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C&EN Special Issue: 85th Anniversary Of The Priestley Medal - Volume 86, Number 14, April 7, 2008

1945: Ian Morris Heilbron (1886–1959)

As a youth in Glasgow, Scotland, Sir Ian Morris Heilbron’s enthusiasm for chemistry was much to the chagrin of his father, who thought that science seemed to provide only limited professional options in academia, according to longtime Heilbron collaborator Arthur Herbert Cook in “Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society” (Vol. 6, Nov. 1960, page 65).

Heilbron studied chemistry at the Royal Technical College, Glasgow, under G. G. Henderson, who introduced him to organic chemistry research. At Henderson’s urging, Heilbron took a graduate fellowship at the University of Leipzig, in Germany, where he studied under Arthur Rudolf Hantzsch from 1907 to 1909. It was during his time there that he became interested in spectroscopy.

After earning his Ph.D. at Leipzig, Heilbron returned to Glasgow in 1909 as a lecturer at the Royal Technical College until the outbreak of World War I. He then served as an officer in the Royal Army Service Corps in Greece, ultimately earning the rank of lieutenant-colonel. His services earned him a Distinguished Service Order medal and Médaille d’Honneur of the Greek Order of the Redeemer.

After the war, Heilbron worked briefly at British Dyestuffs Corp. (later renamed Imperial Chemical Industries) and remained a consultant until 1949. In 1919, he accepted a position as professor of organic chemistry at the Royal Technical College, followed by appointments as the Heath Harrison Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Liverpool (1920–33), professor of organic chemistry and later Sir Samuel Hall Professor of Chemistry at the University of Manchester (1933–38), and professor of organic chemistry at Imperial College, London (1938–49).

At Liverpool, Heilbron’s research interests turned to the chemistry of natural products. His research on the relationship between sterols and vitamin D, the field of vitamin A, and polyene synthesis brought him international renown.

Soon after arriving at Imperial College, Heilbron was tapped again for wartime service. During World War II he served as a scientific adviser to the Ministry of Supply (1939–42) and to the British Ministry of Production (1942–45). It was then that Heilbron played a primary role in the introduction of DDT, according to a history of Imperial College. He had put his team to work analyzing a product from Geigy called Cesarol. The scientists determined that one of the two isomers in the principal ingredient was an active insecticide. The compound was licensed from Geigy to be manufactured in Britain, and it was put to the test in tropical countries. Spraying mosquito nets with DDT successfully controlled malaria and yellow fever. Heilbron, in collaboration with Cook, also investigated the structure and synthesis of penicillin, making many contributions.

Heilbron was knighted for his war service in 1946, the same year he was awarded the Priestley Medal. He continued his public service in a variety of positions, such as chairman of the Advisory Council of the Royal Military College of Science. After the war he played a leading role in the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry. He also received many academic honors, honorary degrees, and honorary scientific society memberships. In addition to the Priestley Medal, Heilbron was awarded the Davy and Royal Medals from the Royal Society in 1943 and 1951, respectively. He was the editor-in-chief of the “Dictionary of Organic Compounds” and chairman of the editorial board of “Thorpe’s Dictionary of Applied Chemistry.”

Heilbron retired from academia in 1949 to become director of research when the Brewing Industry Research Foundation decided to set up a central research facility. He worked there until 1958. He died suddenly in September 1959.

Heilbron was the first non-American to be honored with the Priestley Medal, an event that was recognized with a brief news item in the April 1, 1946, edition of the New York Times. In his acceptance speech, Heilbron acknowledged the significance, “marking as it does the end of a long war in which we have fought and worked side by side. In awarding me this medal, you testify to your desire to bind ever more strongly the ties of kinship and friendship between our two nations so essential for the future of civilization” (C&EN, April 25, 1946, page 1035).—Corinne Marasco

More On This Topic

  • 85th Anniversary of the Priestley Medal
  • Introduction
  • C&EN celebrates the American Chemical Society's highest honor
  • Priestley's Medals
  • The medals of the minister-scientist who discovered oxygen attest to his fame and infamy
  • The Priestley Medalists, 1923-2008
  • View a complete list of award recipients
  • Living History
  • These 12 Priestley Medal winners reflect on winning ACS's most coveted award
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society

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More On This Topic

  • 85th Anniversary of the Priestley Medal
  • Introduction
  • C&EN celebrates the American Chemical Society's highest honor
  • Priestley's Medals
  • The medals of the minister-scientist who discovered oxygen attest to his fame and infamy
  • The Priestley Medalists, 1923-2008
  • View a complete list of award recipients
  • Living History
  • These 12 Priestley Medal winners reflect on winning ACS's most coveted award