School and University Studies

School

From the age of 8 I had the stability of being in only one school, King Edward VI School, Stourbridge, Worcestershire, the local grammar school where I grew up. It was fortunate, for me at least, that the school had an accelerated progress to what became O-levels, and encouraged a high level of specialisation. That meant that I could concentrate on science from the age of 13, and I did nothing else when I went into the sixth form at the age of 15. I was taught inorganic and physical chemistry by Mr Timbrell, whom I found dull but transparently clear. He made the subject easy in the early years. In the sixth form we started organic chemistry with Mr Featherstone, who made it interesting as well as easy. He encouraged me to do extra practical organic chemistry after school, sharing the laboratory with him while he checked recipes that he read in J. Chem. Soc. I remember his pointing one day to a paper he was reading there, one of Todd's, and saying to me, "This is the best place to go." Nevertheless, at this stage, it was biology, taught by Mr Anderson, that interested me the most. Nevertheless, for some reason, I knew that I didn't want to do biology at University, but chemistry - the subject I found easiest and, for practical work, the most engaging. I just loved making organic compounds, and distilling or recrystallising them. Another possibility was biochemistry, which I knew nothing about, but which sounded at the time as though it might combine my biological and chemical interests.

Military Service

With help and advice from my Headmaster, R. L. Chambers, I obtained a place to read Natural Sciences in Pembroke College, Cambridge, and they advised us all to do our National Service, which was obligatory at that time, before we came up. I spent two years in the Royal Signals, 1954-1956, beginning with nine months training in Aldershot and Catterick, during which I was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant. Thereafter I was attached to an armoured brigade headquarters in Mčnster in Germany, and was responsible mainly for keeping the 40 vehicles in the signals squadron on the road.

University

I came up to Cambridge in October 1956 and read Natural Sciences, choosing Chemistry, Physics, Metallurgy and Mathematics in the first year, Chemistry, Advanced Chemistry and Biochemistry in the second, and Chemistry in the third. The biochemistry proved to be wonderfully interesting - the Krebs cycle and hexose metabolism were new discoveries then, with a real chemical content just as I had hoped - but I knew it was not a subject that would satisfy me, especially since the practical work seemed to me to be messy. And so organic chemistry it was, inspired especially by the lectures of Peter Sykes and Malcolm Clark, and by my College supervisor David Cohen.

PhD and Postdoctoral Studies

I began my research career in 1959 as a PhD student supervised by Dr John Harley-Mason, an eccentric member of the organic chemistry staff in Cambridge. I had taken the precaution, unusual in those day, of talking to some of the staff members, and had decided that he would suit me best, in spite of reports that he was apt to visit his students six or seven times a day, which proved to be true but not onerous. He gave me two good projects in alkaloid synthesis, which led to minor discoveries2,8 having no obvious connection to alkaloids. He also suggested the decarboxylative eliminations of enol sulfonates as a mild, and possibly biosynthetically relevant, method for acetylene synthesis.5,6 This worked well, and helped me to secure a Research Fellowship in my College starting in 1962, during which I worked on my own for a year studying the cyclobutane-forming reactions of enamines7 which I had stumbled on during my alkaloid work.

With advice from Malcolm Clark, I went to Harvard in 1963 to work with R. B. Woodward, where I participated in the total synthesis of vitamin B12 by carrying out one of the key steps, setting up two of the six contiguous stereogenic centres on the western side. By this time Professor Todd had offered me a post in Cambridge to start in the autumn of 1964, and on his advice I returned to Cambridge rather than stay at Harvard for a second year.

Key to reference numbers:

Plain superscript numbers are Scientific Papers. All to be found in the publication list.


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