Fredrick Gowland Hopkins (1861-1947)
About a century ago it was believed all the nutrition we needed to thrive could come from fats, proteins, carbohydrates and some minerals. It was the discovery of Fredrick Gowland Hopkins that the nutritional world was turned upside down.
Fredrick Gowland Hopkins was born in Eastbourne, Sussex in 1861. When he was very young, his father died, leaving his son his microscope and telescope. In 1871, his mother decided to move Enfield and enrolled him in a school in London. Hopkins did not find any of the schools he had attended so far very challenging and at the age of 17 he went to work in as a clerk at an insurance company. This lasted 6 months and he eventually registered at the City College of London to study chemistry. Here he was mentored by Sir Thomas Stevenson. He started working in the area of forensic chemistry and received his B.Sc. in 1890. During his studies he continued publishing but then decided to study medicine and became a physician at Guy's Hospital in London, where he eventually taught toxicology and physiology. He struggled financially and decided to move to teach physiological chemistry at Cambridge in 1898. In 1902, he also earned a doctorate in physiology from the University of London.
He married Jessie Anne Stevens and they had three children together. Throughout his life Hopkins struggled financially and did many jobs to keep him afloat. All the work took a toll on him and in 1910 his health deteriorated. While he was recovering, Trinity College of Cambridge offered him a position where his teaching burden was reduced. He became Cambridge's first biochemistry professor and he headed the institute of biochemistry till he retired in 1943.
There are very few scientists who make multiple major discoveries. Sir Hopkins was definitely one of these scientists. Although he is remembered for his discovery of vitamins, he contributed with many other discoveries in biochemistry. In 1901 Hopkins with his colleagues isolated the amino acid tryptophan. His method of isolating tryptophan and identifying its structure were very important. They further studied what happened to mice fed tryptophan versus those who were not. The mice who were not fed tryptophan in their diet did not gain adequate weight. This finding set the groundwork for studying the role of individual chemicals in metabolic reactions.
Hopkins along with Sir Walter Fletcher studied muscle contraction. They found that when muscles contracted and were oxygen depleted, a substance which was called lactic acid built up. Many years later, Hopkins also isolated a structure with three amino acids which was named glutathione which is important for oxygen utilization in the cell. Glutathione is a major antioxidant in our bodies.
During this time, the general thinking was that protein, fat, carbohydrate and mineral salts were the only nutrients needed for maintaining health and growth. These missing substances were given the name thought to be accessory substances. This was a big step because at this time deficiency diseases were thought to occur due to poisons from contaminated foods or bacteria. Hopkins studied purified diets with all the macronutrients and some minerals versus similar diets with milk and yeast added to them that were fed to rats. He found that milk had the 'missing substances' which had an impact on mice growth. He also noticed that diets with inadequate roughage caused gut bacteria to manufacture missing substances. The findings from all this were published in 1912 and called the unknown substances 'accessory food substances' which were later called vitamins His work on vitamins was very important due to food shortages during the World War I. He also identified that margarine did not contain vitamins A and D. In 1926, vitamins A and D were added to margarine. In 1929 Hopkins was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his work on vitamins.
Hopkins was not only a great scientist but a great teacher. There was a saying that 'all Hoppy's geese are swans.' Four of his students also went on to receive Nobel Prizes! Thirty of his students became fellows of the prestigious Royal Society. He was knighted in 1925 and membership of the Order of Merit. He died in May of 1947.
Fredrick Gowland Hopkins was a British biochemist and physician. His discovery of vitamins as a nutrient in foods had a major impact on the understanding of health and disease. He also made many other major discoveries that include isolating and finding the amino acid tryptophan, the antioxidant glutathione and lactic acids in the muscle to name a few. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his work on vitamins. Hopkins started the first program of Biochemistry at Cambridge University. He was a great teacher and 4 of his own students went on to win Nobel Prizes.
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