Nobel laureate Sir Robert Robinson

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1947

"for his work on plant products of biological importance, especially the alkaloids"


Sir Robert Robinson was born in 1886 at Rufford, Derbyshire and graduated from Manchester University with a BSc in 1906 and a DSc in 1910. In 1912 he was appointed as the first Professor of Pure and Applied Organic Chemistry at the University of Sydney. When he arrived in Sydney, Robinson was already launched on a career which would make him a world leader in pure organic chemistry. His structural studies related to the red dye of brasil-wood, a dye (from India and the East) which had been in use for nearly a millennium (and which was perhaps best known for having given its name to Brasil). Brasilin has been described as the ‘one compound that may be regarded as symbolic of Robinson’s work throughout his long research career’. His published research on brazilin appeared at intervals throughout the span 1906 to 1974.

Robinson returned to Britain in 1915 to take the Chair in Organic Chemistry at the University of Liverpool until 1920 when he accepted an appointment as Director of Research at the British Dyestuffs Corporation. One year later, he became Professor of Chemistry at St. Andrews and in 1922 he took the Chair in Organic Chemistry at Manchester University until 1928 when he accepted a similar post in the University of London. In 1930, he was appointed Waynflete Professor of Chemistry, Oxford University, where he remained until his retirement in 1955 when he was appointed Emeritus Professor and Honorary Fellow of Magdalen College.

Robinson’s extensive researches in organic chemistry have dealt not only with the structure and synthesis of many organic bodies, but also with the electrochemical mechanism of organic reactions. His interest in the chemical constitution of plant dyestuffs (anthocyanins) soon extended to another group of vegetable bodies, the alkaloids, where the whole series of his researches are remarkable for their brilliant syntheses. He contributed greatly towards the definition of the arrangement of atoms within molecules of morphine, papaverine, narcotine, etc. These discoveries led to the successful production of certain antimalarial drugs.

Sir Robert was President of the Royal Society from 1945 to 1950. He was a Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur and held Honorary Doctorates of over twenty universities. He has been honoured by The Chemical Society (Longstaff, Faraday and Flintoff Medals), the Royal Society (Davy, Royal and Copley Medals) and the Swiss, American, French and German Chemical Societies; he has also been awarded the Franklin Medal of the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia, the Albert Gold Medal of the Royal Society of Arts and the Medal of Freedom (U.S. Government). Sir Robert was Corresponding Member, Honorary Fellow, Foreign Member, Associate or Correspondant of almost fifty learned societies.

In 1912 Sir Robert married Gertrude Maud Walsh, a fellow student at Manchester University. They collaborated in several fields of chemical research, notably in a survey of anthocyanins. She died in 1954; they had one son and one daughter. In 1957, he married Stearn Sylvia Hillstrom (née Hershey) of New York.

In his younger days, Sir Robert was a keen mountaineer, having climbed in the Alps, Pyrenees, Norway and New Zealand. He was an ardent chess player being President of the British Chess Federation, 1950-1953. His hobbies also included photography and music.

The School has honoured its connection with Sir Robert by naming one of its major Organic laboratories after him.

The University has acquired a collection of papers belonging to Robinson, including his hand-written Nobel diploma.