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Hill, Robert, 1899-1991 (biochemist)



  • Existence: 1899 - 1991


Robert Hill (he was known to his friends and colleagues as Robin) was born in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, on 2 April 1899. He was educated at Bedales School until 1917 when he was admitted to Emmanuel College Cambridge. Before he could begin his university studies Hill became eligible for war service. He joined the Cambridge University Officers' Training Corps but in the autumn of 1917 was drafted into the infantry. In February 1918, after a short spell in training on Salisbury Plain, he was transferred to the Anti-Gas Establishment of the Royal Engineers, based at University College London. In 1919 Hill resumed his studies at Cambridge where he was to remain for the rest of his academic career. He read Chemistry, Physics and Botany in the Natural Sciences Tripos, specialising in Chemistry in Part II and graduated with a first-class degree. At Bedales School Hill had developed a scientific interest in natural dyes and dyeing techniques. He created his own dyes and in later years Hill made up the paints he used in his water-colour paintings. This interest and his chemistry degree contributed to Hill's first postgraduate research, on inorganic pigments. In 1922 Hill joined F.G. Hopkins's Department of Biochemistry. To his disappointment, he was directed by Hopkins away from plant biochemistry to research on haemoglobin. His work on haemoglobin led to the reversible separation of the pigment and protein components, and to subsequent research on the properties of artificial haemoglobins with other metals replacing the iron of the haem pigment. After a series of papers on the properties of haemoglobin, a mutual interest in haem compounds led in 1926 to collaboration with David Keilin, then working at the Molteno Institute, Cambridge, on the isolation of cytochrome c. Another early interest of Hill's had been meteorology. His first scientific paper was on the sunspots of February 1917. In the early 1920s Hill developed a 'fish-eye' camera, a camera with a lens able to photograph through 180°, and thus able to photograph the whole sky at once. It was first described at a meeting of the Royal Meteorological Society in 1924. The firm R. & J. Beck Ltd marketed the camera but although the camera aroused much interest it was not widely adopted. After a visit to Singapore and the Dutch East Indies in 1932 Hill continued his research on haemoglobin with a study of its oxygen binding affinity, especially that of myoglobin (muscle haemoglobin). As with his researches with Keilin this employed spectroscopic methods, at which Hill became adept. In the 1930s Hill turned to plant biochemistry. He worked on the chemistry of anthraquinone colouring matters and other glycosides in plants and in 1938 received a Royal Society grant for work on madder dye. Hill began to study photosynthesis in 1936, with research into oxygen evolution by chloroplasts, work related to his research on haemoglobin. In 1937 he discovered the 'Hill reaction'. When isolated chloroplasts from green plant leaves were illuminated in the presence of certain iron containing salts they produced oxygen while the iron underwent reduction. The amount of oxygen evolved was initially small, requiring considerable ingenuity to measure it and Hill's experience with the spectroscopic determination of small amounts of oxygen in haemoglobin was very important. His discovery of the 'Hill reaction', followed by research on plant cytochromes established his reputation in this field. Despite this and his other research achievements Hill held no higher degree until the award of the Cambridge Sc.D. in 1942. In 1935 Hill married Priscilla, the sister of his friend E.B. Worthington. They bought Vatches Farm, in Barton near Cambridge. Here Hill grew many of the plants and fruit trees he was to use in his research. Hill's work from 1922 had been supported by a series of research grants from various bodies. In 1943, however, Hill was taken onto the scientific staff of the Agricultural Research Council. He remained working in Cambridge biochemistry department. Hill's interest in plant biochemistry remained broad. He continued research into plant and inorganic pigments and in 1943, in cooperation with the East Malling Research Station, Maidstone, Kent he undertook research on fruit tree rootstocks, much of it on trees grown at Vatches Farm. In 1958 Hill was asked to advise on the biochemistry of tea fermentation by the Nyasaland Tea Association. He visited Nyasaland (Malawi) and helped formulate a biochemical research programme. Hill continued to receive most recognition for his work on photosynthesis. From the late 1950s Hill concentrated on the energetics of photosynthesis and in 1960 made his second great contribution to photosynthesis research with the discovery, with F.L. Bendall, of the 'Z scheme' of electron transport which linked two photochemical energy conversion processes within photosynthesis. They suggested that the electron carriers shuttle electrons from one photosystem, involving the splitting of water, to a second, able to reduce a protein factor (later identified with the 'methaemoglobin-reducing factor' he had discovered) which transferred the electrons ultimately to carbon dioxide. Hill retired from the Agricultural Research Council in 1966 but his research activities continued little diminished until his death in 1991. In his later years Hill worked particularly extensively on the wider issue of the application of the Second Law of Thermodynamics to photosynthesis. Although his first major paper on this subject ad been rejected for publication, three further papers were published in the 1980s. He continued also to pursue research on naturl nd inorganic dyes, fruit tree research and meteorology. Hill was accorded many honours, principally for his contributions to photosynthesis. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1946 and was awarded a Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1963 and the Copley Medal in 1987. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1971, a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences in 1975 and a Foreign Member of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in 1975. In 1963 Hill was made an Honorary Fellow of Emmanuel College Cambridge and in the same year received the Charles E. Kettering Research Award and the first Award for Potosynthesis of te Society of American Plant Physiologists. Hill was elected a Member of the American Society of Biological Chemists in 1964 and received the Finsen Medal of the Comité International de Photobiologie in 1972. He received Honorary Degrees from the universities of Würzburg (1986), Göttingen (1987) and Sheffield (1990).

Found in 1 Collection or Record:


Robert Hill: Correspondence and Papers

Reference Code: GBR/0012/MS Add.9267
Scope and Contents

The collection is comprised of biographical material, research documents, notes about Hill's development of the fish-eye camera, reports related to Hill's research at Cambridge University, various materials related to Hill's publications, lecture notes and materials, a small amount of material pertaining to Hill's involvement in societies and organisations, materials related to visits and conferences, and a substantial selection of Hill's correspondence.

Dates: 1915-1994 (Circa)
Conditions Governing Access: Some items are restricted at the discretion of the Keeper of Manuscripts.