vice-chancellor, Alex had indicated that he might be interested in the chair of chemistry that was about to be filled, and he was duly appointed to head the (at that time, rather moribund) Cambridge University chemical laboratories. In a remarkably short time he refurbished the old laboratories, persuaded the University to build new premises which embodied the latest ‘state of the art’ facilities, and propelled the international status of the department into the first rank. Alex occupied the chair until 1971 when a massive heart attack forced him to seek a less stressful mode of life.
Possibly as a result of his wartime service on various committees under the Ministries of Defence and of Supply, and of his realization that he could persuade even the University of Cambridge to take rapid action in translating an abstract scheme into (literally) concrete reality, Alex became increasingly involved in matters outside the purely scientific. He had been elected a fellow of Christ’s College on his move to Cambridge; nineteen years later he accepted election as the 32nd master of that college and held that post, with outstanding success, until he reached the age of 70. In 1946 he accepted the livery of the Worshipful Company of Salters, whose efforts to promote and advance chemical education at all levels he vigorously supported; he served as master from 1961 to 1962. In 1947 he was invited to become one of the original members of the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy (ACSP), under the chairmanship of Sir Henry Tizard. When Sir Henry retired, Alex was the obvious choice to succeed him, and he remained in that important and influential post until the advent of a Labour government in 1964 caused him to resign, rather than risk an almost inevitable clash with (particularly) that governments chief scientific adviser, Patrick (later Lord) Blackett.
In 1961 the then secretary of the cabinet, Sir Burke (later Lord) Trend had been commissioned to convene a committee of enquiry into the organization of civil
science; Alex (by now, and since 1954, Sir Alexander) served as one of its members and contributed largely to the report which advocated major changes in the way civil science was funded in the UK, but which, for political reasons, was not implemented. However, this experience initiated a close friendship between Alex Todd and Burke Trend, which was reflected also in the nomination of Trend as deputy chairman, and ultimately chairman, of the Nuffield Foundation to succeed Alex in 1979.
In 1965 Alex (by virtue of the life peerage bestowed upon him in 1962, now Lord Todd of Trumpington) was invited to accept a post that gave him immense satisfaction. As an undergraduate in Glasgow, Alex had taken courses in metallurgy and bacteriology at the Royal Technical College; now, thirty-eight years later, that college had become the University of Strathclyde and Alex became its first chancellor. He took great pride in the growing reputation of that university and, as I recollect with affection, in his ability competently to draw pints of beer from behind the bar of the campus pub, appropriately named ‘The Lord Todd’.
Alex had become accustomed to playing prominent roles on the international as well as the national stage. He had served as president of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry from 1963 to 1965; his Nobel prize had led to innumerable invitations to lecture at symposia and congresses all over the world (and to the receipt of over thirty honorary doctorates) and he seemed to be perpetually on the move. He was president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1970 and gave a forthright but politically incorrect address on the theme ‘a time to think’; he could never understand why that address, delivered in Durham Cathedral, should have attracted so much obloquy from left-wing critics, many of whom dressed themselves as nuclear corpses and disrupted the proceedings.
The pinnacle of any British scientist’s career is to be elected president of the Royal Society, and Alex served, with immense distinction, in that office from 1975 to 1980. It is an eloquent tribute to him that his five presidential addresses appear today to be as relevant and pertinent to the public concerns of science as they were when they were first delivered.
Alex was appointed to membership of the Order of Merit in 1977. Although he took legitimate pride in the receipt of that immense honour, he wryly commented (in his autobiography A time to remember [Cambridge University Press, 1983) that he took pleasure in the award primarily because Alison, his wife, could now claim that both her father (Sir Henry Dale [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p. 130) and her husband had been Nobel laureates, presidents of the Royal Society and holders of the OM and the German Order Pour le Mérite.
In 1979 Alex assumed the chairmanship of the Hong Kong based Croucher Foundation, which occupied him happily for the remainder of his life, and also gave him the opportunity to travel frequently to Hong Kong (a place he loved - he spoke fluent Mandarin) and to mainland China.
Alex was fortunate not only in his professional but also his family life. He had married Alison Dale in 1937. They were a devoted, charming and ever-welcoming couple and enjoyed over half a century of happy marriage. They are survived by one son and two daughters. After Alison died, Alex was fortunate to be cared for by his long-time associate from Manchester days, Barbara Mann, who acted as his secretary and had accompanied the group of scientists who had migrated to Cambridge in 1944 (and who dined together once each year as ‘The Toddlers’). Their friendship sustained and warmed his final years.
Sir Hans Kornberg
[Royal Society News, Mar 1997; The Times, 15 Jan 1997; The Daily Telegraph, 14 Jan 1997; The Independent, 16 Jan 1997]