Papers and correspondence of Sir Robert Robinson, 1886-1975

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

Robinson's volatile temperament and his impatience with administration and routine have seriously affected the survival of material. Thus little survives of his correspondence which he usually wrote in longhand and without copies, or of his public life, service on committees, advisory boards, learned societies, and in the launching of new journals. There are, however, many manuscript notes in varying lengths of sequence and a few notebooks relating to research topics. Examples are a sequence of ideas on the possible structure of strychnine, tentatively dated 1945-1947 by J.W. Cornforth, and from a later period two relatively extensive sequences of research and correspondence, on the origins of petroleum and on drug research. Lacunae in the collection are to some extent compensated for by the autobiographical material. There are the background material and corrected proofs for the first volume of his memoirs published in 1976, and substantial typescript drafts of the second volume which was unfinished at his death together with narratives, correspondence and photographs sent to him by colleagues. There are also tape-recordings of conversations with colleagues covering similar types of recollections.

Administrative / Biographical History

Robinson was born into a well-to-do-family of surgical dressing manufacturers (Robinsons of Chesterfield). He entered Manchester University to read chemistry in 1902 aged sixteen, and on graduation began research there under W.H. Perkin. Other lasting relationships from this period were with C. Weizmann (from 1906) and A. Lapworth (from 1909). In 1912 Robinson was appointed to his first chair at the University of Sydney and subsequently occupied chairs of organic chemistry at Liverpool (1915), St Andrews (1920), Manchester (1922), University College London (1928), and the Waynflete Chair of Chemistry, Oxford (1930-1955): the university extended his tenure for four years after the normal retirement age. In all these posts, Robinson developed productive research schools working on a wide range of chemical problems, and in retirement his activity continued in a small laboratory made available by the Shell Chemical Company, where he was consultant. He was elected FRS in 1920 (Bakerian Lecture 1930, Davy Medal 1930, Royal Medal 1932, Copley Medal 1942, PRS 1945-1950) and was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1947. The actual citation read 'for his investigations on plant products of biological importance, especially the alkaloids' though his Royal Society memorialists A.R. Todd and J.W. Cornforth suggest that 'it would have been equally, or possibly more, appropriate to have said 'for his outstanding contributions to the entire science of organic chemistry'.' ( Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 22, 426). Robinson was knighted in 1939 and appointed to the Order of Merit in 1949.


By section as follows: Biographical and autobiographical, Scientific research, Lectures and publications, Correspondence, Non-print material. 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.

Other Finding Aids

Printed catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Sir Robert Robinson (1886-1975) by J. Alton and J. Latham-Jackson, CSAC catalogue no. 94/5/83, 101 pp. Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath.

Custodial History

Most of the material was received for cataloguing in 1975 by the Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre from Lady (Stearn) Robinson, and, after her death, from her legal advisers. Deposited in the Royal Society in 1983.