Papers and correspondence of Peter Dennis Mitchell, 1920-1992

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

This very substantial collection is uneven in its coverage since Mitchell destroyed much material on his move from Edinburgh in 1963. Nevertheless, significant earlier material does survive, with comprehensive documentation of his career and work at the Glynn Research Institute. Biographical material is not extensive. However, the Nobel prize is well-documented including letters of congratulation and material relating to the visit to Stockholm to receive the prize. There is also documentation of other scientific honours including election to the Fellowship of the Royal Society and the award of its Copley Medal. The Glynn Research Institute papers bring together material relating to its administration, with particular emphasis on fund-raising, although there is very little material before 1979. Sets of desk diaries provide useful information on the day-to-day running of the Institute and Mitchell's own activities. Fund-raising documentation relates to the production and use of brochures, appeal letters, advertisements and articles to encourage donations and formal grant applications to funding bodies, such as the MRC, Nuffield Foundation and Wellcome Trust. Records of visits to the Institute were kept from the early 1980s and are presented in a chronological sequence. Information concerning earlier visits is to be found in the general correspondence. Research papers include both Mitchell's research records and those of his collaborators. Mitchell's own research material includes a student notebook dating from 1940, and papers relating to work for the wartime chemical defence programme, undertaken with J. F. Danielli. Post-war material runs from the late 1940s to 1989 and includes documentation of all aspects of his research at Cambridge to 1955, Edinburgh 1955-1963 and Glynn from 1964. This material comprises notebooks, manuscript and typescript drafts, manuscript notes and calculations. The bulk of the non-notebook material was found in Mitchell's own folders, sometimes with a note of the subjects of the research inscribed thereon. The research material of collaborators includes notebooks of his long-term research colleague Jennifer Moyle, 1964-1982. Publications, lectures and broadcasts material is extensive. Mitchell's scientific publications are documented 1958-1991. The largest single sequence of material relates to Perspectives in Vectorial Metabolism and Osmochemistry, the book produced by the Glynn Research Institute to mark its 25th anniversary in 1990. There is a sequence of editorial correspondence, principally requests to Mitchell to referee articles for journals or to write articles or books. Publications material also includes, less predictably, correspondence and papers relating to Mitchell's many letters to the Financial Times and The Times on economic and related matters. Public and invitation lectures are documented for the period at Glynn and include the Ninth CIBA Medal Lecture, 1974, the Royal Institution of Chemistry's Humphrey Davy Memorial Lecture, 1980, and the Royal Society's Croonian Lecture, 1987. A set of twelve lectures on the chemical aspects of biology and dating from about 1960 may represent university teaching at Edinburgh. There are transcripts and audio and video tapes of some of Mitchell's contributions to radio and television broadcasts. There is also a set of reprints of Mitchell's publications 1943-1992. Mitchell's association with 81 UK, overseas and international societies and organisations are documented in the papers. There are, however, few extended sequences and the bulk of the material dates from the 1970s and 1980s. Visits and conferences material covers the period 1958-1992. It documents much of Mitchell's attendance at conferences and seminars and travel in the UK and abroad. The bulk of the material dates from the period after the award of the Nobel Prize in 1978, when his presence was particularly sought after at important international and national meetings. The papers also document many invitations he declined and show that Mitchell was forced to cancel or withdraw from a number of engagements because of ill-health. Some of his later visits to London and elsewhere were in connexion, or combined with, fund-raising for the Glynn Research Institute. Mitchell's correspondence is exceptional in extent and importance. It is presented alphabetically by individual or organisation, following the Glynn Research Institute's own arrangement. Most of the material dates from the period 1961-1992. The correspondence is largely scientific in content and documents the development of Mitchell's chemiosmotic hypothesis and the attitudes of fellow scientists to his work in the bioenergetics field. Scientific correspondence of particular note includes that with P.D. Boyer, B. Chance, J.F. Danielli, A.L. Lehninger, E. Racker, E.C. Slater, M.K.F. Wikstrm and R.J.P. Williams. Mitchell's correspondence with Bruce Weber is accompanied by transcripts of interviews conducted by Weber in connexion with a scientific biography of Mitchell.

