Papers and correspondence of Norman Wingate Pirie FRS (1907-1997), biochemist

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The collection is particularly noteworthy for its full documentation of all aspects of Pirie's research, development and promotion of leaf protein for human nutrition.

Biographical material is not extensive. It includes obituaries, a copy of his Royal Society Biographical Memoir, a little documentation of undergraduate work and historical material assembled by Pirie relating to J. Brachet, J.B.S. Haldane, F.G. Hopkins and H.H. Mann. Miscellaneous material includes Pirie's philosophical notes on the nature of life, scientific method and other topics. Research notebooks complete the incomplete sequence of numbered notebooks listed in the Catalogue of the Papers of Sir Frederick Charles Bawden including papers of Alfred Alexander Peter Kleczkowski and Norman Wingate Pirie (CSAC 37/1/76) and also deposited in the Archives of the Royal Society. The sequence presented here runs from 1929 to 1996, with the missing notebooks to be found in the Bawden collection. The work documented includes Pirie's earliest research with A.A. Miles on Brucella abortus and Brucella mellitensis, his research with F.C. Bawden on viruses, and the many facets of his work on leaf protein to the end of his life. There are also two unnumbered notebooks not included in the sequence which date from the 1940s.

Records of Pirie's Leaf Protein work form the largest component in the collection, documenting the work for which Pirie became widely known. The material covers Pirie's own research work on leaf protein, his interest in leaf protein work worldwide, the promotion of leaf protein for human nutrition and the development of equipment, especially suitable for use in less developed countries, which could be used to extract it. There is documentation of Pirie's struggles within the Agricultural Research Council to find support for his work, his reports on progress and later fund-raising for his research. There is material relating to design and construction of leaf protein apparatus of various types. Pirie believed strongly that leaf protein could make a positive contribution to nutrition in poorer countries and trials were undertaken in India, Jamaica and other countries. Latterly he found backing for his work from the Find Your Feet charity and this relationship is documented. Also of interest is Pirie's interest in promoting leaf protein, including sample recipes using the foodstuff.

There is also material relating to other research interests, focusing on Pirie's earlier research, including the work for which he was elected FRS and was awarded its Copley Medal. It is not extensive and should be consulted alongside the research notebooks. It is presented by topic, for example tobacco mosaic and tomato bushy stunt viruses with F.C. Bawden in the 1930s, Brucella abortus in the 1930s and 1940s and bracken eradication in the 1950s. There is also material relating to various alternative sources of protein, including seafood, which relates to his interest in nutrition. Miscellaneous material includes documentation of Pirie's lobbying on behalf of 'biochemical engineering' research in the 1950s.

Publications material includes drafts and other material relating to a few of his works, for example on food resources and his 1987 book Leaf Protein and its by-products in human and animal nutrition, a small number of book reviews and a little editorial correspondence. The bulk of the publications record, however, comprises a sequence of Pirie's volumes of bound offprints, from 1929 to 1991 (the material for 1992-1996 is unbound). This sequence is more than just a full record of Pirie's published output, as intercalated or pasted to pages of the volumes are typescripts of unpublished work or work not published in full, reports on research, visits abroad etc., correspondence, and letters to the press on a wide variety of topics including nuclear weapons, the Communist party, space exploration, scientific writing and world nutrition. The offprints themselves may bear later manuscript annotations and typescript notes by Pirie, giving improved methods, corrections and later bibliographical references.

A few of Pirie's visits and conferences are documented, 1946-1989. There is material relating to extended visits to the USA in 1946, and to Czechoslovakia, the USSR and China in 1952 and later visits in connection with leaf protein work. The lack of coverage is partially compensated for by the quality of some of the documentation of the visits, including Pirie's manuscript and typescript notes and his official reports.

The bulk of the surviving correspondence relates to Pirie's work on leaf protein. There are also individual letters from significant correspondents, from the 1930s on, including A. Szent-Gyorgi, J.B.S. Haldane, G.C. de Hevesy, P.B. Medawar, T. Svedberg, R.L.M. Synge etc., which Pirie appears to have kept for historical reasons. The correspondence is presented in alphabetical order by correspondent.

Administrative / Biographical History

The material in this personal Pirie archive in part supplements that presented in the Catalogue of the Papers of Sir Frederick Charles Bawden including papers of Alfred Alexander Peter Kleczkowski and Norman Wingate Pirie (CSAC 37/1/76), processed by the Unit for deposit in the Royal Society in 1976.Norman Wingate ('Bill') Pirie was born in Torrance, Stirlingshire, on 1 July 1907. After attending various schools in Scotland and England he completed his schooling at Rydal School, Colwyn Bay. He entered Emmanuel College Cambridge in 1925 to study for the Natural Science Tripos. Pirie specialised in biochemistry for Part II, attracted by the liveliness of the Biochemistry Department under Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, who had assembled a team of highly talented young biochemists including J.B.S. Haldane, J. Needham and D. Keilin. He graduated B.A. in 1929 and was appointed Demonstrator in the Department of Biochemistry and received an Emmanuel College research fellowship. For the following five years Pirie worked on the purification on sulphur compounds, studying the chemistry and metabolism of compounds such as methionine and glutathione. In 1932 he began research with A.A. (later Sir Ashley) Miles on the bacteria Brucella abortus and Brucella mellitensis. He retained an active interest in this research through the 1930s and 1940s.

