B.R.S.M. All this happened, more or less.


So You Think You’re Having A Bad Day?

Another quick update! Still busy!

From Biogr. Mems Fell. R. Soc. 1971, 17, 399-429 (doi:10.1098/rsbm.1971.0015)

Next week I'm starting a new total synthesis project with alkaloids. This is pretty exciting, as some incredibly famous (historic and modern) targets belong to this class, and, well, it's always fun to learn new things. Most of the compounds I've made in the past three years have been bright orange, which has made chromatography a bit of a breeze, and I'll miss that, but it's time to move on. While doing some literature searching and background reading for my new project I noticed the name William Kermack on quite a lot of papers. I knew I'd heard it before, but I struggled to remember where for a while. Eventually I remembered: he was mentioned in a footnote to an article on Sir Robert Robinson and the curly arrow in Chemistry World in 2010. You can read it for free, courtesy of the University of Saint Andrews here.

Born in the small town of Kirriemuir at the end of the 19th century, Kermack studied maths, natural philosophy, and chemistry at the University of Aberdeen, where he enrolled as a student at the age of 16, before heading south to work with William Perkin junior and Sir Robert at the legendary Dyson Perrins laboratoryof the University of Oxford (as a member of the British Dyestuffs Corporation contingent there). Two years later, in 1921, he returned to Scotland to take charge of the Chemical Section of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh where he continued the work on alkaloids he began in Oxford as well collaborating with the medical researchers there. Tragically, his career as a bench chemist came to a violent end one fateful monday evening in 1924, when, while working alone in the lab, a flask exploded showering him in caustic reaction mixture. After two months in hospital he was discharged completely blind at the age of just 26.

Remarkably, this didn't particularly affect his career as chemist. He continued to collaborate and supervise PhD students, and still made he way to the lab each day by public transport. A year later he got married. He continued to research alkaloids, and became interested in carbohydrate chemistry, statistics and epidemiology as well. He obtained a D.Sc. from his alma mater, Aberdeen, for work on carbolines and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Some 25 years after his accident he was appointed the first Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Aberdeen, which surprised many as he was, by training, an organic chemist whose major interest at the time was statistics, and he lacked experience in teaching and administration. An editorial in Nature remarked that ‘to proceed with such an appointment in a laboratory subject has something in it of an act of faith, based not alone on the high scientific attainments but also on the rich mental endowments and sterling qualities of the new professor’

Before accepting the new position, while still in Edinburgh, he commissioned a Plasticine model of his new department to enable him to familiarise himself with its layout, and was indeed able to find his way around without any problems. He lectured, oversaw the expansion of his own department (and others), translated works from German to English, wrote books, worked for the Chemical Abstracts service, collaborated and researched, aided by his students and his remarkable memory, and eventually became Dean of the Faculty of Science. He continued to work until his death at the age of 72, at his desk, while at work on another book on biochemistry. Kermack lead a remarkable life, rising to become a respected and popular academic, in spite of his disability, in an era when few technological aids existed to help the blind. So, next time you have a bad day in the lab, remember that things could be worse, and that Kermack himself only referred to his accident as a minor setback!



Biogr. Mems Fell. R. Soc. 1971, 17, 399-429 (doi:10.1098/rsbm.1971.0015)

Chemistry World, 2010, April, 54-57

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  1. I really enjoy short bio’s about chemists (or any scientist for that matter), so I hope you continue. I often wondered how terrible it would be to lose your hands (or even one hand) being a chemist. I think being blinded is equally terrible. It really says something about the mans passion for science. I believe we would all like to think we had that type of determination. And dying at your desk while researching science? Very inspiring/romantic to say the least.

    I recently read a autobiography that G. Stork wrote in …(I want to say Tetrahedron or Tet. Lett., but I can’t remember the journal). I thought that was very amusing. Your readers would probably like that as well. He did some pretty funny things in his early years, like writing a paper (and publishing it) behind his P.I.’s back.


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