Administrative / Biographical History

Mitchell was born on 29 September 1920 in Mitcham, Surrey. He was educated at Queen's College, Taunton and Jesus College, Cambridge where he read for the Natural Sciences Tripos specialising in biochemistry in Part II . He then began research in the Department of Biochemistry at Cambridge in the wartime chemical defence programme in particular association with J.F. Danielli. In 1945 he embarked on Ph.D. research on nucleic acid synthesis and the bactericidal action of penicillin, following Danielli's move to London, as the research student of E.H.F. Gale. Another important scientific influence at this time was David Keilin. It was also during this period that he was first introduced to Jennifer Moyle who acted as his research associate from 1948 until her retirement in 1983. In 1950 Mitchell was appointed Demonstrator in the Cambridge Biochemistry Department, researching on the exchange and uptake of inorganic phosphate and arsenate through the osmotic barrier of Micrococcus pyogenes. In 1955 he accepted an invitation from M.M. Swann to set up a chemical biology research unit in the Zoology Department at Edinburgh University where he became Senior Lecturer and Reader. From 1963 to 1965 he withdrew completely from scientific research owing to ill-health, directly supervising the restoration of Glynn House, near Bodmin, Cornwall and adapting a major part of it for use as a research laboratory. With Jennifer Moyle he founded a charitable company known as Glynn Research Limited to promote fundamental biological research, the original endowment being provided by Mitchell and his elder brother, Christopher. In 1965 with the help of one technician and a Company Secretary, Mitchell and Moyle embarked on the programme of research on chemiosmotic reactions and reaction systems for which the Glynn Research Institute became internationally famous. It was during his years at Edinburgh that Mitchell first developed his chemiosmotic hypothesis of oxidative phosphorylation, setting out its principal features in a paper in Nature in 1961. This hypothesis, which dealt with the mechanisms by which cells obtain and transfer the energies required for most of their activities, was at odds with current orthodoxy and did not win immediate acceptance within the scientific community. The establishment of the Glynn Research Institute enabled Mitchell and Moyle to plan and carry out the experimental research required to test the chemiosmotic hypothesis. This showed, amongst other things, that most living cells use currents of protons to transfer energy and move certain substances from one place or one compartment to another, a process that Mitchell called proticity and described as the natural protonic analogue of electricity. In 1966 the Institute published privately the first 'grey book' (so called because of the colour of its cover) setting out the chemiosmotic theory in detail. This then remained essentially unmodified until Mitchell proposed the Q cycle in 1975 to deal with an outstanding problem in the acceptance of the theory. In the course of the research to establish the chemisosmotic theory Mitchell and his colleagues transformed and rejuvenated the field of bioenergetics. Mitchell was elected FRS in 1974 (Copley Medal 1981; Croonian Lecture 1987), and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1978 for his contribution to the understanding of biological energy transfer through the formulation of the chemiosmotic theory. He died in 1992. See E.C. Slater, 'Peter Dennis Mitchell', Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 40 (1994), 281-305.


By section as follows: Biographical, Glynn Research Institute, Research, Publications, lectures and broadcasts, Societies and organisations, Visits and conferences, Correspondence. Index of correspondents.

Conditions Governing Access

Access to holders of full Reader's Tickets for Cambridge University Library. There are a number of restricted files.

Other Finding Aids

Printed Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Peter Dennis Mitchell (1920-1992) by A. Hayward, A. Nardone and T.E. Powell, NCUACS catalogue no. 65/3/97, 520pp. Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath.

Custodial History

Received for cataloguing in August 1996 by the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists from the Glynn Research Institute, Bodmin, Cornwall. Deposited in Cambridge University Library in 1997.