The material in this personal Pirie archive in part supplements that presented in the Catalogue of the Papers of Sir Frederick Charles Bawden including papers of Alfred Alexander Peter Kleczkowski and Norman Wingate Pirie (CSAC 37/1/76), processed by the Unit for deposit in the Royal Society in 1976.In 1934 he began his longstanding collaborative research with the biochemist F.C. (later Sir Frederick) Bawden, then with the Potato Virus Research Unit in Cambridge, on viruses responsible for potato disease. Their work demonstrated conclusively that the genetic material found in all viruses is ribonucleic acid (RNA) and thus contradicted the view of Wendell Stanley, who had thought the viruses consisted entirely of protein. Bawden and Pirie realized that RNA might be the infective component of viruses but they were unable to confirm this experimentally, and it was not until 1956 that this was established by others. Bawden had moved to the Rothamsted Experimental Station, Harpenden, Hertfordshire, in 1936 and in 1940 Pirie moved there himself, having been appointed Virus Physiologist. He became Head of the Biochemistry Department in 1947.

The material in this personal Pirie archive in part supplements that presented in the Catalogue of the Papers of Sir Frederick Charles Bawden including papers of Alfred Alexander Peter Kleczkowski and Norman Wingate Pirie (CSAC 37/1/76), processed by the Unit for deposit in the Royal Society in 1976.Pirie's research into plant viruses had initiated his interest in properties and uses of leaf protein. Wartime food shortages prompted investigative work on the large-scale extraction of leaf protein for human food and tests were undertaken at Rothamsted. After the war Pirie continued this line of research, with support from the Rockefeller and Wolfson Foundations and later the International Biological Programme he worked on methods of extraction. Although the potential of leaves as a human protein source had first been mooted in 1773, the full significance of it was not recognised until the twentieth century. Pirie was the first to develop a practical technology for its extraction. Pirie argued that in many climates more edible protein could be obtained by cultivation of leaf crops than any other form of cultivation. Much of his attention was given to studying suitable plants and to developing equipment for efficient small-scale or household production of leaf protein, particularly in the developing world. He was also interested in marketing it as suitable for human consumption through use in recipes.

The material in this personal Pirie archive in part supplements that presented in the Catalogue of the Papers of Sir Frederick Charles Bawden including papers of Alfred Alexander Peter Kleczkowski and Norman Wingate Pirie (CSAC 37/1/76), processed by the Unit for deposit in the Royal Society in 1976.Pirie was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1949, 'for his researches on plant viruses, especially as regards their isolation and their chemical and physical properties. With F.C. Bawden he was responsible for demonstrating that tobacco mosaic virus and several other plant viruses were nucleoproteins. These two workers were the first to isolate a plant virus in 3-dimensional crystalline form. Much of the recent work on plant viruses has been stimulated by these important discoveries. In addition Pirie has worked on the chemistry of antigens and has also concerned himself with the assessment of purity of large molecules of biological interest'. Pirie gave the Royal Society Leeuwenhoek Lecture for 1963 and was awarded its Copley Medal in 1971 'in recognition of his distinguished contributions to biochemistry and especially for his elucidation of the nature of plant viruses'. In 1976 he received the first Rank Prize for Nutrition and Agronomy.

Pirie died 29 March 1997. His wife, the ophthalmologist Antoinette Pirie with whom he had a son and a daughter, predeceased him in 1991.

Arrangement

By section as follows: Biographical, Research notebooks, Leaf protein work, Other research interests, Drafts and publications, Visits and conferences, Correspondence. Index of correspondents.

Conditions Governing Access

Papers retain the period of confidentiality agreed at time of the deposit. All new deposits closed for 30 years except by permission of Officers of the Royal Society or the person controlling access.

Note

Description compiled by T.E.Powell, NCUACS

Other Finding Aids

Printed Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Norman Wingate Pirie: NCUACS catalogue no.124/10/03, 82 pp. Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath

Custodial History

The papers were received from Dr W.S. Pierpoint, Pirie's Royal Society Memorialist, in October 1999. Placed in the Royal Society Library 2003.

Related Material

The material in this personal Pirie archive in part supplements that presented in the Catalogue of the Papers of Sir Frederick Charles Bawden including papers of Alfred Alexander Peter Kleczkowski and Norman Wingate Pirie (CSAC 37/1/76), processed by the Unit for deposit in the Royal Society in 1976.