(1910–2002) British chemist Martin, a Londoner by birth, was educated at Cambridge University, obtaining his PhD in 1936. He worked as a research chemist with the Wool Industries Research Association in Leeds from 1938 to 1946 and with Boots Research Department in Nottingham until 1948 when he joined the Medical Research Council. From 1959 until 1970 Martin was director of Abbotbury Laboratories Ltd.
In 1944 Martin and his colleague Richard Synge (1914–1994) developed a chromatographic technique that proved indispensable to later workers investigating protein structures. Without this technique the explosive growth of knowledge in biochemistry and molecular biology would have been dampened by prolonged and tedious analyses of complex molecules.
Column chromatography was first invented by Mikhail Tsvet for the analysis of plant pigments in 1906. Martin was trying to isolate vitamin E and developed a new method of separation involving the distribution and separation of molecules between two immiscible solvents flowing in different directions – countercurrent extraction. From this rather cumbersome apparatus evolved the idea of partition chromatography, in which one solvent is stationary and the other moves across it. Martin and Synge tried different substances, such as silica gel and cellulose, to hold the stationary solvent and hit on the idea of using paper. Thus paper chromatography was introduced.
In this process a drop of the mixture to be analyzed is placed at the corner of a piece of absorbent paper the edge of which is dipped into an organic solvent. This will soak into the paper by capillarity taking with it the components of the mixture to be analyzed to different distances depending on their solubility. In the case of a protein, the identity of the various amino acids can be discovered comparing positions of the spots with a reference chart. The basic technique is easy to operate, quick, cheap, works on small amounts, and can separate out closely related substances.
For their work Martin and Synge were awarded the 1952 Nobel Prize for chemistry. Martin tended to treat the value of their contribution somewhat dismissively, pointing out that “All the ideas are simple and had peoples' minds been directed that way the method would have flourished perhaps a century earlier.”
From A Dictionary of Scientists in Oxford Reference.
Subjects: Science and Mathematics.