The Madras College Archive


Former Pupil Biographies

Professor Edmund Hirst (1898-1975)
Born in Preston, 21 July 1898, the first holder of the Forbes Chair of Organic Chemistry, was educated in Madras College, St. Andrews, and at St. Andrews University where he graduated B.Sc. in 1919 and Ph.D. in 1921 after which he continued research at St. Andrews for two years. From 1923 he was a Lecturer in Chemistry in the Universities of, successively, Manchester, Newcastle and Birmingham where he was appointed Reader in 1934. Two years later he was appointed Professor of Organic Chemistry in Bristol University and in 1945 Sir Samuel Hall Professor of Chemistry in Manchester University. He was Forbes Professor of Organic Chemistry in the University of Edinburgh from 1947 to 1968, becoming Head of the Department on Kendal's retiral in 1959.

Of Hirst's massive contribution to research it is possible to give only the merest outline. While at St. Andrews he made notable contributions to the chemistry of cellulose and the structure of the simple sugars. In a classical paper he demonstrated for the first time the six-membered ring structure of an aldose derivative, thereby laying the foundation for the rigid determination of the structure of many mono-saccharides. The partnership of Hirst and Haworth at Newcastle and Birmingham succeeded in elucidating the main structural features of many disaccharides and practically all the known naturally occurring polysaccharides. The most spectacular success, in conjunction with Haworth, was the establishment of the structure and the synthesis of vitamin C, which was the first synthesis of a vitamin. Subsequently over a long period of years, at Bristol, Manchester and Edinburgh, Hirst led and inspired teams of research workers in investigations into the chemistry of the polysaccharides, hemicelluloses, gums, mucilages, and seaweeds. How great was his influence in this field is reflected in the July 1968 issue of 'Carbohydrate Research' which was dedicated to him on his 70th birthday and contained contributions from research workers who had been his scientific associates.
Of the many honours Hirst received only a few are mentioned here. He was made a C.B.E. in 1957 and knighted in 1964. He was elected F.R.S. in 1934 and was awarded the Davy Medal of the Royal Society in 1948. He was President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh from 1959 to 1964, and President of the Chemical Society from 1956 to 1958. From 1950 to 1955 he was Chairman of the Chemistry Research Board of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. He gave much service to the Courts of his own University and to those of both Heriot-Watt and Strathclyde Universities.
It is difficult to over-emphasise Hirst's influence on the Edinburgh Department of Chemistry. He was an international figure in touch with most of the well-known chemists in Britain and abroad; he led an important school of carbohydrate chemistry having under him a very gifted set of men including E.G.V. Percival, G.O. Aspinall, D.J. Manners and C.T. Greenwood. Immediately on appointment he plan-ned an upper wing for the organic department on the west side of the building and in many ways he brought new life to the Department. Although one of the busiest members of the University community, if one went to see him usually his desk was clear except for a single journal he was reading and he had that great gift of making one feel he had all day for dealing with the immediate problem. As Neil Campbell remembers -'his coming was a great event'. He died in Edinburgh, 29 October 1975.